Malcolm McDowell Woods

How Milwaukee’s independents plan on surviving a harsh winter

By - Dec 2nd, 2009 02:53 pm
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(shoo) in Milwaukee's Third Ward offers retail therapy as well as unique snow-ready footwear for the winter shopper.

(shoo) in Milwaukee’s Third Ward offers retail therapy as well as unique snow-ready footwear for the winter shopper.

By Peg Fleury

Slippery sidewalks, problematic parking, wintry winds and tumbling temperatures … how do local stores and restaurants cope during the cold snap? (You know the one — it last about five months and leaves you grateful someone invented long underwear). We wanted to know how, so we asked.

Well, it turns out the independents are a hardy lot. With a combination of creativity, customer service, collaborative efforts and unique merchandise, they survive — even thrive — in a Wisconsin winter.

The season has some bright spots that help; the holidays and Valentine’s Day turn even the chilliest Milwaukeeans into diners and gift-buyers. But even without the holidays, winter weather can boost sales. Caitlin Walsh, owner of the Loop Yarn Shop on North Humboldt says “Business in winter is actually good; the weather keeps people in and they knit more.”  Besides, knitters can combat cabin fever by enrolling in the shop’s classes where the bright colors and tactile feel of the yarns counteract the outside landscape.

Loop is not alone. “Winter actually helps us,” says Laacke & Joys’ marketing manager Beth Handle. L & J sells outdoor sports equipment and also rents cross country skis. The stores’ winter products range from outerwear to messenger bags, flashlights, headlamps and accessories. Beth says customers appreciate winter more when they enjoy outdoor sports.

Not every business can be so lucky. But even restaurants find an upside to the dip in temperatures; the holiday party season now extends into January according to Marc Beaudoin, manager of Ristorante Bartolotta in Wauwatosa’s historic village area. People enjoy celebrating during a quieter time, especially when it comes to office outings.

And even Future Green on Kinnickinnic — well known for its environmentally and socially responsible organic products — enjoys a year-end bonus. Co-owner Swee Sim explains that when people stay inside more, they become aware of their environment and this translates into healthy sales of the store’s green certified paint and other décor items.

But businesses have to be realistic about slower winter sales and adjust their expectations, according to Linda Burg, owner of The Little Read Book in Wauwatosa. “In this particular climate you have to accept this. We buy differently; we will buy three or four copies of a particular book rather than twice that many.”

Caring for the customer
The Little Red Book cultivates diverse customer groups. “We reach out to the retirement community,” Burg says. Catalogs and orders are distributed to some senior living sites and the shop collaborates with schools; one elementary school has several guest authors working with students. The shop stocks their books and offers a discount to the students.

Daniel Goldin, owner of The Boswell Book Company on Downer (site of a former Harry W. Schwartz store), says book groups are important to the health of the store, especially during winter. Boswell has three in-store book groups and supports another 30 or so. Beyond books, the store stocks greeting cards, calendars and a variety of gifts. It all keeps people coming through the doors.

The unusual and unique
Unique merchandise draws loyal customers, regardless of weather. In the Historic Third Ward, (shoo) carries “wonderful boots and shoes that are comfortable, funky and unique,” according to owner Kate Blake. Most are handmade and the business prides itself on “being the only store in the area, and sometimes the entire state, that carries unique brands that are very hard to find.” It also supports locally-made lines including “h(om)e” handbags created from recycled leather by Heather Hambrecht and handmade knitwear by (shoo) employee Barbara Zaharris.

And then there’s the annual January sale, which attracts lots of customers. Plus co-owner Pat Blake, Kate’s brother, says the store’s web site is a marketing tool that reaches local and national customers who can’t make it into the store, due to weather or miles.

There’s strength in numbers
Cooperative programming and events help business owners attract a crowd. For example, (shoo) profits from its location in the Katie Gingrass Gallery when the quarterly Gallery Night/Day brings thousands of people to the ward’s galleries, shops, restaurants and bars. The next one is Jan. 15 and 16.

Deanna Inniss, owner of children’s boutique, Freckle Face, says “We coordinate with other Third Ward merchants as much as possible, as we have found the more collaboration and exposure, the bigger the event becomes — which in turn brings us more traffic.” As a member of the Historic Third Ward Association (HTWA) she is involved in Gallery Night and Day and will join other HTWA members in holding a January “indoor sidewalk sale.”

In the historic Village of Wauwatosa, more than 30 businesses have pooled their resources and belong to Live Local, which offers free member cards that entitle shoppers to special promotions every Tuesday. For example, The Little Read Book will give a 15% discount on a customer’s most expensive item.

Going beyond neighborhood borders, more than 100 independents belong to Our Milwaukee, according to Todd Leech, its vice president. The business alliance advocates for locally owned businesses. It offers members quarterly networking events plus special promotions encouraging people to shop locally, stressing that for every dollar spent locally, more than 68 cents remains in the city.

As we head into winter, don’t be intimidated. Venture out to shop, dine or try a seasonal sport. If you enjoy being a coddled customer, appreciate the unique or unusual, and want to support your neighborhood and metro area, remember to go local!

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