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Creative local retailers hopeful for busy holiday season

Two numbers, 1,000 and 70, help illuminate the forces at play among Sonoma County’s independent retailers five years after the official end of the recession.

The first number is how many people turned out for the 2007 reopening of Tomasini’s Rex Ace Hardware and Country Store in downtown Petaluma. The B Street store had burned down, and shoppers were so pleased at its return that many brought food to share for the “potluck” reopening.

Jeff Tomasini, who with his wife Gro has owned the store for three decades, said they garner such loyalty by giving shoppers extra service, a good selection of items and a small-town experience, “the way business used to be.”

“Once they’re there,” Tomasini said of new customers, “you don’t want to lose them.”

If “1,000” signifies the level of customer devotion that small retailers have long strived to build, “70” points to a growing tech-age phenomenon. That is the number of local businesses on the “Sonoma Shops” pages on Amazon.com. And that comprises only a portion of county retailers who have signed up in the past year with the online retailing behemoth to sell shoes, clothes, home decor and other items.

When Amazon staff came courting retailers in the town of Sonoma early last year, Half-Pint children’s clothing store owner Pam Howard counted herself a skeptic. Even now she calls local shoppers her top priority, and the vast majority of her inventory isn’t available with the click of a mouse. But joining Amazon this year has been worthwhile, she said, allowing her to sell more products and to provide online shoppers a way to discover her First Street East store.

“We realize we have to have some sort of a presence out there,” said Howard. “We don’t have a choice.”

Retailers are days away from the Thanksgiving weekend, the start of what for many constitutes an annual make-or-break shopping season. Between Turkey Day and the following Sunday, an estimated 140 million Americans will shop in stores and online, according to the National Retail Federation.

The federation projects this year’s holiday season sales overall will increase 4.1 percent to nearly $617 billion. That would amount to the biggest percentage jump in year-over-year sales since 2011.

The last recession officially ended in June 2009, but the worst downturn in more than seven decades left its impact long after for many retailers. Some county store owners downsized, while others turned to special events and other approaches to attract customers.

At Corrick’s stationary and gifts in downtown Santa Rosa, owners Keven Brown and Jeri Yamashiro Brown brought in a related business, My Daughter the Framer, more than two years ago. The couple started a gallery to host ArtTrails artists, with a monthly First Friday opening party. They leased space to Ancient Oak Cellars for a tasting room at their Fourth Street Store. And they recently took over ordering and stocking the items on sale at the Sonoma County Museum on Seventh Street.

Uniqueness matters

For Corrick’s and the other local retailers, uniqueness matters.

“If we’re going to survive, we have to have things that no one else has,” Keven Brown said.

That includes selling the work of the local artists who represent “some of the most incredible talent in the U.S.,” he said. Corrick’s also features special events, including Sunday’s signing of nutcrackers by a woman whose family makes the holiday items in Germany.

As Brown looks ahead to the store’s 100th anniversary next year, he sees business getting better this year, and he thinks the county’s growing allure as a tourist destination gets most of the credit. “The tourist has made the difference,” he said.

At Sonoma Outfitters, owners Jay and Debra Knick said the downturn forced them to keep only their most profitable departments and to move their store from Railroad Square to Montgomery Village in order to gain more foot traffic. But in the new, smaller space, said Jay Knick, “the camping department, the climbing department, the boating department all had to go.”

The business was an early online merchant and still has a website with an extensive selection for digital shoppers. But this year it became one of the more than 2 million businesses that sell items on Amazon.

“It’s part of the business we would have missed otherwise,” said Knick. “At least we’re selling the products.”

The couple is optimistic about the holiday season and probably will briefly bring back its most popular tent and sleeping bag for sale.

“We’ve already seen an upswing in the folks out shopping,” Knick said.

Downsizing after downturn

For Sebastopol-based Copperfield’s Books, the economic downturn prompted the downsizing of four of its bookstores.

“Most of those stores are only half the size that they were previously,” said Paul Jaffe, a co-owner with Barney Brown. The two men founded the business in 1981.

