As Americans recover from their Thanksgiving dinners and contemplate what to get their friends and family for Christmas, small business owners in Lincoln Square and Northcenter are hoping shoppers will stray from the mall to spend their money in the neighborhood this year. For most local retailers, especially those on the pedestrian-heavy Lincoln Square corridor, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is what moves ledgers into the black.
“If we didn’t have December and those sales numbers, this would be a hobby, not a business,” says Martha Burrows, owner of Timeless Toys at 4749 N. Lincoln Ave. “We need that business all year around, that’s how we pay our staff, our rent. [But] as an owner, if we didn’t have what we call harvest time, in December, we wouldn’t be in business.”
“About 25%,” of Barb Skupien’s business at embellish boutique, 4161 N. Lincoln Ave., comes from the holiday season. “It’s a really big deal.”
Adding to the urgency, local business owners say the vast majority of their business comes from local shoppers, people who live within a couple of miles of their stores. If local residents don’t shop local, neighborhood businesses feel the pinch right away.
“[When] people support the local businesses they’re also supporting their own housing values,” says Timeless Toys’ Burrows. “As small business go out of business and that business district declines, that’s a decline for the neighborhood, not just the business owner.”
And as everyone knows, the last few years have been a roller coaster for local businesses. Owners think they see glimmers of hope in the economy, but the experience of the last three years has taught them to be cautious.
“I think there is a lot more uncertainty still. It’s just very sporadic,” says Tina Dixon, owner of Hanger 18, 4726 N. Lincoln Ave. “Other business owners have said the same thing. They’ll have an amazing day and then a horrible day.”
“I think this year people feel better than they did last year, but people are buying more gifts than for themselves,” says embellish’s Skupien. “When I first opened [in 2008] it was a whole lot of people buying for themselves and then the economy tanked.”
And if the store owners are having problems, their suppliers are probably having even more, says Kim Sledgiser, owner of Little Green Baby, 4654 N. Rockwell Ave. “Our vendors are trying to stay in a specialty market. Having a small local store is what brings people to you. Now we see a lot of our vendors struggling. People are spending less money in boutiques.”
“All my reps say everyone is being conservative with their orders,” this holiday season, says Hanger 18′s Dixon.
While big box stores are driving prices down and the economy depresses consumer spending, small store owners agree, the solution to survival is service and offering unusual products you can’t find anywhere else.
“We have a child’s play area so moms can shop in peace,” says Little Green Baby’s Sledgister. What brings people back is, “creating relationships, creating a VIP program so people can pre-shop.”
“More personal service. Try to do different packaging. Little things that mean a lot to the customers. Little specials here and there,” says Hanger 18′s Dixon.
“The people that come here are looking for a certain quality and they’re wiling to pay for it,” says Timeless Toys’ Burrows.