Success for small retailers; It takes a niche and customer service

WILLMAR -- As the number of downtown retail stores declines, those that remain in a business environment dominated by large discount chains believe they'll survive and thrive if they find their niche, offer quality products and provide customer s...

WILLMAR -- As the number of downtown retail stores declines, those that remain in a business environment dominated by large discount chains believe they'll survive and thrive if they find their niche, offer quality products and provide customer service.

"That's really, I think, the best way of saying it,'' said Robin Olson, who owns Peterson Shoe Store with his wife, Joni. The store has been in Willmar since 1947.

"The other factor for us (that) we hone in on is the issue of comfortable footwear. That's always been our direction,'' said Olson.

The interest in downtown provided by the Willmar Design Center and Willmar's designation as an All-America City have perhaps reawakened some to the fact that downtown -- historically at least -- is the heart of the city, he believes.

"Retail will continue to be an integral part of downtown Willmar,'' said Olson, but he says downtown stores have become destinations rather than places for window shopping. Customers want to find what they need.


"When people come downtown, they may go to one location and then they go home, and maybe come back the next day to the next location,'' he said.

"But the individuals that have basically found their niche in downtown Willmar are doing quite well. If you work on that, you're going to thrive, not just survive. That's what we've tried to do here and I believe a lot of my colleagues downtown have done the same,'' he said.

Randy Czarnetzki says he's seen a positive response to his purchase and remodeling of Hardware Hank Express during the past 15 months.

"I'm feeling good about overall the big picture on how things are happening here at the store,'' he said. "We've got a long way to go yet, obviously, but I'm feeling pretty good about that.''

The arrival of Menards last year has taken away or reduced potential sales in certain categories, he said. "Anytime you have more businesses in town, you could argue that that's another division of the pie.''

But he says those types of businesses make Willmar a viable regional marketing area. Because he owns a specialty hardware store, Czarnetzki may send some customers to Menards or Home Depot, and they might send some customers to him.

"I think we can peacefully co-exist. It pumps our ego a little bit to hear someone say that someone from Home Depot or Menards sent them over, so we appreciate that, too.''

Pam Klein, co-owner of Ken's Casuals, agrees that downtown is a destination.


"They're not browsing. They're here for something special. That's where we have to cover the ground. We need to find something that the big box stores can't offer: personal service, free alterations, free gift-wrapping, one-on-one attention, and we remember these people because they come back,'' said Klein. "It's an advantage that the larger stores don't provide.''

Klein said she and co-owner Jan Scheltens usually remember the names and sizes of their customers.

"That's the kind of thing you can't get at a big store. You've got many, many different clerks trying to help the same people, and they just don't get to know their customer like we do. We have to capitalize on that,'' said Klein.

Rick Norsten, owner of Rick's Cycling and Sports Center, said business is going pretty well and sales are increasing every year. He opened his Schwinn shop 23 years ago and has expanded into fitness equipment and billiards.

He said competing against larger retailers can be a challenge, although the larger stores emphasize price while he emphasizes quality.

"Generally, people, once they realize what the differences are, they come to us. We get a lot of repair business from the other mass merchant stores,'' Norsten said with a chuckle. "I think it's just offering a good product and being able to service it and stand behind it.''

Mike Noonan is part owner of Elmquist Jewelers. The store was established in 1902. Noonan says downtown has lost a lot of retail and is changing more to services, but his store keeps "plugging away,'' thanks to advertising, reputation and service.

"You've got to be able to take care of people, and the big box stores can't offer service, but we can. We can do it. We can do it right,'' he said.


Noonan thinks the emphasis on revitalizing downtown has put a lot of focus on downtown.

"I think that we need more folks downtown. Downtowns in all these small towns are kind of slipping away, and I think it's sad because we can offer something that some of the malls and big stores can't offer,'' he said.

At the House of Jacobs, a Scandinavian specialty shop, Christmas-time sales of pastry grills and boards at Wal-Mart takes away a little business, but the large stores "really don't do much to us because we've got our little niche,'' said owner Dennis Jacobs.

"And we have our Internet business, too. We ship a lot of lefse and gift items The other competition in Willmar doesn't bother us a bit for that.''

The store is in its third location in almost 19 years and carries top-grade Scandinavian merchandise.

"People are looking for that something special. We fit into this one and it works for us,'' said Jacobs. "We've had steady increases every year, but how much longer I don't know. It's anybody's guess.''

Jacobs believes improved accessibility will improve the downtown.

"If we had a straight shot through town, I think we could soon give up all our other ideas as to how to build the downtown because it would just naturally build,'' said Jacobs. "If they want business downtown, you got to get people downtown.''

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