The mood among Norfolk retailers after the 2019 Christmas shopping season is based heavily upon location.
While many downtown store owners offered an enthusiastic report from their holiday sales, some of those who own businesses on the Highway 275 bypass offered a more reserved outlook from the season.
“It was a good Christmas. It was not a great Christmas,” said Mark Raders, owner of Wetzel & Truex Jewelry, located at 2001 Market Lane in Norfolk. “It came late. It came very late.”
Raders said heading into mid-December, he feared the holiday season might prove to be a disaster because the store remained quiet. Then it seemed as if someone jammed the accelerator, pushing the store’s sales to its seasonal projections.
“We did a bulk of our month’s business within about 10 days (of Christmas),” Raders said.
The lack of sales early in the month was troublesome for Raders, especially in light of the struggle independent jewelers have faced nationwide. Raders said between age, poor economy and online competition, the industry nationwide saw the loss of more than 900 independent jewelers in the past year.
But looking back now, he said the late jump-start to Christmas shopping makes sense.
“I think if you look at the big picture, (Northeast Nebraska) had flooding, so we ended up with late planting, which resulted in a late harvest and then you throw in that we had six fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I think it snuck up on a lot of people,” he said.
Tim Worstell, who owns The Abbey Christian Store with wife Melanie, said their store didn’t fare as well. The Abbey carries a selection of Christian books, as well as a large faith-based gift section.
Sales for December were standard at The Abbey in comparison with the previous year, but “we finished significantly down in sales, especially the month of November,” Worstell said.
The figures leave Worstell struggling to gauge what happened in November to create such a dip, but he believes the shape of retail is shifting.
Worstell said the store has an online shop, as well as a strong social media presence, but he expressed concern about the threat online sales continue to pose to brick-and-mortar stores.
“It doesn’t feel rosy,” Worstell said of the outlook for brick-and-mortar retailers. “I’m not trying to be pessimistic. I’m an optimistic person in general, but it doesn’t feel optimistic.”
A few doors down from The Abbey, in the same Market Lane strip mall, Deb Schlievert — who owns Rags to Riches, The Husker Place — said the struggling Nebraska football team didn’t help her business.
“As I tell everybody, ‘Your Huskers could’ve helped me out a little bit more,’ ” she said with a laugh.
The Huskers’ less-than-stellar performance is making it more difficult for Schlievert to plan for sales in the upcoming season. Schlievert said she was pleased with early fall sales, but she believes slower holiday sales at her store may have been affected by more than a down year in Husker football.
“I don’t know how much to blame on football,” Schlievert said. “The flooding from early in the spring — I’m thinking that had to have some impact going into the holiday season.”
Schlievert said the sluggish ag economy may have been a factor in the slower sales. She also expressed concern about the state of retail in Norfolk, in general, especially in light of the relatively recent losses of two major retail stores.
“Losing Herberger's and Shopko I really think hurt a lot of the retailers here in Norfolk,” Schlievert said.
Troy Weyhrich, owner of Renegade Stores, which has a strong online presence, as well as locations at Sunset Plaza Mall in Norfolk and Empire Mall in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, estimates that his Norfolk store has seen a 10% decrease in walk-in traffic since the closing of Herberger’s, which served as an anchor at Sunset Plaza.
Weyhrich said Renegade Stores fared well for the 2019 holiday, but the Christmas shopping season being six days shorter than last year did not help.
Weyhrich said retail is evolving, and he has opted to embrace the changes by boosting Renegade Stores’ online selling power through its own website, as well as by selling through Amazon and eBay.
“We know our customers are shopping online. Hopefully, they shop with us,” he said. “We know they’re shopping on Amazon. Now there’s no reason they can’t shop with us through Amazon.”
Weyhrich said he’s had customers within a 20-mile radius of Norfolk purchase Renegade products through a sale facilitated by Amazon.
“It’s just embracing all of the new technology and the way people shop,” he said. “It’s just taken us quite a few years to figure that out.”
Weyhrich said his store’s brick-and-mortar presence was bolstered by the addition of customization and custom embroidery services, which have proven to be popular.
“Custom embroidering and customization — that really surprised me through the holiday. We barely had the newness worn off our embroidery machine, and ... we were doing way more than I thought we would do.”
Customized products — like etched photos on glass and recipes on cutting boards — also were the popular items at Ravenwood Art Gallery in downtown Norfolk, said owner Scott Adams.
Adams, who purchased Ravenwood in the spring of 2019, said he wasn’t sure what to expect for his first Christmas at the store, but he was not disappointed.
“It was a really good Christmas season,” he said. “Since it was my first year, I didn’t know what to expect, but it seemed to be pretty busy downtown.”
Jen Fuchtman, owner of the Norfolk Avenue clothing boutique called Love & Threads, said the downtown was hopping during the holiday season and her store felt the positive impact.
“Traffic was really great this holiday season,” she said. “We were continuously seeing cars lined up and down here. We were very busy. I loved it.”
Fuchtman said the Downtown Riverpoint Christmas Festival — which initially was postponed due to bad weather — drew a large crowd on its make-up date and created a great sense of community.
“I think there’s so much going on down here. People are coming down because you can do more. You can walk the streets and stop in at different stores and now with the restaurants, you have different options to make it an outing rather than just coming down to stop at one place and go on your way,” Fuchtman said.
Magnolia’s Home Decor and Design owner Amy Renter agreed with Fuchtman’s assessment. Renter moved her store back into the downtown four years ago, after spending several years in a shop along the Highway 275 bypass.
Renter agreed with Raders’ assessment that the shopping season seemed to get into full swing a bit late this year: “Every year it seems the season sneaks up on us, even more so this year.”
But she was pleased with how it turned out; Magnolia’s experienced its best Christmas season yet, she said.
Renter credits a lot of that success to its downtown location, a return that seemed serendipitous to her now.
“I just got back from my market in Atlanta. What I found there when I visited with other retailers and attended seminars, they told us downtowns are on trend and the sense of community in a downtown shopping experience is what people want now,” she said.
Renter said that’s what she is experiencing now with Magnolia’s return to the downtown.
“The vibe downtown is such a hometown feeling. People respond positively and enjoy the experience,” Renter said.