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Features VL series looks at factory turned shopping mall

Shop owners finding a new use for an old building

As part of the Venture Local Franklin (VLF) initiative, Macon County News is teaming up with VLF to highlight local businesses throughout Franklin. Each week, MCN selects locally owned and operated businesses in a different category. It is our goal at MCN to work with VLF to encourage residents to shop locally and utilize the resources Franklin has to offer.

Some businesses are only as unique as the buildings they occupy. The businesses located in the Whistle Stop Mall, which range from restaurants to insurance to retail shops, all have one thing in common, they are all housed in a building that once served Macon County for decades as Belden Electric Cord Products factory.

The one stop shop, which was fully converted in late 1999, now houses restaurants like Jer's Kitchen, House of Luck and Cash's BBQ, 60,000 square feet of antiques, shops such as Franklin Realty or Mail Stop Shipping Center and specialty items such as hand-made crafts in the Artisans section.

A premiere furniture store, Whistle Stop Furniture, located in the Whistle Stop Mall, was started in 2001 by Scott and Tami Zuiderveen. The mall, which was once an old factory, was renovated to accommodate retail stores, restaurants, an arts and crafts section and antiques. Whistle Stop Furniture started as a used furniture store but quickly grew into an unfinished furniture store that provided a full line of stains and finishing services.

“As the business grew, more space was taken on and rustic log furniture, barn wood and most recently, upholstered furniture and mattresses were added,” said Zuiderveen. “Now there are over 10,000 square feet of showroom and a warehouse where assembly and shipping take place.”

Whistle Stop Furniture offers a modern line of home furnishing matched with vibrant colors and exceptional quality.Whistle Stop Furniture is proud to offer Real Wood Furniture, Finished Your Way. “We are committed to quality products and quality service and meeting our customers' needs,” said Zuiderveen. “Let us help you find that right piece of furniture that you've been dreaming about -- whether it's modern lines and vibrant colors or rustic and antiqued to fit in your cabin, let us give you affordable choices that you'll love for a lifetime. If you haven't been in in a while or perhaps have never stopped by, there's no better time than now.”

The recession affected specialty markets first and that market will be one of the slowest to improve. According to Zuiderveen, although business has slowed, it hasn't stopped, which offers hope. “While business has slowed down from where it was a few years ago, we stay busy and continue to expand our lines,” said Zuiderveen. “We always want something fresh and enjoy bringing in what customers like to see.”

Whistle Stop Furniture has focused on customer input to provide a customer satisfaction driven business in order to triumph through the recession. “We are always looking for new lines to bring in that meet our customers' needs,” Zuiderveen. “Recently we have introduced a new line of upholstered furniture as well as top quality mattresses, backed by a factory guarantee. We've seen a lot of other stores like ours across the country throw in the towel, but we think our diversification helps us stand out.”

When the Zuiderveens opened Whistle Stop Furniture 11 years ago, the looked for venues to help promote their bussiness. “We have been Chamber members since the beginning of our business and appreciate what they do to promote Franklin and local businesses,” said Zuiderveen. “We have just started getting involved with Venture Local and look forward to seeing Franklin and our local economy get busier again.”

With the internet become more and more popular on a daily basis, according to Zuiderveen, the biggest change the store has experienced is the move into the world wide web. “One of the biggest ways we've expanded our business is by making our website more interactive,” said Zuiderveen. “At www.whistlestopfurniture.com we have tried to put as many of our items online as possible. This provides pricing options and furniture dimensions as well as a way for customers to ask questions whenever it's convenient for them to shop. In addition, we've also started a Facebook page where we offer exclusive specials and deals to our Facebook fans.”

Zuiderveen explained that one of the store's challenges is relaying a message that the store has furniture for all lifestyles. “We are still trying to get the word out that we are a furniture store that can meet the needs of local people as well as the second home market,” she said. “While we do have a large variety of rustic furniture, we also carry an extensive line of upholstered chairs, sofas and loveseats as well as traditional and everyday living pieces in solid wood. As value-driven owners, we ensure our store reflects great quality for your hard earned money.”

