Looking toward the holiday shopping season, Tina Palmer did not know what to expect. The owner of Red Door Mercantile in downtown Neenah had no idea how many shoppers would come through her door.
“November and December were normal, which was a big win,” Palmer says of her store, which opened five years ago.
Throughout the pandemic, Palmer stayed in contact with customers via Facebook and Instagram using videos to show what was in the store. She then offered curbside and eventually no-contact pickup at the back door. Once her store reopened at the end of May, she put a big focus on safety by requiring face coverings and offering a place for visitors to sanitize their hands.
“Shoppers want to feel safe and that was a primary goal,” Palmer says. “People know us and the quality products and that they can cross out a number of things on their gift lists by coming here.”
Palmer also credits Future Neenah with its campaigns to encourage people to shop local and organizing of modified events. “They did so much to bring people downtown. I heard so many shoppers say they wanted to shop local during the holidays. We live in a caring area where people value their awesome downtowns.”
Future Neenah and other downtown organizations have played a vital role during the pandemic to make sure retailers, bars and restaurants stay in business. The key to success, according to Appleton Downtown Inc. Executive Director Jennifer Stephany, is using a multi-pronged approach to reach customers, whether it’s through social media, special online events or promotions.
“Innovation is the name of the game to operate in this environment,” she says. “You need to be where your customer is at.”
In downtown Green Bay, On Broadway heavily promoted a shop local campaign that focused on the message of “investing in your community,” says Executive Director Brian Johnson. “It’s something important to promote. Every dollar spent downtown or with local businesses is reinvested time and time again in our local community.”
When talking with ADI members, Stephany says the holiday season was slightly better than expected, but some still saw just 50 percent of their regular business. In downtown Fond du Lac, retailers and restaurants made it through the holiday season, says Amy Hansen, executive director of the Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership. “But one concern I keep hearing involves the supply chain. A retailer may order a product, but its arrival
may be delayed or it never arrives at all,” she says.
The downtown also kicked off its annual Shop Small raffle contest earlier last fall, allowing winners to be picked in October, November and December for cash prizes. Shoppers received a ticket for every $20 spent.
“We had double the response as in previous years. People are now more interested in shopping local,” Hansen says.
To keep shoppers coming downtown, ADI created its Support 9$20 program, which asked area residents to spend $20 at nine businesses during the holiday shopping season.
“The program was well received and I think you’ll see some variant of that program come back,” says Stephany, adding ADI also ran a successful gift certificate program that if you bought nine $20 gift certificates, you would receive a 10th one for free. “Our gift certificate sales increased 20 percent.”
While retailers and restaurants can offer carryout or curbside pickups, the same can’t be said for bars, which worries Stephany. “Restaurants quickly launched carryout options and created outdoor spots to eat, but bars don’t have that option,” she says. “While the stay-at-home order was lifted and bars could reopen, they still struggle with getting people to come in.”
In Green Bay, On Broadway rolled out the ShopHere app, where it’s free for businesses to create a profile. Johnson says it’s “a perfect outlet for businesses that don’t have an online option. So far, the app has been downloaded more than 500 times and our next goal is getting more businesses on there so we can offer more products to area residents. We need to do our best to protect these businesses as we work through these challenging times.”
Helping business owners
The pandemic forced restaurants and retailers to refocus quickly and create online shopping or order opportunities as well as offering curbside pickup or delivery.
In Fond du Lac, Wisnet, an internet marketing firm, stepped up to help restaurants set up their online dining orders for free and created Order Out Fond du Lac, which lists all the restaurants that do takeout or delivery, Hansen says. “That was a huge help for so many businesses.”
Downtown Fond du Lac also created videos featuring 10 businesses and shared them on social media. “It’s important to keep these businesses in front of consumers. We support brick-and-mortar stores, but we have to push them online so when we’re through this, our brick- and-mortar stores will still be here,” Hansen says.
Marketing grants also are available to help businesses, whether it’s upping their social media presence, acquiring good photography or anything else they need to better market themselves, Hansen says.
In Appleton, ADI held a couple of sessions on e-commerce with members to help them boost their online presence, which includes being more active on Facebook and Instagram.
For example, Beatnik Betty’s Resale Butik in downtown Appleton couldn’t create an online store since as a consigner it may have only an individual piece. It took to Facebook to advertise what it had for sale.
ADI also held virtual shop hops in early December, which featured 14 downtown businesses sharing their holiday finds, allowing people to shop from home. Stephany says many shops posted one-night-only specials, along with fashion tips and trends.
Despite the difficulties of the past year, Hansen says downtown Fond du Lac weathered the storm. “This past year, we had more businesses open than close,” she says. “We had six new downtown businesses open in 2020, and so far in 2021, we already have a new jewelry store.”
Funding for the future
On Broadway counts on events to fund 94 percent of its annual budget. In 2020 as events were canceled or greatly altered, the organization did not make enough to fund its six-month planning cycle for 2021.
On Broadway Executive Director Brian Johnson came up with an idea: launching a crowdsourcing campaign to make sure the organization’s coffers could accommodate for hiring someone to plan the 2021 events.
“Events don’t happen in a vacuum. They all require planning and we needed to make sure we had money to bring in and keep someone on board to plan them,” he says. “If we weren’t able to raise the funds, we wouldn’t be able to host events or even remain open as an organization.”
Anyone who contributed $25 or more could claim a gift card bundle with $5 gift cards to Voyageurs Sourdough, Copper State Brewing Co., Titletown Brewing Co., and Chefusion and Fusion Lounge.
Johnson says the campaign was successful and On Broadway has hired someone to plan events, including the Farmers’ Market on Broadway, Fourth of July fireworks and the igNight Market.