WILLMAR -- Nationwide, a stronger job market is strengthening the economy, and ret-ailers are reaping the benefits. Last month, re-tail sales increased by 1.1 percent, the strongest gain since September. In the Willmar area, businesses are starting to see that upward trend reflected in their own sales figures.
Cullen's Home Center in Willmar has seen a 1 percent increase in sales for the calendar year. That number was boosted by a 14 percent growth in January, which owner Rick Dahle called "a dramatic increase" from last January.
"It's normally slower this time of year," Dahle said. "We're very excited it. We see those numbers reflected in people walking through our doors."
People are buying more big-ticket items than they were last year at this time, including more large appliances, electronics and mattresses, Dahle said.
"It's a very good time to buy a mattress especially," Dahle said. "As far as electronic sales, from Christmas through the Super Bowl, the expensive TVs were the ones we couldn't keep in stock. We had plenty of the lesser expensive ones left."
While Dahle attributes some of the increase in sales to an improving national economy, the mild winter in west central Minnesota has also played a role in stronger sales, he said.
"Last year, we lost five Saturdays of retail sales because of snowstorms," Dahle said. "It wasn't worth it to customers to come out. This year, we had favorable weather. The guy selling tires or snowmobiles wasn't excited, but it moved shoppers for products that we carry."
The weather didn't help all retailers in the area, however. Kelly Tauber, owner of Gracie Margaret's Children's Boutique in the Kandi Mall, said that in January and February, sales were "significantly down" from last year.
"There are many different variables I take into consideration, and one is weather," Tauber said of sales figures. "The winter was so mild that people were able to get out of town and shop further away."
Now that spring is approaching, Tauber said sales are "on the upswing" again. While she's aware of national trends in retail sales, she doesn't always seem them reflected in her store for a number of reasons.
"We're a kids store and a specialty store," Tauber said. "We're a small business. We can't always play the same game as larger chain stores. We're not comparing apples to apples here."
At the same time, Tauber says being a local store can also help sales. She knows a lot of people in the area who prefer to buy local, she said.
"We do have a really loyal customer base," she said. "People are becoming more aware of the importance of shopping local."
One store that has also seen people buying locally is The Happy Sol in New London, which opened in August 2011 and sells women's clothing, gifts, jewelry and home decor. Co-owners Gina Lieser and Stacey Roberts say they have been "very, very happy" with sales since their opening.
"When we started, we built a business plan and looked at the economic forecast to see what to expect," Lieser said. "We've done better than what we initially hoped for. It's been a nice surprise."
"We've found that if businesses sell a product locally, people around here will buy local," Roberts said. "Customers like to come to New London and support local stores. We appreciate that."
The Associated Press contributed to this report