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Operating a small business in a college town isn’t as scary as it seems (as long as it’s in fashion)

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The eVapor storefront on High Street. via Cameron Williams

I’ve worked in a locally owned vape shop on High Street for almost four years. The shop’s owner, Shawn Dunn, also owns a location in the Meadowbrook Mall in Bridgeport, WV. From a consumer’s standpoint – and I’ll admit it was mine as well – operating a small business in a college town that sees its student population leave for half of the year sounds like a tough time.

After talking with Dunn, however, it seems running a business in a city like Morgantown isn’t all that bad.

Dunn, opened eVapor’s – then named Volcano – Morgantown location in the summer of 2012. It was both his concern and mine that our customer-base would drop off significantly over the summer months, since the 30,000+ WVU students would leave town. In reality, though, the change in business is not that drastic.

Dunn said that while he initially thought that the tore would suffer over the summer, it actually isn’t that much of a drop off due to non-college residents visiting Downtown more often once the college students leave.

While the business may not be run much differently between Morgantown and Bridgeport, they are both still very different.

For one, the Morgantown store is much more laid back and spacious, allowing customers to hang out and relax while they shop. This fits in much better with the easy-going college vibe.

The Morgantown store, however, isn’t nearly as busy as the Bridgeport location, which Dunn says is mostly due to the amount of foot traffic on High Street versus that in the Meadowbrook Mall.

While the lower amount of customers may seem to be setback to the store, the lack of hustle and bustle makes customers feel more welcome, allowing them to take their time, talk, and enjoy their shopping experience rather than getting their stuff and leaving.

All is not hunky dory at the Morgantown location, however. Less customers call for less employees, and the store closes one to three hours later than the Bridgeport location. This leads to the employees in Morgantown making less money than those in Bridgeport, although that doesn’t make much of a difference in the long run.

Morgantown has also attracted more vape shops than Bridgeport, likely due to the popularity of vaping among college students. The larger number of stores divides the customers between them, each making less money when a new shop opens.

So, while having a location in a college town has its negatives, Dunn’s vape shop has flourished. But not every business can say the same.

Vaping is big right now. Really big. The demand for the product is large enough to explain the influx and success of vape shops in Morgantown. But not all business are that lucky.

Think of how many local business have left town in recent years. Downtown restaurants come and go without anyone even knowing that they’re there. Even the Sunnyside Superette, a Morgantown landmark for the last few decades, closed due to lack of business.

It’s hard to run a business in Morgantown, especially if you can’t adapt to the constantly changing college culture and make yourself stand out from the competition. The town’s college students are introduced to more and more corporate franchises while the local businesses die off.

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2 thoughts on “Operating a small business in a college town isn’t as scary as it seems (as long as it’s in fashion)

  1. I found this post really interesting because ever since coming to WVU, I’ve wondered what happens to High Street business and other small business around the area. As stated, during the summer, Morgantown loses about 30,000 students, and therefore businesses lose customers. This change in season and customer base is a concern for many businesses and businesses approach their strategies of handling this change in different ways. However, there are other residents in the area that are non-college students that feel more comfortable coming downtown and to these smaller businesses during the summer, so it’s a trade-off. Students as consumers are being lost for the summer, but now other resident feel more comfortable coming into the businesses downtown. You are right though that businesses often open and close overnight without individuals even noticing because running a business downtown is a difficult task.

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  2. The viability of operating a small business in a college town as small as Morgantown is always worth a look into, but I don’t think something like a vape shop is the right place to look into for that. Like you said, it’s in style, so it’s going to more immune to those ups and downs than a lot of places – it’s already got its own consumer base that will likely stay regardless of the season. How about a restaurant downtown? We’ve seen plenty of them come and go, but there are some staples that survive every year. Why do some places manage to make it work and some don’t?

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