In an age of internet shopping and major retail chains closing scores of locations across the country, independent Upstate businesses continue to draw customers

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If there’s one constant across retail, it’s that the internet has taken a sizeable chunk out of brick-and-mortar stores’ bottom lines.

In 2017, discount stores Sears and Kmart closed 116 and 283 stores across the country, respectively. Payless Shoe Source filed for bankruptcy, leading to 808 closings. Radio Shack led the way with 1,430 stores shuttered. So in an era where even billion-dollar companies can’t get traffic in the doors, how can small businesses in the Upstate have a prayer?

It turns out they’re weathering the storm better than many retailers with far more experience and — until recently — money.

Anderson’s Planet Comics, for a small, nondescript location, has managed to increase sales each year since it started 30 years ago. Owner Michael Thompson embraced online sales, rather than spurned them, for nearly 20 years.

“We do all the marketplaces,” Thompson said. “The success is being able to adapt to what the market is.”

In addition to the usual outlets — eBay and Amazon — the store has also sold through its own website, www.planetcomics.net. But what makes the store truly special, beyond the merchandise, is the experience.

Whereas most floor space in a typical big-box store is limited to product displays, Planet Comics opened plenty of space for game tournaments, allowing it to develop a loyal base of customers right in Anderson. In addition, it has a huge demo library, allowing gamers to try before they buy.

But Thompson sees a lot more potential for growth, as comic-book films have become huge hits at the box office.

“There are a lot more people interested in Batman,” he said, “that we can tap into.”

Across the street in Anderson, Rainbow Records has been a local fixture since MTV first hit the airwaves. Owner Mark Hembree’s store has outlasted scores of chain record stores, including Tower Records and Sam Goody, but he’s the first to admit it’s been a roller-coaster ride.

Hembree, with the help of his wife, Lou Anne, worked tirelessly over the years keeping the store going, at one point managing two locations before the market for music collapsed in the early 2000s.

“I was really surprised I survived,” he said.

Hembree’s store is mostly about CDs and vinyl, the latter of which has helped make up for flagging CD sales. But Rainbow is well-known for its selection of used CDs.

Rainbow Records hasn’t survived quite as much on internet sales, which Hembree uses if he’s having trouble moving a rare item. They’re not afraid to tap into social media, however, when it drives customers back to the store.

Growth might not be the big focus for Hembree as he’s approaching retirement age in a flagging industry, but he said he wouldn’t write off an online store if he didn’t have his physical location.

Gene Berger’s Horizon Records has been around for even longer, and has the benefit of a revitalized downtown Greenville nearby to draw in shoppers. Horizon is family run, like Rainbow Records, and has been in operation for 40 years.

“We’ve seen a lot,” Berger said. “We’re passionate about music.”

Much like Rainbow, Horizon doesn’t use ebay or Amazon much, except for the occasional collectible. He said they want folks to find a reason to come see them.

Vinyl has been a huge part of Horizon’s endurance, as the crunch hitting music retailers has taken its toll on the store, as well. However, the store’s focus on music has earned it a spot on Southern Living’s top five record stores in the South. And as vinyl has grown in popularity, it’s paid dividends for Horizon.

“We had a Black Friday you wouldn’t believe,” Berger said.

Fiction Addiction, also in Greenville, looks to offer customers an experience other than simply price. Owner Jill Hendrix has kept the store evolving and growing since 2001, during times that have claimed many book retailers — including several chains.

She opened the store primarily selling used books, but the Great Recession shifted the store from used to new, and now she offers publishing services. At the time of the recession, she said, customers looking for used books were more affected — ironically — than those looking for new ones.

Fiction Addiction, however, hasn’t been any less immune to online shopping.

“We were worried about e-books for a while, but it seems to have flattened out,” Hendrix said. She also said online retailers for traditional books were eating into sales.

But as Greenville has grown, so have opportunities for the store to grow and seek partnerships.

“We’re happy to work with any organization looking to bring a speaker to Greenville,” she said. The store frequently has authors come to speak and do book signings.

An online presence has been a great boon to women’s clothing retailer Blake and Brady Boutique. A relatively new Anderson retailer, Blake and Brady opened 10 years ago and has weathered the retail storm with surprising success.

Owner Chris Sullivan caught the social media marketing wave before anyone. At one point, the store had 300,000 followers at a time when those numbers were unheard of. However, he said staying on top of social media trends has been difficult. Email lists that were so valuable just a few years ago, he said, are the last thing they care about. He said they’re constantly finding ways to reach younger shoppers — many of whom hate emails.

Sullivan’s boutique has been such a success that he and his wife were honored at a University of Georgia alumni event that recognized graduates that had the best business growth. Blake and Brady was a top-10 business.

In addition, they tend to hire folks that know fashion and can help shoppers find the right outfit. Moreover, Sullivan said that coming to the store lets customers try on outfits and allows for a personal attachment people don’t get from ordering online.

“We’re trying to instill in folks to buy local,” he said.

By Mike McMillan

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