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Small retailers unite to fight hard times

Dana Blake and Sahra Masci, owners of the small public relations firm Delux Press Design, began to notice something strange about the small businesses they worked for in south Charlotte.

In 2009, business was down, customers were few and foot traffic into local shops wasn't picking up.

"We had regular networking meetings and dinners and (the small business owners) were all very open and honest with each other," said Blake, 32. "The news (from small businesses) was depressing."

Nidhie Dhiman, 36, a friend and business partner of Blake's and Masci's, said it was difficult to see fellow businesses shutting their doors. Dhiman owns and operates Belly Elan, a maternity boutique in Ballantyne.

What the friends were experiencing was the unwavering recession that has had a profound effect on both small and large businesses throughout Mecklenburg County since 2008.

Kenny Colbert, president of The Employers Association, said that although both small and large businesses have been affected, it takes a harder toll on small businesses.

"[The economic effect] is just more dramatic for the little guy," said Colbert. "It's really hard when a small business closes due to economic conditions, especially when the community is small and we all know each other," said Dhiman.

That summer last year, Blake, Masci and Dhiman were sitting by the pool discussing how to help local small businesses when the idea of a discount card came to mind. "It's not the box stores that are suffering right now, but small businesses," said Masci, 32. "We want people that live, work and raise their families in Charlotte to support their community by keeping business local."

The three friends approached the 12 members of their business networking group, All About Baby, with the idea of selling a card that connects local businesses with customers by offering discounts. The reaction was positive: Every member wanted to sign up their business to be a vendor.

After going through a design process, reaching out to vendors and creating the card and related website, the Elan card launched in late October 2010.

The name "Elan" came from the website babyelandaily.com, a website owned by Blake that reviews products related to pregnancy, moms, babies and families. Similarly, the Elan card vendors are all small, local businesses that offer family-friendly discounts. "We are trying to reach a certain customer base, mostly moms," said Blake. "I know personally, as a mother, I don't want to pay full price for anything. I know a lot of other moms in the area would be eager to get discounts at stores they regularly shop at."

To become a vendor, a business owner must pay a one-time $30 fee to be listed on the website. There also are two VIP tiers of membership. For $100 fee, the business can have its banner on the card's homepage. For $200, businesses can have their banners placed on Elan card print ads, as well as on the website.

The card currently boasts 45 vendors, almost all in the Ballantyne and South Park area, including Wolfman Pizza, Denim Affair, Bella Tunno and Omega Sports. They offer discounts, including 10 percent to 20 percent off merchandise, free classes, gifts or meals.

Belly Elan is one of the card's VIP members, and through the card offers 10 percent off everything in the store.

"The good thing about the card is that you can use it every day in the same store if you wanted to," said Dhiman. "It's not like a coupon book, where you use the coupon once and that's it. You could come into my store every day and use the discount."

To own an Elan card, a customer pays a one-time fee of $20 to receive a card with an individual numeric code on the back. Customers then go to the website to view the vendors, check out their discounts and log into their personal account. Many of the discounts offered through the card pay for the card. For example, Urbana City Spa and Tea bar offers $25 off a massage of $75 or more.

To date, Blake, Masci and Dhiman have given away about 250 cards and sold nearly 50. Cards can be purchased at Belly Elan or from the card's website, www.elancardcharlotte.com.

The three friends have participated in events such as the Nordstrom-Bella Tunno baby registry and the Sandra and Leon Levine Jewish Community Center's "Big Big Day of the J" to promote and sell the cards.

"At this point we've given so many away because we are still in the marketing phase," said Blake. "We are trying to make that big push to get it out there and used."

The trio also has partnered with Susan G. Komen for the Cure to help bring breast cancer awareness to the card's vendors and customers: 10 percent of card revenue will go to the foundation. Each of the three women have lost someone to breast cancer: Masci lost her mother, Blake her sister and Dhiman her grandmother.

"Because our customer base is mostly women, we wanted to bring awareness to women's health issues," said Masci.

The three say they hope to have the card in high circulation by this time next year. In 2011, they plan to hold fundraisers and work with 24 Hours of Booty during their campaigns to race and raise money for breast cancer research.

"The overall goal is to help our community," said Blake. "We want to keep money in our local economy and support local business and local families."

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