ATHENS – Melissa Sides Anderson, owner and president of Toodlebugs in Athens, has been named an Alabama Gold Retailer of the Year in the Annual Sales Less Than $1 Million category.
“Toodlebugs has served as the perfect platform for me and my family to be able to give back to the community that we so dearly love,” Anderson said when she learned of her award. “Thank you to my family, the community and my staff for supporting me and my dream.
“I especially want to thank God for all that he has so richly blessed me with.”
Anderson, who owns the baby and children’s boutique with her husband, Gary, said they “take great pride in offering quality products and outstanding customer service.”
Defining a niche and the ideal location for a store was a process that began in 2010 when the owner of a gift shop in Ardmore, where Anderson had previously worked part time, reached out to her to ask if she would be interested in purchasing the business. Anderson took this chance to pursue a dream of owning a gift shop, relocating it to Athens.
In January 2013, Anderson converted the business to a baby and children’s boutique.
She also renamed the gift shop Toodlebugs as a tribute to her son’s childhood nickname. In 2017, she moved to her current location in the downtown square.
“Our commitment remains strong in providing our customers with items that are unique, affordable, of excellent quality and are in demand,” she said.
Recently, Anderson stepped up her attention to marketing, and the results paid off.
“In mid-2021, we hired a local communications firm to develop a marketing strategy aimed at promoting the business and creating a stronger social media presence,” she said. “Thanks to sales growth in 2022, we were able to promote a staff member to store manager and increased wages for all staff.”
Anderson’s mother and her 8-year-old daughter work as the store’s Saturday crew.
“I allow (my daughter) to help me pick out merchandise that little girls will love,” Anderson said. “When I asked her why she loves to go to Toodlebugs with me, she said, ‘Because Mommy, one day I am going to manage the shop.’ ”
Besides motherhood, Anderson balances her role as owner with other large responsibilities. She has worked full time for the Alabama Department of Labor for almost 25 years and is area manager for Region 1.
She is also on the Athens High School Band Board and the North Alabama Workforce Development Board. Her husband, Gary, is a full-time minister, “and I am his full-time supporter,” she said.
Her advice to other entrepreneurs: “Please don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. I believe where there is a will, there is a way.”
Anderson is also committed to her community. In a letter of recommendation for her nomination, Tyler Helton Parker, fine arts director for Athens City Schools, wrote, “Melissa helped organize and run the Miss Spirit of Athens beauty pageant. Community members and I were very impressed with how organized and efficient this event was.”
Other examples of community involvement include participating in “The Great Diaper Drive” and hosting a balloon release for seniors in the high school band. She also created the Jerry Anderson Community Service Award in memory of her late father-in-law.
“I am really, really impressed with Toodlebugs’ community involvement,” a Retailer of the Year judge said.
Pammie Jimmar, president of the Athens-Limestone County Chamber of Commerce, nominated Anderson for the award.
“I love how Melissa found an opportunity in this area and customers come from all over the state of Alabama to purchase quality unique children’s clothing,” Jimmar said.
The Alabama Retailer of the Year awards, started in 1999, honor retailers who have demonstrated growth, innovation and a commitment to their respective communities. Toodlebugs is among 11 businesses honored as the 2023 Retailers of the Year by the Alabama Retail Association. This year’s winners were selected from 57 entries submitted from a pool of 86 nominees.
“Melissa Anderson is a retailer of the year EVERY year to her customers, three employees and the Athens community,” said Alabama Retail Association President Rick Brown.