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.
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.