WILLMAR - It has been a difficult few years for retailers, big and small and all those in between.

"There is a lot of tough news in retail right now. And you actually will find some good news in retail too," said Bruce Nustad, president of the Minnesota Retailers Association.

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Nustad said retail makes up about 20 percent of Minnesota's economy. "We love retail that is brick and mortar, we love retail that is online. We love retail that does both," Nustad said.

Nustad spoke Friday at an event put on by the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce at the Oaks at Eagle Creek in Willmar.

In the state there are approximately 50,000 retailers and about 345 of them call Willmar home.

Those retailers provide 788,000 jobs statewide.

According to Nustad's presentation, about 64 percent of the retail businesses in Willmar have 10 employees or fewer, 33 percent have 11 to 100 employees and 3 percent have over 101 employees.

"That is a good amount of jobs," Nustad said.

Willmar's unemployment rate is both a blessing and a curse. Sitting at 3 percent, it is lower than the national average of 3.9 percent, which means people have a job and might have money to spend. However, such a low unemployment rate also means retailers are having to compete with each other for employees.

Nustad said the city's median family income, at $56,533, while lower than the national median income, is still in a good place for a healthy retail market.

"You are probably going to have some spenders," he said. "These are actually decent numbers."

While the overall economy seems to be improving, Nustad is not ready to claim victory just yet.

"I would contend we are still in a recovering economy," Nustad said.

In Kandiyohi County, as well as in the region as a whole, the struggling agriculture economy is also something retailers have to deal with.

"That does impact things in your economy," Nustad said.

For the retailers themselves, the current climate is a challenge. Online shopping continues to grow and many shoppers will use online stores to research and compare prices before going out to make the actual purchase. Nustad said most retailers need some sort of online presence to succeed today.

"Retailers really need to embrace it," Nustad said.

That being said, there is still a large segment of the population who want brick-and-mortar stores. Nustad does not believe shopping centers like the Kandi Mall will ever go away. He said malls go through a cycle of good and bad times, but that there are opportunities. Strip malls can offer a diversity of options while enclosed malls can build a shopping and entertainment experience, like the Mall of America.

"It is crazy that it works, it works because a lot of people come there. That is the magic," Nustad said.

Another way retailers can help their own cause is by being involved in creating a retail destination in their own communities, that will bring more shoppers in which will benefit all of the stores.

"You forget you are competing against other economic hubs," Nustad said. "Communities have to get better at figuring out how retailers are contributing to the community approach."

To elevate a community over other similar towns and shopping centers, the community needs to share what makes them special and unique.

"There is an amazing diversity in your retail community," Nustad said. "You have got to import shoppers into Willmar."

Nustad said creating a community shopping destination shouldn't be the sole responsibility of one organization or person. All the store owners, as well as places like the local Chamber of Commerce, need to help each other.

"We all have to be a part of that effort and it has to go well beyond the 'shop local,'" Nustad said. "There is a whole ecosystem and we are all good for each other."