Help from the home crowd
Main Street merchants holding their own against big boxes, Web

By Lauren Anderson - Freeman Staff

Dec. 28, 2014

Jest For Fun Joke Shop owner Jeffrey Campbell, right, shows regular customer Trever Hoelzer, 13, how to do a card magic trick. Campbell said customers are recognizing the importance of investing in the local economy by supporting local merchants.
Lauren Anderson/Freeman Staff

WAUKESHA — Jest For Fun Joke Shop owner Jeffrey Campbell pointed to his longtime customer playing cards with two teenage boys in his store on Friday afternoon to highlight the difference between his shop and online retailers.

“You see them playing card magic, that’s important — you come in here and it’s family,” Campbell said.

It may be intangible, but fostering the kind of environment where customers befriend one another is what sets him apart, he said.

Campbell is one of several downtown store owners to acknowledge that, while small brick-and-mortar stores faced stiff competition this holiday season, those kinds of intangibles helped them enjoy a profitable fourth quarter.

Waukesha’s Downtown Business Association President and Martha Merrell’s Books owner Norm Bruce said initiatives like the annual Silver Bells program this year encouraged more people to stay downtown and shop at independently- owned businesses, rather than online and bigbox stores.

While smaller shops cannot compete with their larger competitors on days like Black Friday, Bruce noted that when customers want a more enjoyable shopping experience, they think small.

After being in business for 21 years, Bruce said, he has established strong relationships with his customers.

“I know if John Sanford comes out with a new book, I should save three copies for three customers,” Bruce said. “That’s the customer service you will find downtown. You get to talk to the owner.”

He said customers are recognizing the importance of investing in the local economy by patronizing local businesses.

“They will say, ‘I’ve waited to come to you to buy a book’ or ‘I will wait for you to order a book,’” he said. “People say, ‘if I can give you the business, I want to do that first.’” Sales were up at Jest For Fun Joke Store. Campbell said the store benefited from a recent increase in the popularity of magic, thanks to an increase in TV and online programs featuring it.

While customers often turn to online stores to get started in magic, he said when they want to advance in the hobby, they need in-person assistance.

“Online sales for magic may exceed my sales here dollar-wise, but then you get the people that come in here and say, ‘They couldn’t help us.’ So personal service is big,” Campbell said.

Jody Schuenke, owner of Metropolitan Antiques on West Main Street, said there was an overall increase in foot traffic downtown this year. Tourism in the summer and the downtown’s holiday atmosphere in the winter made for good business. Schuenke also recently expanded and added another storefront, which helped visibility.

“This whole year has been good,” she said. “Sales were definitely up.”

‘I still see people worried about the bottom dollar’

Restyle Studios owner Michelle Miltello painted a bleaker picture, however. She said sales were down by about 30 percent this holiday season over last.

“This past Christmas was slow and this Christmas was worse,” Miltello said.

While the customers of her home decor and clothing consignment boutique say they enjoy the atmosphere and personalized customer service, Miltello said she just can’t compete with online and larger retailers.

“I’ll overhear people whisper, ‘I know you can get that cheaper at Hobby Lobby,’ and others say, “Order it online, there’s free shipping and you’ll get it cheaper,” she said. “A small business can’t compete with that.”

Miltello also noted that, while reports indicate the economy is improving, she hasn’t seen it affect customers’ willingness to spend money.

“I still see people worried about the bottom dollar,” she said. In addition to offering sales and promoting products on Facebook, Miltello plans to add an online component to her store in January in hopes of increasing sales. She also is trying to help customers see the importance of supporting local businesses.

“If you enjoy the experience of getting to see, feel, and touch things — and the camaraderie of the downtown — then you have to support your local businesses or they’re going to go away,” she said.

Enjoyable shopping versus efficiency

Noting the effect online retailers and e-readers have had on book store sales, Bruce said customers still choose an enjoyable shopping experience over efficiency.

“People don’t buy as many informational books anymore because they can go Google it or find a book on Kindle,”he said. “But when they come for pleasure, they want to read, they come here.”

Campbell is also confident that high-quality service will allow smaller stores to retain a loyal customer base.

“If you look at the real key stores downtown, we’ve been here a long time and we’re here because we offer a service, not just a product,” he said.

As Campbell described his store’s welcoming environment, 15-year-old Seth Rice, a regular customer, took a break from his card game to weigh in.

“I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t come here,” Rice said. “It’s great.”