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BENTON — VicKee’s Flowers and Gifts will close its doors next month after almost 30 years in business.

VicKee Cockrum opened the store on the Benton Public Square in 1987, after years of working for others in the retail business.

“I’ve always been in retail, here, in Chicago and St. Louis. I remember working at Famous-Barr and getting a raise to $1.60 an hour, and what’s funny is, I could live on that then,” she said. “After working for other people, I decided to go into business for myself.”

After fire destroyed Cockrum’s building on the square, the store moved to its location on East Main Street and the business continued to grow.

The shop did big business in greeting cards, gifts, magazines, newspapers and racing forms in the early days. Over the years, the publications were dropped, replaced by items like fresh flowers, balloons, and the latest fads.

“Troll dolls, Beanie Babies, Pogs, those were all huge for a time and we sold a lot of them,” she said. “The key to success in retail really is changing with the times. Even as the economy slowed, we were able to make a living in small business because we didn’t fear change. What’s that old saying? Give the people what they want? That’s what you have to do. If they want Pogs, you have to give them Pogs.”

Small business owners also have to shop carefully to try and compete with big chain stores. Maintaining competitive prices is usually accomplished by making less profit on items sold, she said.

Excellent customer service is also essential and helps differentiate small retailers from box stores.

“You have to really cater to your customer. We bend over backwards to please our customers,” she said.

Cockrum’s daughter, Gina Cockrum Melvin, said she learned a lot by watching her mother work.

“She always greeted every customer and offered help. There was also a lot of laughter. She always made this a fun place to shop,” she said.

Cockrum said after 27-and-a-half years in business, the time is right to retire. She looks forward to traveling with her husband, Coy, as he fulfills his duties as Illinois Elks Association president.

“It’s going to be different. I’ll miss the people the most,” she said.

The store is holding a 50 percent off sale on all inventory, including fixtures, with hopes of closing by the end of October. A Benton floral and gift store, The Weeping Willow, plans to relocate to the VicKee’s location.

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