Southwest Businesses Steer Away from "Black Friday" Hype
Independent businesses in Southwest Minneapolis are focusing on quality and service, rather than steep discounts on mass-produced products, to attract customers this holiday season.
While shoppers swarmed to sales at big-box stores across the metropolitan area on so-called "Black Friday," the small, independent businesses of Southwest Minneapolis are taking a different approach. They're banking on their staff's knowledge, higher levels of service and better product quality to mark their niche as we enter the holiday shopping season.
The foot traffic in downtown Linden Hills was brisk, but it wasn't out-of-hand. In the Wild Rumpus bookstore, however, scores of people browsed while their children explored the space or pawed at shelves in search of favorite books.
Tom Braun, the owner of Wild Rumpus, said the holiday season is tied with summer for the store's most busy season. Even during the economic downturn, the 18-year-old store is enjoying its most successful two years.
"If your income is less than it was, if you're watching how you're spending your money, I hope you're saying, 'For my kids reading is more important than buying a new computer or going to a movie,'" Braun said.
The Wild Rumpus attracts shoppers invested in the store's independence, who can appreciate its difference from online behemoths like Amazon.com, Braun said. Employees still write a yearly paper catalog that customers clamor for.
"We're not doing anything different from what we do every other day of the week," he said. "Whatever we're doing seems to be working very well."
Just down the street, customers steadily streamed into Wonderment in search of the shop's locally-built and environmentally-friendly toys. Co-owner Joyce Olson-Kapell said Wonderment intentionally distinguishes itself from big-box stores by providing a higher level of customer service and product knowledge.
"Being so small, we can really offer personal touch, we pride ourselves on our customer service," Olson-Kapell said. "We do personal shopping for people who live in Hawaii or Canada, we describe things over the phone or we snap pictures over iPhone or email."
By the store's very emphasis on locally-produced and environmentally-friendly toys —like a soft little doll handmade in Stillwater—Wonderment distinguishes itself from Black Friday hype that normally concerns mass-produced items sold by corporations at steep discounts.
"We're all a little tired of blatant commercialism and moneymaking— especially what's happening with children's toys, the terrible toxic ingredients that have been found in made-in-China toys," Olson-Kapell said.
Down on Xerxes and 50th Street, Hunt & Gather is packed to the rafters with all sorts of antique and vintage objects like cabin antlers or a tub packed with old photos. Owner Kristi Stratton said the store attracts a clientele who appreciate the fact that it's independently owned. The store's business is spread throughout the year, she said, but workers use holidays as decorating and display themes.
"We keep it seasonal though. You wouldn't find Easter in here right now," Stratton said. "We sell well here, we keep it fresh and well-stocked."
At the Kingfield specialty candy store Sugar Sugar Candy, owner Joni Wheeler and an assistant were busy changing their displays to reflect the holidays. Although the holiday season is a big one for the store, Wheeler said, it's just one of many that draw in customers throughout the year—from Valentines Day to Father's Day.
"This store is all about one-on-one customer service and the stories behind the candy," Wheeler said. "Not to talk bad about SA (Super America) but if it was just me selling candy at a SA-style environment where I couldn't talk about the candy and what makes it special, then I wouldn't be interested in doing it."
One of her stories concerns Valomilk, a candy company from the turn of the century that went out of business in the 1980s.
"The grandson of [Valomilk] founder[..]was travelling in his car listening to public radio and they were talking about candies that vanished. He heard so many people calling in, talking about how they wanted a Valomilk that he left Ford and bought the company back," Wheeler said. "He collected some of the original workers to test until they could get the flavor just right and they reopened the company."
Customers come to Sugar Sugar for its intimate setting and varied selection, things they couldn't get at some bigger stores.
"[Customers] talk about how pretty it is, they talk about the old-fashioned candy and how it takes them back," she said. "I've had people laugh and cry—all kinds of reactions to the retro stuff."