Business

Community support lifts up small retailers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, bringing optimism in pandemic

Some small businesses attribute holiday-season success to community stepping up

Kendra Burkum (right) of Solon shows a book to her daughter Kaia as they shop at Prairie Lights Books in downtown Iowa C
Kendra Burkum (right) of Solon shows a book to her daughter Kaia as they shop at Prairie Lights Books in downtown Iowa City on Wednesday. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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For Jan Weissmiller, it’s almost as if the Christmas shopping season never ended.

“We’re still getting a lot of online orders even though it isn’t Christmas anymore,” said the co-owner of Prairie Lights Books in downtown Iowa City.

Weissmiller isn’t the only business owner optimistic after the holiday shopping season. Many retailers in the Corridor have benefited from customers’ efforts to support local businesses during the pandemic.

“This year the community really stepped up in a big way,” said Jim Dwyer, co-owner of Iowa Running Co, in Cedar Rapids.

Steve Shriver, co-owner of Soko Outfitters, said a busy December helped the Czech Village store recoup much of its losses from earlier in the year. Its total 2020 revenue was down only $1,000 from 2019.

“It was a bit mind-blowing that we were on par because we had so many ups and downs,” Shriver recalled. “We just had so much support in December.”

Dwyer attributed the high December turnout to “great community” support and to programs from the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance aimed at incentivizing holiday spending at local businesses.

Weissmiller said the Iowa City bookstore sold a “huge number of gift certificates” in December.

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“Our sales weren’t as high as they were for other Christmases, but they were pretty good for the situation,” Weissmiller said. “We got a lot of support for Christmas.”

She attributed some of the additional support in December to “anti-Amazon sentiment.”

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos’ wealth grew by about $70 billion since January, according to the Washington Post.

“People are concerned about independent bookstores and I think independent businesses in general,” Weissmiller said.

Coats to Idaho

While fewer people are walking around NewBo, Dwyer said being a store promoting health and wellness has been a plus during the pandemic.

Retailers still are facing various obstacles during the pandemic, ranging from less foot traffic to supply-chain challenges.

“I don’t want to paint a super rosy picture for you,” Dwyer said. “We’re not having a record-breaking year.”

Supply-chain issues particularly affected Soko. Entire brands of products were unavailable at certain times because of missed shipments.

Shriver recalled he’d thought the biggest challenge of 2020 would be construction on the 16th Avenue bridge keeping people out of Czech Village. Then the pandemic hit.

It has been “survival of the fittest,” Shriver said.

Iowa’s retail trade industry lost almost 20,000 employees in April, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

But many companies adapted.

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By November, nationwide retail trade employment rebounded to about 1,600 fewer jobs than in March and 1,000 fewer jobs than the previous November.

The December holiday shopping season traditionally is when many retailers see their largest sales period.

Prairie Lights, Iowa Running and Soko, as have many retailers, have offered private appointment times for customers concerned about the safety of in-person shopping.

Many stores also have implemented capacity limits. Iowa Running allows eight people, including staff, in the store at any given time, which Dwyer said “generally isn’t a problem anyway.”

Prairie Lights allows 12 customers before flipping over a sign that reads, “We have reached our customer limit!”

Online shopping has been a key adaptation for many businesses as well.

Soko didn’t have any online shopping before the pandemic. Now the business is getting orders from as far away as California and Pennsylvania.

“We literally sold a $500 coat to someone in Idaho today,” Shriver said.

“We went online so that people can shop from their homes in Cedar Rapids. And the result is people are putting in orders from across the country.”

Comments: (319) 398-8394; john.steppe@thegazette.com

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