Retail on the rebound
Southeastern Minnesota retailers expect good things this year as newly confident consumers start spending again.
Even during the economic slowdown, area retailers didn't suffer as much as those nationwide.
"My sense is that overall, community retail sales are softer than normal but once again not as bad as most places," said Gary W. Smith, president of Rochester Area Economic Development Inc. "Sales reports from downtown merchants during Thursdays on First last summer were very good."
Rochester's retail growth has widespread, from the burgeoning Shoppes on Maine development on the city's south side to Northwest Plaza on the north side, not to mention Apache Mall and a vibrant downtown scene.
An average of 2.5 million people a year visit Rochester each year, many for treatment at Mayo Clinic. That's helped retail sales growth outpace the national average over the last 10 years, a trend expected to continue through 2020. The city's market area also extends into parts of Wisconsin and Iowa — more than 1.6 million people lived within a 90-minute drive in 2007.
Downtown still vibrant
Jon Eckhoff, executive director of the Rochester Downtown Alliance, said he's heard a lot of optimism downtown.
"At least three new business ideas have been run through this office in just the last two weeks," he said. "That happens all the time. We've got space we'd like to fill downtown with professional businesses – we have the right climate for that, and more people will come downtown for that."
Businesses that have retail space down near the Peace Plaza have said very good things about Thursdays on First, he said. "That's bringing people downtown not only for those events, but bringing them back to try other restaurants, bars, lodgings, businesses."
Niche retailer sees more shoppers
It's not looking bad right outside of the downtown district, either. Penny Bracken, owner of the Kismet stores in the 600 block of North Broadway, said her businesses are continuing to grow.
"The trend with resale retail is phenomenal," she said. "We're getting more and more convinced shoppers every day."
Bracken's particular stretch of North Broadway has become home in recent years to other small, niche retailers such as Cheri's Boutique and Salvaged Treasures, which features vintage and antique home decor.
"For us, we continue to grow every year, so I feel very fortunate with our track history," Bracken said. "I haven't felt it stall, haven't felt any dips. Our client base is expanding, our customer base is expanding — they're looking for alternatives, obviously.
"They're not only looking to save money but wanting to generate money because times are hard," she said. "When they look at their closet, their house, they're seeing dollar signs. This is an easy, painless way to deal with it."
Small-town retailers finding a way
Outside of Rochester, plenty of small-town retailers are finding ways to survive in a changed business environment.
For Roxanne Bartsh, who opened Wild Ginger Boutique in Zumbrota in 2007, business is going well. Wild Ginger sells fashion accessories and women's clothing.
"I may be lucky because I'm growing," Bartsh said. "The recession hasn't hit me that hard. Because I didn't have a customer base built up (at the beginning of the recession in 2007), I've seen growth where others might have seen decline. I'm very satisfied with the response in the first two years."
Zumbrota's location — "close enough to Rochester, but far enough away," as Bartsh put it — helps businesses there as well.
"In my experience, small-town businesses have done really well from people in the larger communities," she said. "They want to come to a small town and get that service, get away from big box stores – have an experience, have lunch, be in a store that has (personalized) service. I think small towns have an opportunity a larger city doesn't, in a way."