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Staying alive: how Sonoma County stores adapt to thrive in the age of Amazon

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Heather Kristensen had walked into Corrick’s looking for a birthday gift, truth be told. But the Winter Wonderland display greeting shoppers at this venerable, 104-year-old store on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa had worked its magic on her.

“It’s beautiful and joyful,” she said of the exhibit, featuring various themed trees including a peacock tree, the under-the-sea tree and that perennial kid favorite, the dinosaur tree. “As soon as I see it, I get happy.”

Even the most hardhearted of grinches can’t help but be nudged into the holiday spirit by this fantastical tableau. In other words, serving its purpose, putting shoppers in the mood to make purchases. For much the same reason, Jeri Yamashiro Brown, co-owner of the store along with her husband Keven Brown, didn’t mind the cold, wet weather crossing the Sonoma county this week.

For Corrick’s and many area merchants, doing a brisk business during the annual holidayshopping runup to Christmas is essential to survival.

“It’s everything,” said Sam Stavros, co-owner of Urban Garden in Montgomery Village.

This year, it’s also a bit compressed. The later-than-usual Thanksgiving will result in six fewer days than last year to shop between Black Friday and Christmas, which explains some of the steep discounts available at area retailers — particularly chain stores. “Black Friday Preview: 70% Off Gold Chains” blared a sign in Macy’s at the Santa Rosa Plaza.

Like the universe and Santa’s waistline, the holiday shopping season is expanding??? starting earlier, according to the annual survey released Wednesday by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics. That study revealed that more than half of consumers nationwide already have started their holiday shopping, and that almost a quarter of their purchases already have been made. Those figures are up nearly 10% percent from a decade ago — a reflection of the bite e-commerce has taken from bricks-and-mortar stores.

How can local independent shops/merchants/stores compete, as Amazon continues to shrink the amount of time it takes to deliver packages, and exhibits a willingness to take a loss on some items?

One key is customer service. “Every store I go into in Montgomery Village, the customer service is outstanding,” said Leslie Melodia, manager of Kaleidoscope Toys, which is also in that shopping center. “When you go to a mall, you’re ignored.”

While that’s an exaggeration, it is more difficult for department stores to hire enough seasonal staff around the holidays to cope with the deluge of shoppers.

The trait most essential for surviving and thriving in today’s retail atmosphere is one that was absent, sadly, in the dinosaurs on that tree at Corrick’s: adaptability.

When Keven Brown took over the store from his father in 1992, “we were kind of like Macy’s with office supplies,” he said.

As years went by, he realized that the specialty items from smaller European vendors were being replaced by mass produced items. In his search for more unique items – “the things that made us special,” said Keven Brown -- he turned to area artists. Wall space once taken up by shelf upon shelf of china and crystal is now devoted to works by local painters. Today, nearly a third of Corrick’s 14,000 square feet is gallery space for Sonoma artists.

Even as Corrick’s evolved, it stayed true to its core identity. At the end of the day, says Brown, “we’re a high-end gift store with a strong stationary background.”

What brings the traffic in now is what’s always brought it in – “The basics: the pens and pencils and cards and Crane stationary. We’ve been a Crane account for 104 years.”

The stakes during this holiday shopping season were raised, for many merchants, by revenue lost during the Kincade fire and its attendant blackouts and evacuations.

A short walk west of Corrick’s, Kindred Fair Trade Handcrafts closed for several days during the fire, even when it had electricity. “We didn’t have staff,” explained store owner Julie Montgomery, while adjusting knitted hats on a rack.

These chapeaux were made in Peru. While many businesses rely on customers buying local, Montgomery’s business model depends on their willingness to buy international. Her store features items from over 40 countries. Among them are those knitted hats from the Andes Mountains in Peru, including chapeaux resembling a goat, a llama and an alien.

“The alien isn’t very Andean,” punned Montgomery, who on Tuesday was still waiting and hoping for business to pick up.

People in the area “have been through a trauma,” she said, referring to the fire, “and they’re processing, so it’s taking a little longer” to find the holiday spirit.

“Maybe the cold will help.”

Exiting the nearby Sur La Table with a glass pie plate, Felicia Simon talked about the upside of shopping at Montgomery Village versus shopping online. “I like being outdoors,” she said of the open-air shopping center. She prefers it to the Santa Rosa Plaza, which “feels a little frantic,” during holiday season, and not as “safe.”

Michael, who asked that we not use his last name, works on the floor at one of the biggest stores in the Santa Rosa Plaza, and has been in retail for four decades.

For the declining numbers of shoppers at that mall, he blames the people doing the buying for some of the stores. “Buyers need to understand the habits of the shopper on the west coast, not the east coast,” he said. There’s a lot of lost money there.”

He also admitted that his own store’s customer service left much to be desired. Nor does it help, he added, that the Santa Rosa Plaza still makes shoppers pay to park.

Finally, he said, “Shopping malls are a dying breed.”

How is it, then, that the Montgomery Village is vibrant and thriving?

Since its grand opening in 1950, Montgomery Village has been constantly “rebuilding and re-defining itself” ever since, said Jim Spencer, manager of Sonoma Outfitters, which moved to that hub from Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square area five years ago.

An example of that adaptation and innovation will be on display this weekend. “Small Business Saturday” will be followed by the annual “Sunday Stroll,” featuring live music acts like the Dickens Carolers, the Wine Country Quartet and Merry Mariachi Band, plus photos with Mr. and Mrs. Claus from 11 a.m. to 3, next to Cattleman’s restaurant.

Our customers are really loyal to us here, said Spencer. Many of those clients drive over from the nearby, self-described “active adult community” of Oakmont Village.

They travel a lot. They hike a lot, said Spencer. Around this time of year, they buy “a lot of Uggs slippers.”

“Yes, we know the internet’s there,” went on. “But we find we can take better care of our customers face to face.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Ausmurph88

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