Copperfield’s has expanded beyond books to greeting cards, which Jaffe said are now “a substantial part of our business,” as well as stocking calendars, stationary, candles and other gifts. The company seeks to stay relevant by sponsoring numerous author events, school fundraisers and its staff works with school librarians.

When the Borders chain closed three years ago and left San Rafael without a bookstore, Copperfield’s decided to start a shop there in 2013.

“We just opened our first store in 14 years last year,” Jaffe said. Copperfield’s now has seven bookstores in three North Bay counties.

Holiday shopping earlier

Consumers are shopping earlier this year and the recent drop in gasoline prices should put more discretionary income in their pockets, Jaffe said. And Copperfield’s will continue to play to its strengths, including the chance for people to scan the shelves and discover new books.

“There’s something about the browse-ability factor of a retail store,” he said. “It’s the one feature that an Amazon can’t compete with.”

After the recession, some small retailers turned more to private mailings, inviting their best customers to special events or offering them a coupon for an extra discount, said Britt Beemer, CEO of America’s Research Group near Charleston, S.C. To grow in today’s economic environment, retailers must find ways to build loyalty and devotion among their shoppers.

“Just because you’ve been in business 30 or 40 years doesn’t mean you’re going to stay in business if your customers don’t love you,” said Beemer.

He recalled one furniture store owner who doubled annual sales to $6 million mostly through one strategy: calling every customer 30 days after purchase and simply saying thanks for buying an item from his store.

Beemer doesn’t mind expressing contrary views on matters retail. From his own surveys, he called the nation’s consumers this season very cautious due to sluggish job growth - “even more gloomy than I would have thought.” He predicted holiday sales will grow by a modest 2.7 to 4 percent.

And he said most retailers shouldn’t focus too much on competition from the Internet. In California, he said, nearly half the state’s consumers don’t buy online and another 31 percent make only occasional online purchases.

“I’m more worried about competing against the mass retailers,” he said.

Locals support businesses

After the recession, 67-year-old Stanroy Music in downtown Santa Rosa changed hands, purchased this spring by business partners Dustin Heald and Steve Shirrell, the latter a longtime employee there.

The store, which recently moved to 850 Fourth St., brings in revenue from music instrument sales, instructions and repairs. Shirrell and his brother, Robert E. Shirrell, together purchased the building that houses Stanroy and gave the music business a 99-year lease there.

While online sales certainly have decreased revenues at brick-and-mortar music stores, Shirrell nonetheless expressed awe at the willingness of shoppers here to support local businesses. Not only do people regularly thank him for keeping Stanroy open, but he noted that the county still has at least a half-dozen music stores.

“How the heck did we get to be this lucky?” Shirrell asked. “We have no business having this many businesses doing as well as we have. I think that speaks more of the community than of any business owner.”

Small retailers said success means finding ways to make their stores special for shoppers.

At Half-Pint in Sonoma, owner Pam Howard said she hears from teens who recall how years earlier they were allowed to come in annually and pick out one special outfit.

“We built a childhood memory for them,” said Howard. “And you can’t do that online.”

After 25 years in business, some of her first young shoppers have grown to become moms bringing in their own children.

Attracting customers

During the downturn, Caleb and Tamar Raff had to find ways to keep customers coming to their Lego toy store, the Brick Hutt. The couple opened their first store in 2006 in Cotati and moved the business to Santa Rosa’s Mendocino Avenue about 2 years ago.

The couple since has drawn 300 young people to a free Lego building contest, now an annual event. They began holding birthday parties and regular workshop events. And recently they’ve opened an upstairs gallery, where Lego enthusiasts are displaying their holiday creations. All the events are worthwhile “so people remember us,” said Caleb Raff.

Business is now good enough that the couple is planning next year to open their second store, most likely in Orange County.

They want to make sure that shopping at their stores isn’t seen as a chore. Instead, said Caleb Raff, it needs to be “an experience. It’s a place you want to come.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit

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