Area retailers report steady holiday sales

By Pat Shaver and Sarah Binder

CORRIDOR–Small businesses in the Corridor say holiday shoppers are turning out this year to buy and they expect that to continue.

Revival, a women’s clothing and accessory boutique in downtown Iowa City, will likely see an increase in sales this week, said Sheila Davisson, owner of the store.

“For us it’s about offering unique gifts, offering something different that is personal and special,” said Ms. Davisson. “And we’re getting in great inventory that you’re not going to find at the mall. With Iowa City being such a transitional place, we can always count on new faces in town. We continue to see growth, and are definitely trying to increase our inventory a bit.”

Popular gifts at Revival include jewelry, scarves, hats, mittens, specialty socks, handbags, and other novelty items.

“So far business has been good, but the weather is a little goofy. I feel like the boom is going to be closer to Christmas,” she said. Revival, located at 117 E. College St., opened in September 2003. “I feel like people are spending more, so I don’t feel like they’re being conservative about what they purchase. People want to shop local, I hear that all the time,” she said.

Ms. Davisson also co-owns Merci, a pop-up consignment store that sells local artisan handmade gifts. The store, located at 30 S. Clinton St., Iowa City, is open through the end of December. Ten percent of the sales goes to Habitat for Humanity.

The mild weather has also impacted sales at Active Endeavors, an outdoor apparel and accessories store in downtown Iowa City. During winter months, a majority of the sales come from cold weather gear and accessories, said Mark Weaver, owner of Active Endeavors.

“We’re even, if not a little bit up from last year,” Mr. Weaver said. “Two years ago with the snowy cold season, that was just an unbelievable year. If we have cold, snowy weather, business-wise it’s to our advantage.”

Popular sellers at Active Endeavors include items from brands like The North Face, TOMS Shoes and Patagonia.

Mr. Weaver noted their Black Friday traffic was slow because there was a University of Iowa football game at home against Nebraska. They were busy before and after the game and the next day.

Mr. Weaver the store’s downtown location is a benefit to sales.

“Iowa City downtown is basically everybody’s downtown; it’s North Liberty’s and Coralville’s,” he said. “It’s the whole area’s downtown.”

Active Endeavors, 138 S. Clinton St., Iowa City, has been in business downtown for 27 years.

“There’s a big difference between downtown now and 27 years ago,” he said. “Downtown was the only place in the county to shop. It’s now becoming more and more vibrant, and more people are living downtown.”

Kim Ten Eick, owner of Intelligent Life Toys in Marion, said she believes offering deals isn’t vital to small businesses during the holidays.

Her shop offers sales twice a year, once to clear out slightly damaged items and once to make room for holiday merchandise. However, she worries large retailers starting sales earlier and earlier, including on the evening of Thanksgiving, have an impact on small businesses. Black Friday shopping was slightly down for Intelligent Life this year, she said.

“I think they (customers) hear the term buy local, but they don’t understand the impact of not buying local,” she said.

This is the second holiday season for the toy store, and she said deciding how much inventory to buy is still a challenge. The business increased its projections slightly for this year because it’s more established.

“We actually got it right last year,” she said. “We kind of had our fingers crossed behind our backs. It’s a painstaking process.”

The holiday season represents about 30 percent of her business for the year and many small businesses have to take out a line of credit to order holiday merchandise, she said.

“There was a lot of work in September and October. Then it all comes in, the backroom is full to the ceiling,” she said. “For me, the fun part is when we decorate the store.” The store hires a part-time seasonal employee just to wrap gifts on the weekends.

Laurel, which opened in April in Cedar Rapids, is using social media to fuel their first holiday season.

“We do a lot of our marketing through online media,” said Shannon Amborn, manager. “Overall, we have been very pleased with our sales and response from the community.

Laurel, 7037 C Avenue NE, is a home boutique that features a mix of vintage and new goods, including small gifts, linens, lighting, and décor.

Ms. Amborn, along with her mother, the owner, travel to estate sales and markets around the Midwest to find unique gifts.

“We really shop hard at market to find really unique things, things you can’t find in Cedar Rapids,” she said. The shop moved to a larger space in September after positive customer feedback, and Ms. Amborn said since then, holiday décor has been a big seller.

“It was a learning experience, trying to guess-timate what people would want,” Ms. Amborn said.

One of the keys to their success has been offering gift items at a wide variety of price points. For example, she said clocks might range in price from $15 to $200.

“I think the Iowa consumer is very price conscious, and a little more prudent, so we try to keep a variety of nice gifts for a reasonable price point,” she said.

For Simply Divine Candy, the month of December represents a third of their business for the year. The shop specializes in homemade, old-fashioned and nostalgic candies, said owner Melanie “Pete” Primasing.

Products include truffles, buttercreams, fudge, barks, brittles, toffees, popcorn, lollipops, and chocolate-covered novelties like potato chips and fruit. Seasonal items include divinity, chocolate covered cherry mice, caramel and Christmas apples, and Christmas dipped potato chips with mint cream.

Ms. Primasing said they have especially seen an increase in corporate gift giving in recent years, as companies take advantage of their gift box and basket offerings. She said many local companies try to buy local gifts for their employees, or out-of-state companies order locally-made gifts for Corridor-area clients.

“Companies are shopping local and buying locally-made things,” she said. “We make it a very personal shopping experience. You’re not stuck with some prepacked gift.”

The shop hires seasonal employees to cover the holiday rush, and from Nov. 1 onward the candy kitchen practically runs nonstop.

“The later we stay, we know the better our business is,” Ms. Primasing said.

Simply Divine is located at 129 3rd Ave. SE, sharing a corner with the Paramount Theatre and two other small businesses. Ms. Primasing said this year, Simply Divine teamed up with Nik Taylor Salon and Covington & Co. to host a joint open house, hoping to attract new corporate and personal customers to all three shops. The three have a non-compete policy with each other. For example, Covington & Co. sells holiday cards, so Ms. Primasing said they do not sell cards at Simply Divine.

“Not only are you partners with your staff and your customers, you’re partners with other small businesses,” she said.

One of her greatest concerns as a business owner is marketing and most people hear about them through word of mouth. Still, the holidays are one of her favorite seasons to be in the candy business.

“It’s the funnest place to work on earth,” she said. “You couldn’t have any more fun unless you were working on the North Pole.”

Nationally, a record 247 million shoppers visited stores and websites over Black Friday weekend, up from 226 million last year. The average holiday shopper spent $423 over the weekend, up from $398 last year. Total spending reached an estimated $59.1 billion, according to the National Retail Federation.