Small businesses strive to find, serve customers as Christmas approaches

Shopping locally vital to community health, owners say

Dawn Walz, owner of Vintage Vault Floral in Freeman, started her small Main Street business five years ago. She said it can be a challenge owning and operating a small business in South Dakota, but after five years she has seen her customer base start to blossom. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)
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Between Black Friday and Cyber Monday lies Small Business Saturday, nestled neatly into one of the busiest shopping seasons of the year. It’s a time when small businesses around the country celebrate and promote their wares and services while reminding shoppers of the importance of spending locally.

Dawn Walz is one such retailer. The owner of Vintage Vault Floral in Freeman, Walz has been running her business since she established it in December of 2014. Her store, located on Main Street in a restored historic bank building, offers services like a full-service floral shop, gourmet confections and home decor furnishings.

Walz transitioned to a traditional storefront after operating a home-based business for years, and it took some time for her to establish herself in the brick and mortar retail world.

“I was about to turn 40 and had a midlife crisis,” Walz laughs when describing why she moved into the former First National Bank building.

She and her husband poured money into renovating the building and called on her experience from her at-home business and previous time working at a similar business run by members of her family years earlier. But it took some time to understand the art of attracting customers to her space.


“(An at home-business and a storefront business) are really nothing alike. I really feel like I didn’t know that,” Walz said. “I didn’t take into account how few people were going to come in and out of the door on a daily basis.”

Perseverance and time have helped Walz get a foothold with her corner store, but promotion and getting the word out to potential customers has been a challenge.

“It’s taken five years for people to find us. Even with the technology with social media, it’s still very much a challenge to let them know what you do and what you are capable of doing,” Walz said.

Walz said attracting a clientele from outside Freeman is important. While she has loyal customers in the community, supplementing that with foot traffic from outside Freeman has made a difference in keeping her business vital.

“Our market in town is only 1,300 people, so we have to rely on people to come from other communities and rely on people passing through,” Walz said.

Walz said that the condition of the farm economy is probably the biggest factor in how robust her business is during the year, and business can go down in a tight year. But she also counts a younger generation that enjoys the one-on-one interaction of boutique shops as something that helps offset that lull.

“I find that the younger generation is why boutiques are successful. That generation thrives and enjoys the personal experience and one-of-a-kind places, which is why many are making such a comeback,” Walz said.

Heather Larson owns and operates Sweet Grass, a bakery, coffee shop and eatery in Wessington Springs. She started her business after a career change seven years ago and set up shop in a 100-year-old former Odd Fellows building.


“It was kind of a decision that I had to make. I love to cook and I had catered on the side, so why not open up a restaurant?” Larson said.

Larson also faced a learning curve when she set out to run her own business.

“It starts with knowing how to run the business. That’s the biggest thing,” Larson said. “I love the operational side of things, but I’m not much of a business manager or a books person.”

Like Walz, Larson said the biggest challenge is getting the word out to customers outside her home community. She does that with a mix of traditional advertising and an active social media presence.

“Our challenge is to get people from out of town to come in. Word of mouth, some ads in newspapers, radio ads and then occasionally we’ll try television ads,” Larson said.

Larson said traditional economic factors affect her business just like any other business, but a local demand for good food and coffee helps give her a steady stream of business most of the year.

“Heading into the holiday, for us it hasn’t changed too much,” Larson said. “Pheasant season was a little down, that wasn’t as great, but the groups we did have have been coming (to the area) for 30 years plus.”

Greg and Melanie Olson have owned the Old West Trading Post in Chamberlain for 21 years. They opened the store, which specializes in antiques and collectibles, after having worked for nearly 30 years at Greg’s parents’ museum in Oacoma.


“We’ve been involved in it ever since, although we have cut down. We’re kind of semi-retired,” Greg said.

The amount of business ebbs and flows with the tourist season, he said. That has allowed them to focus their promotions on highway signs that attract travelers off Interstate 90.

“We did have an advantage. Our business is mainly with tourists, and we had road signs from the museum,” he said.

He said they have faced similar challenges to many other businesses, including finding good employees and overcoming startup costs, he said.

The store is now entering its slow period of the year, he said. They keep normal business hours from April through October, but cut back to a few days a week in the off season as well offer customers a chance to browse the store by appointment.

“We had a good summer with tourists and stuff, but it always slows in the wintertime. We were open all weekend and the weather is just not cooperating with that,” he said. “

He encouraged consumers to consider patronizing their local small businesses. They can offer a level of service the larger corporate stores can’t.

“You know the person you’re dealing with. The small towns and small businesses, they’re going to take care of you. They’re going to do whatever they can to make you happy. And it’s the small businesses that support the 4-H clubs and the Boy Scouts and the school events,” he said.

Larson said spending in those small businesses keep local dollars in the community.

“You rely so much on the surrounding area and people around you. It’s so important. You really should support local businesses, because they’re what supports you,” Larson said.

Walz agreed.

“It’s vital for a community. There are statistics. I think 68 cents of every dollar stays in the community (when spent at a local business). It’s really important to shop locally,” Walz said.

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at
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