According to Zuiderveen, building the local economy is not just important for individual owners, but becomes beneficial for the community at large. “Shopping locally helps our neighbors,” she said. “Why not keep our dollars local — we need that same loyalty that we often have for our sports teams or college alma mater to translate into hometown loyalty when buying everyday things.

The Rusty Wagon has been offering shoppers a variety of home decor items for nearly 12 years. Despite seeing a slow down during the recession, the store is starting to see an increase in customer traffic.One of the original stores in the Whistle Stop Mall, the Rusty Wagon has been with the mall since its inception in 2000. In September 2008, the store switched hands when Carol and Lean VanderWoude purchased it. When the VanderWoudes took over, the store was already well established with local and visiting customers. The store, which sells country home décor, has since grown to include a design center to include home staging and redesign services. “We have since ‘done away’ with a formal design center and have added a new country line to appeal to the modern country look,” explained VanderWoude. “We call it urban country.”

In their fourth year of owning the store, VanderWoude believes that each year has been a little better than the last.

“Since we took over this business, each year has gotten better,” she said. “Last year was by far our best. This year though, has been unpredictable and for the first half of the year, we did not do as well as last year. However, in July, we came out ahead of last July. Hopefully, a good sign of what's to come.”

Even though the store has been open for nearly 12 years, VanderWoude doesn't focus on the store's revenue stream before she became owner, but instead works to improve the future. “It’s hard to say how the recession has affected our business, since we bought it during the recession,” she said. “We don't have any knowledge of the ‘good times.’ So, for us, it's business as usual and how creative can we be to stay ahead.”

Understanding the need for an online presence, one of the first things VanderWoude did was break into the social media world. “We hired a local person who strictly works on our social media,” she said. “It's a big commitment and if it's going to work, it's got to be done right and consistently. We have also watched the market to see what the latest trends are and have implemented those to appeal to all different types of customers, such as our urban country line.”

With the addition of social media, VanderWoude's goals for the Rusty Wagon slightly changed to accommodate the new technological opportunity. “We would love to see our business grow through our website, which is in the process of being built,” said VanderWoude. “A lot of our out of town customers ask if they could purchase over the internet, so we are hoping to meet their need through the website.”

Being a local business owner, VanderWoude models her own life after the idea that shopping locally helps the whole community. “I do as much shopping as I can locally and feel it is very important for our economy, especially in keeping our youth who go to college to come back after graduation, instead of finding business opportunities elsewhere,” she said.

Owner of the White Buffalo General Store, Sandra LaJeunesse, is certain that shopping locally is important to keep money in the community in order to help one another. LaJeunesse opened the general store before the Whistle Stop Mall was the Whistle Stop Mall. In January 1994, the store was opened with the original goal of bringing back the good ole' days.

“I wanted to have old time products like Clabber Girl, Borax and Argo starch,” said LaJeunesse. “I want to offer local products and goods, handmade soaps and quilts. The main goal will always be customer satisfaction.”

LaJeunesse has stayed true to her original intent of running a general store just like they did in the old days. With a variety of products ranging from old time candies to vintage Western Carolina University sports jerseys, LaJeunesse believes a variety of products is an essential aspect of keeping her store running.

The White Buffalo General Store has an eclectic variety of products ranging from old time candies to vintage sports jerseys. There is truly something for everyone.With the busiest time of year at the White Buffalo being October through December, LaJeunesse says business has picked up compared to last year. “Business is great,” she said. “It was down, but it is actually picking up.”

When the recession hit, a lot of shoppers turned to retail stores to do their shopping in order to save money while buying in bulk. Even with a dip in customer traffic, LaJeunesse noted that as long as the shops focus on the customer, they will keep coming back.

“The customer comes first, you have to make adjustments that keep their satisfaction in mind,” she said. “If you work with the customer and keep a positive note, it will help your business stay ahead.”

LaJeunesse primarily relies on word of mouth to promote the White Buffalo. Tucked away in the corner of the Whistle Stop just passed Jer's Kitchen, LaJeunesse says pleasing the customers will encourage them to tell their friends and neighbors about the White Buffalo. “The best and worst advertising is word of mouth,” she said.

