BILLINGS — The owners of both Stewart's House of Vacuums and Real Deals boutique in Billings had a steady stream of customers on Small Business Saturday, a national initiative encouraging communities to keep their holiday spending local.
“Black friday and Small Business Saturday are two really good days for us. People are so loyal to come down and shop," said Lisa Pugrud, owner of Real Deals.
Small Business Saturday was started by American Express in 2010. The following year, the U.S. Small Business Administration officially sponsored the nationwide event that hopes to get more customers into the doors of small businesses.
Pugrud opened Real Deals in October 2017 after spending most of that year renovating the historic building at 2525 Minnesota Ave. The shop sells all sorts of home decor, accents and furniture along with women's boutique clothing.
Compared to last year, business this year has stayed steady, Pugrud said.
"It kind of comes and goes, but for the most part I think we’re staying about even with last year at this point. It’s been a blessing, but Billings has been that way for us since we were able to reopen after the shut down," Pugrud said.
Real Deals was closed for about five weeks from a health officer order during March and April to try and slow the spread of COVID-19 in Yellowstone County. Since then, the business has been able to welcome customers through its doors, but it hasn't been an easy year by any stretch, Pugrud said.
"It has affected us. The business stabilization grants that Montana has had have helped quite a bit. We’ve been able to stay afloat because of those and because we do have some pretty loyal customers, but it hasn’t been a growth year by any means. We’ve taken a hit, but we’re really dedicated to staying in the community and keeping the store open and alive," Pugrud said.
Pugrud was able to keep on all of her five part-time staff members through the pandemic and even put them to work during the shutdown with reworking the store to be COVID-19-conscious.
“We kept everybody aboard and we were actually able to hire another part time person because it got busy enough with the e-commerce site and the private appointments that we needed that extra person," Pugrud said.
Real Deals launched a web site where people can purchase goods this year. Pugrud said the pandemic jump started the creation of the site and the down time allowed for staff to get it up and running. People can also schedule a private appointment to shop on the web site if they are especially worried about COVID-19.
“It kind of gives an idea for people to see what we do have in the store and then they can come on in and shop or they can purchase it online," Pugrud said.
On the West End of Billings, Stewart's House of Vacuums had its fair share of customers swing by for Small Business Saturday. The Stewart's shop has been at a few different locations, but has been open in Billings for about 50 years.
Tom Berkshire and his wife Sandy bought the business in 1995 from its founder, Dan Stewart, and have been running it ever since. Stewart's has been located at 3127 Central Ave. for the last four years.
Tom said an advantage of shopping local is having an actual person back the product they're selling. A world with only big box stores would be one that lacked customer service, he said.
“There would be nowhere to get specialized things. You would be relying on big box stores to get things. They don’t help people after the fact like a small business does. You have to have support for everything that you buy. That’s why we pride ourselves in our small business," Berkshire said.
Keeping your dollar local also goes a long way to support the families that own local businesses. Of the five Stewart's employees, two of them are Tom and his wife, two are his kids and the other is like family, Berkshire said.
"It helps the community to thrive if you get it in the town. You help families who work at those businesses," Berkshire said. “To put money into a business that keeps the money in the city and in the area is an important thing. It helps the economy of that city,” he said.
A challenge for Berkshire during the pandemic has been a lack of product. The shop's flagship brand of vacuum, Riccar, had trouble securing components at the factory in Missouri due to the pandemic. Some models of Riccar vacuum are on back order, Berkshire said.
“It’s been tough. It’s really hard to run a business when you can’t get product as easily as you could before. That’s the problem we’ve been having. Again, people don’t want to get out of their houses, so it’s really hard to run a business that way. We’ve offered curb service for people that don’t want to come in," Berkshire said.
Stewart's also offers a repair service for vacuums. Berkshire said he will service anything that he sells at his store and tries to repair other vacuums that customers bring in as long as that company will sell him the parts. Stewarts also sells other cleaning products to diversify their business, a strategy that Berkshire said other local business owners take as well.
“That’s another thing about small businesses is that maybe they be a specialty shop, but they learn to diversify and get other things that people like that pertain to their existing product. We well all sorts of chemicals, window cleaning equipment, microfiber, specialty items. That’s what other people do," Berkshire said.