WILLMAR - Sparkling Christmas decor, cozy scarves and playful Minnesota-themed coffee mugs beckon shoppers to stop in, browse and buy a gift for themselves or someone else.

New local boutique? Pop-up storefront at the mall?

Rice Memorial Hospital is probably one of the last places to come to mind - but it's all here in the hospital gift shop.

Judy Treptau, gift shop coordinator, would love it if more people discovered one of Willmar's best-kept retail secrets.

"We want people to experience it," she said. "Come shop here. It's just a great place."

Once upon a time, hospital gift shops were mainly outlets for flowers and cards that visitors could buy for a hospitalized relative or friend, or an employee could grab as a quick gift to bring home.

In recent years this retail niche has evolved into much more. Demographics and tastes are changing, and the Rice Hospital gift shop has changed to reflect this.

The transformation began with a multimillion-dollar hospital expansion, completed in 2006, that included moving the gift shop into a new home just off the main lobby. Along with greater visibility, the gift shop gained more retail space, allowing it to offer a much wider array of merchandise and channel more profits back into the hospital for patient care.

Treptau bubbles with enthusiasm over what's available: soy candles, chocolates and infant onesies. Socks and slippers to warm a patient's feet during a hospital stay. Chic clothing, which has become a top seller.

One corner of the shop caters to the region's Scandinavian heritage with colorful tiles and rosemaled coffee mugs. The greeting card section includes a special line of cancer cards that has been received "very, very well," Treptau said.

Merchandise is chosen with an eye for what's unique - "things you don't find anywhere else," she said.

With much of the sales volume coming from hospital employees, fresh inventory is important to keep shoppers coming back, Treptau said. "I'm constantly moving things around. Almost every week something new is coming in."

Thanks to a staff of 30 regular volunteers and rent-free space, overhead costs are low. But the gift shop maintains a modest budget and customers don't want high prices on top of their hospital bill, so affordability is key, she said. "When I get something on the floor, it's at a great price."

A recent morning found Lisa Peterson, who works in the hospital's accounts receivable department, browsing for holiday stocking stuffers.

Peterson visits the gift shop at least once a week. "There are days when I probably spend more than I should have," she confessed.

She and her coworkers watch avidly for sales and new items.

"There are always great deals," Peterson said. "If you see something, you want to snap it up right away. Sometimes I've missed out."

The gift shop's success can be measured by the profits invested back into the hospital. The Rice Hospital Auxiliary, the umbrella under which the gift shop operates, awarded $15,000 in grants last year, mainly for small projects that might not otherwise have been funded.

Among the direct benefits to patients were a blanket warmer for the wound care program and adaptive dinner utensils for individuals with Parkinson's disease, stroke and other conditions affecting their ability to feed themselves.

Gift shop customers can feel good that their purchases help patients, Treptau said. "You're giving to a charity and you're getting something in return."

But whether people buy or not, the feel-good factor is what lies at the heart of the transaction.

Call it retail therapy.

Mary Jo Brunner, volunteering at the cash register on a recent morning, sees it all the time.

"I absolutely love it. The gift shop is just inspiring," she said.

For family members anxiously waiting in the surgery lounge or spending hours every week in dialysis, the gift shop provides positive distraction. For employees having a stressful day, it's a welcome break to wander through the store "and see some pretty things," Treptau said.

"Our goal is to make you feel better about yourself," she said. "We're here to bring joy to people. Sometimes we just listen or give a hug. We welcome anyone who comes through the door."

Brunner shared a story about a nurse who came into the shop one day. His patient wanted to send a card for a special occasion but couldn't leave the hospital to go shopping; could the gift shop help? Brunner and Treptau gathered an assortment of cards and small gifts and the nurse brought them back to the patient's room so she could choose.

"She was so excited," Brunner said.

Treptau, who took over two years ago as gift shop coordinator, is always looking for more volunteers to staff the shop. She hopes to extend the hours, currently 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, into the early evening and possibly weekends too.

"We could not run the gift shop if we did not have our wonderful volunteers," she said. "We will help you find the right gift for your person. If someone leaves with a smile, it makes us feel like we did our job. If they leave with a trinket that makes them happy, that's even more awesome."