With a business model built around the idea of bringing back the old time general store, there is very little room for change without losing the original goals of the store. According to LaJeunesse, despite the recession, the store has remained unchanged. “We are steadfast in the old ways, no computers, phones or anything else,” said LaJeunesse. “We even still use a 1910 cash register to ring up the sales. I like being able to have eye to eye contact with my customers.”

Two years shy of the 20th anniversary of the White Buffalo, LaJeunesse says she only hopes to continue serving her customers in the future. “Thank you to all my customers and friends, you're the best,” she said. “Thank you for your loyalty, respect, integrity, support and love. It doesn't get any better than this.”

With the idea of creating a locally owned and operated outlet for Macon County residents to purchase jewelry, Laurel Cerritelli opened Mountain Laurel Makings Gems & Jewels in the Whistle Stop Mall.

“Originally, the idea started when one local artist asked two other local artists to start a locally owned and operated jewelry store,” Cerritelli said. “We’ve grown into a corporation that represents 40+ local artists from Franklin and the surrounding Great Smoky Mountain area. We are of the 100 percent belief that to rebuild America, we must support the local community.”

Mountain Laurel Makings, Inc. strives to sell locally made jewelry and art as well as offers both the local community and many tourists and guests affordable art-wear: jewelry. “Items you just won’t see anywhere else at prices that are low enough that anyone can afford that something special even in these difficult times,” said Cerritelli. “Most of our selection is in 14k fine gold, .925 sterling silver, gorgeous copper, and using genuine gemstones. We offer estate and vintage jewelry, Native American jewelry and other types of artwork. We can provide on-the-spot repairs when possible, 7-10 day repairs when not.”

Mountain Laurel Makings Gems & Jewels offers locally crafted, affordable jewelry for all occasions.Cerritelli said that its current location offers a unique environment that adds to the overall ambiance of the shopping experience. “Being located inside The Whistle Stop Mall allows our customers to shop in an air-conditioned and/or heated environment for their comfort,” she said. “Our staff has fun collecting, admiring, showing and assisting our guests with finding that very special gift or unique piece for their own jewelry collection.”

After being in business for just over three years, Mountain Laurel Makings, Inc. started during a slow economy but little by little they have been able to build up a clientele of repeat neighborhood business and repeat visitor business. “We believe as our country crawls out of its current recession, our business will flourish and grow,” said Cerritelli.

As a way to promote the business, Cerritelli noted that Mountain Laurel Makings has implemented the “referral Card Program.”

“Our loyal clientele are being rewarded with our new ‘Referral Card Program,’ she said. “As they refer friends and family to our store, they, in turn, receive discounts to be used towards their next purchase(s).”

Although Mountain Laurel Makings Gems & Jewels is open year round, as is the rest of the Whistle Stop Mall, they are busiest during the tourist season and normal holiday shopping rushes.

To help usher in the cutomers, Mountain Laurel Makings Gems & Jewels works closely with its Whistle Stop neighbors to promote and facilitate many local events such as "Boo Ball" in October or its "Snowball Express" holiday event. “We look forward to working with Venture Local more closely as we learn more about them and how to participate to help promote the store and build our network,” said Cerritelli.

Like so many other businesses, social media is an important aspect of marketing for Cerritelli. “We are trying to stay technically current with a Facebook page where we really enjoy hearing customer comments about their in-store experiences or reactions to our photo books,” said Cerritelli. “Our website is in fledgling state but can offer a quick view into the types of works we carry. The site will show growth very shortly.”

With each year of operation, Cerritelli explained that the store hopes to grow and expand. “Current goals for the business are expanding our on-line presence and growing our local clientele,” she said. “We want to make people know we are here. If you haven’t visited The Whistle Stop Mall in a few years, you haven’t met us. We hope this article will help encourage a visit. Come visit us and mention this article. You’ll be glad you did.”

See next week’s issue for the continuation of the Venture Local series


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