Northern Roots Boutique, owned by Kay Derry, is one of nearly 10 million women-owned small businesses in the U.S.

Derry has seen large retailers like Macy's, Kmart and Shopko close in the region, but as a small-business owner she feels she provides something special.

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"I think they like that one-on-one attention, and I love giving it to them," Derry said. "I love getting someone all dressed up. I love making women feel good about themselves."

May 5 through 11 is National Small Business Week. As small businesses celebrate all over the country, small-business owners like Derry are reminding customers why they are different.

There are 30 million small businesses in America, according to statistics from the White House. Twenty-nine percent of small businesses are minority-owned and 10% are veteran-owned.

Small businesses in the U.S. employ more than one third of the country's labor force.

Derry has owned the Grand Forks store for four and a half years. Before it was Northern Roots, the store was a franchise women's clothing store called Mode.

Derry was a franchisee from 2015 to 2017.

"When I was a franchisee, I just got clothes from corporate. I didn't get to pick or say what people were interested in here," Derry said. "Now I get to know my customers. I know what girls and women in this region like and I can stock it."

'People don't know how important they are'

Derry employs four people, excluding herself.

Eric Giltner, the Grand Forks manager for the Small Business Administration (SBA), said small businesses provide more jobs in the United States than many people realize.

"Small business provides such a large amount of jobs in the U.S. It is often overlooked," Giltner said. "People don't know how important they are."

Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Barry Wilfahrt said Grand Forks and East Grand Forks have a lot of "small, niche retailers."

"Most of our small businesses do quite well because they specialize in specific customer bases or specific products," Wilfahrt said.

Small businesses like Derry's make up the majority of the Chamber's membership "by far," Wilfahrt said.

Small retail businesses are "a real concern," Giltner said.

In Grand Forks, retail in general is concerning, according to a recent Herald survey. Of 528 local residents who responded to a community health questionnaire compiled by the newspaper, 44.9 percent said retail decline is the greatest challenge facing Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. The next area of concern-property tax levels-was listed by just 17.6 percent of those surveyed.

Grand Forks saw a decrease in taxable sales and purchases every quarter of 2018. The 2018 annual report showed Grand Forks was down 12.25% from the year before.

North Dakota Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger previously told the Herald he sees the declines in Grand Forks as largely the fault of the retail sector.

Grand Forks traditionally relies heavily on Canadian shoppers, but the closing of big box stores and the strength of the Canadian dollar make the community less desirable to outside shoppers.

According to Job Service data, the number of retail jobs in Grand Forks has dropped by almost 800 from 2014 to 2017, the most recent data available.

"We see a lot of stuff locally that is struggling," Giltner said. "We feel it is important to provide all the help we can. It's a tough undertaking. The whole world is changing. People are buying online and bypassing local people."


Derry, however, doesn't see it that way. In fact, she is thinking of expanding her business.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, a customer entered Northern Roots. A bell on the door alerted Derry of her presence. The customer was looking for a dress to wear to her granddaughter's wedding in June.

When Derry realized her store didn't have quite what the customer was looking for, she suggested other small businesses in town.

"I won't sell you something just to sell it to you," Derry said. "I'll be honest with you. I think customers appreciate that."

Don Langlie, owner of Popplers Music in the Grand Cities Mall in Grand Forks, said he has seen a lot of change in his time with the music shop. Langlie has owned the store for 12 years.

In an effort to keep up with the times, the store started using an e-commerce website in the early 2000s. Users can buy and download music from the e-commerce site.

"Those things have driven us as a small business to stay competitive with the 'big boys,'" Langlie said. "We've had to evolve. We saw the writing on the wall."

Popplers remains a place where people can go to talk about music, musical instruments and much more.

"The bottom line for us is to start from a caring and empathetic place, to be a resource for the customer," Langlie said. "We want to provide friendly and knowledgeable support. I think that's what differentiates us and still does. There's a relationship to be had in the music world that can help them be successful and, by default, we remain relevant."

Most of Langlie's employees have music degrees, he said. That is something that can't be found online.

"That background makes them valuable to the customer," Langlie said. "Like every other small business, that passion for it, that experience in it, that training for it, it has a lot of value versus a website."

While shopping online is convenient, Langlie said he believes people are missing something when they buy online.

"It can't all be about (convenience). You're missing something, you're missing an opportunity to learn and experience," Langlie said. "The big picture always adds more to the experience."