New London: Boutiques, specialty stores bring big business to small town
When friends Gina Lieser and Stacey Roberts chose to open an upscale boutique, it didn’t take them long to decide that their store, The Happy Sol, should be in downtown New London.
With a population of only 1,250 people, most out-of-towners wouldn’t expect New London to have a vibrant downtown with a coffee shop, insurance agency, hardware store, hair salon, flower shop and variety of specialty stores, including a quilt shop, home décor store and two clothing boutiques. But for those who know it’s there, New London’s downtown area is one of the region’s best-kept secrets.
“We’ve always known New London is special, and it seems that other people are starting to realize it more and more,” Lieser said. “There’s a variety of stores here that bring people to the area for the purpose of shopping.”
Lieser and Roberts also chose to establish The Happy Sol in downtown New London because of its flexible hours. The thought of competing with the hours of big box stores and Willmar’s Kandi Mall didn’t appeal to the small business owners. In New London, most of the stores close around 5 p.m. during the week, and almost all of them are closed on Sundays.
“We needed the flexibility,” Roberts said. “We wanted to have a life and a business. You can get that more easily in a small town.”
That small-town atmosphere is what appeals to many of the business owners on New London’s Main Street.
Anita Stulen and Ginny Knapp, who have co-owned the Mill Pond Mercantile for 17 years, said part of their success comes from knowing their customers on a personal, first-name basis.
“We’ve made a lot of friends here. We’ve seen some of our customers’ kids grow up and come back with kids of their own,” Knapp said.
“That’s what’s different in a small town. Everyone knows each other,” Stulen added. “You can cry with a customer who just lost her mom. You build relationships with people, and you learn to see them not just in the business sense.”
Still, financially speaking, that small-town service translates into an economic benefit for the whole community. Last year, New London’s businesses paid around half a million dollars in combined sales taxes, according to City Administrator Trudie Guptill.
“That’s a lot of sales,” she said. “They bring a ton to our local economy.”
Over the last 20 years, Guptill said downtown New London has transformed from “hobby stores” to “more boutique-y, unique niche stores.”
“We still have service shops, but there’s definitely been a switchover,” Guptill said. “It’s hitting the right niche. The business owners make it a unique experience while still keeping that hometown feeling.”
The Happy Sol owners Lieser and Roberts, the newest business owners in downtown New London, said that quality shops are only half the battle. They believe a partnership among downtown business owners is key to the vitality of a small downtown.
“All of our merchants know that to move forward, we all have to be successful,” Lieser said. “Everyone has everyone’s best interests in mind. We know we have to work together to promote our town.”