With her Army husband deployed overseas, Chelsey Hershey returned to her home town to finish up a business degree and with a dream to go into business for herself. She found a place for sale and during a long-distance call to her husband exclaimed: “I could be a business owner tomorrow!”
His quick and supportive answer? “Go for it!”
And within a few months, her shop, Down Home Emporium, made a quick name for itself as the go-to florist in rural central Nebraska. Her place offers fresh and silk arrangements, brand-name greeting cards, a selection of toys and jewelry, and the perfect feature to finish off any home décor.
“We take care of a lot of little towns that don’t have floral services,” said Hershey, who offers services for weddings and funerals up to 75 miles away from the shop’s location in Arnold.
It’s a big help that Hershey, along with her two part-timers and a seasonal employee, have a passion to serve their customers.
“At first, we didn’t advertise very much because frankly we weren’t very experienced,” Hershey said. “But we’ve taken classes through national flower chains and have vastly improved our expertise and the range of services we can offer. We’re still learning, it’s an interesting field and one rewarding and fun.
“We’re always busy with one event or another. Doing weddings for my friends has been wonderful,” she added, “and every funeral feels like a blessing for us to be able to provide this service. We really incorporate what that person was in our arrangements.”
Perhaps the store’s best offering is the chance for local artists to offer for sale their handmade collectibles, “from crocheting, to sewing, to woodwork and furniture,” Hershey said.
“We want to give back to the community shopping at our store something that adds to the economy of our small town,” she added.
While Down Home Emporium markets through newspaper ads and sponsoring local high school athletic game broadcasts on area radio, Hershey aggressively uses social media, such as Facebook, to promote sales and display special arrangements.
Hershey’s entrepreneurial path began slowly, training horses for some spare cash when she was younger, and she picked up experience in retail working with her mom at a boutique in Arnold; that store was in the very building she would later purchase for Down Home Emporium.
After a semester in college in a pre-nursing program, she went off to Cheyenne to study equine business management; after she married, Hershey pursued a business degree with a focus in entrepreneurial studies.
“I had enjoyed through all my moves and throughout college being a sales associate at a western store and a large retail chain, and that experience learning from those stores taught me a lot about merchandising,” she said.
With two loans in hand, one through the Arnold Economic Development Corporation and another through the Custer County Development Corporation, and lots of family help, she opened the doors to the shop in Nov. 2011. A couple of years later, Hershey sought financing to expand the business inventory and the business’ offerings and services.
“I was scared, very nervous, mainly because I didn’t want to go into debt very much,” she admitted. “So I tried not to get very many loans, but that I wouldn’t have inventory stocked. Without going into debt it’s tough to expand.”
Hershey said it took a couple of years to understand the business enough gradually to change its offerings and “give a boost for this holiday season.”
“The first Christmas was great, but last year I sold a lot of what I had collected, so I really needed to get a fresh set of new inventory and home décor, and I had a few toys from the last few years, that I wanted to get fresh new things,” she said. “We’re a small town, so I can’t get a vast amount of items, maybe just ones and twos of things.” Still, an infusion of new inventory would boost sales, she explained, because advertising new items on the shelf in a store in a small town could draw customers back in.
Hershey discovered the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP) while surfing the SBA’s web site, and applied for a microloan to finance purchase of new inventory, and renovations for the building’s lighting and insulation to cut energy costs. She’s already used the proceeds to insulate the store’s display window and the drafty store room.
The SBA Microloan Program is the largest federal program solely dedicated to supporting the credit needs of very small businesses and self-employed entrepreneurs. Working through a network of community-based nonprofit intermediaries such as REAP, the program provides loans and technical assistance to start-up and emerging small businesses unable to secure credit from conventional banks.
In addition, Hershey got small business planning advice this fall from the REAP Women’s Business Center, which sponsored a five-week refresher class in business management.
And looking toward the future: “We’re always looking for unique items to have in the store,” Hershey said. “We also would really like to expand our wedding and floral service.” Future plans call for expanding delivery to outlying towns lacking a full-service florist shop.
“The sky is the limit here,” she said.