Ask any small business owner: Just because "the experts" say the economy has rebounded doesn't necessarily make it so. Things have improved, yes, but it's still tough for consumers who continue to keep a tight hold on their credit cards.
Look at the recently ended holiday shopping season. Nationally, retail spending between Dec. 1-24 increased 4.7 percent compared to the same period in 2010, according to ShopperTrak, a shopping research company. And the International Council of Shopping Centers reported that sales were up 3.7 percent in December. Despite that, many big-name retailers, such as Kohl's and Sears, are hobbling into the new year because of an underperforming holiday.
”Overall, it was a good holiday season. They might not be big dollars, but all the little dollars add up. I think everyone is really happy that they had more business than they thought they would have."
That's why downtown Frankfort retailers are looking at the 2011 holiday season as a gift. Anecdotally speaking, local business owners said they saw an increase in sales and foot traffic over the previous year.
"Overall, it was a good holiday season," said Karen Blake, executive director for the . "They might not be big dollars, but all the little dollars add up. I think everyone is really happy that they had more business than they thought they would have."
Of course, the increased business is great for the financial success of the individual merchants, but it also means those dollars are being kept in the community, Blake said. For Frankfort, that's crucial, given that sales tax is the village's No. 1 revenue stream. As of September 2011, the most recent month for reporting, sales tax revenue was $391,867, up a little more than $5,000 from the same time the previous year. This puts the village on target to meet its $4.29 million budget goal, and if holiday sales were as strong as business owners say, that tax revenue should exceed projections.
Sales for the 2010 holiday shopping season were "soft" for many village shops, leading some of them to feel less than optimistic about 2011.
"Earlier in the season, we were a little skeptical about (2011)," said Teresa Kara, the owner of . "But it all came together very well. In general, the recession is still a huge issue."
Downtown Happenings Pull in Customers
So why the turnaround for Frankfort? Merchants cite a specific one-two punch that combined planning and good fortune: well-attended village events and unnaturally warm weather.
" was one of the biggest we've had," Gloria Ursich, one of the owners of , said about the annual December shopping event that's sponsored by the chamber and the Frankfort Historic Business Association. Ursich opened Briosa in 2011, but the women's boutique took over the same space as GC Boutique, where Ursich worked.
Midnight Madness has become a tradition for residents, and its success stems party from local businesses being on the same page to pull it off, Ursich said. Blake added that she was thrilled with the attendance she saw that night, adding that she still noticed people milling about downtown with their shopping bags past midnight.
"I was wall-to-wall people during the day, and (they) were out the door in the evening," said Liz Connolly, owner of , which moved back to Frankfort this fall after years in Mokena. "It was fabulous. The town was hopping."
Although it's not designed as a shopping opportunity, Kristkindl weekend also was tremendously successful for merchants. The appeal of this event, which includes the lighting of , a house tour and Cookie Walk, draws people from around the area, not only Frankfort, Ursich said, bringing customers from Tinley Park, Mokena and elsewhere who enjoyed the more intimate atmosphere of the village's small shops. And a ripple effect of all those people downtown meant hungry shoppers who crowded into restaurants, like the newly opened , which saw a steady stream of diners.
One of the factors that helped drive shopping traffic during Midnight Madness and Kristkindl was the above-average temperatures and lack of snow. It's an interesting detail considering the warm weather is taking some of the blame for sluggish sales for big-box stores and clothing outlets.
"I feel that luck plays a part of it this year," Kara said. "It was just a win-win for us."
'We're Adjusting How We Do Business'
Not all downtown businesses saw such a prosperous end to year. The influx of customers during Midnight Madness and Kristkindl was encouraging for Mary Ann Wall, owner of , but it didn't translate directly into sales.
"We did as well as to be expected considering the economy," Wall said, adding that she and her business partner were prepared. "We didn't do as well as the previous year, but it wasn't that bad. It was pretty much the same as last year."
The shifting economic realities of her business, which deals with cards, invitations and paper products, is part of the reason for a downturn in holiday sales, Wall said. Thanks to technology, many people are creating their own photo Christmas cards and posting them online, she said. But the upcoming spring wedding season and baby showers, Wall added, will be stimulating sales during the early months of the year, a time when business is normally slow for retailers.
"Obviously, it wasn't as good as I'd like it to be, but on the other hand, it wasn't as bad as it could've been," she said. "We're adjusting how we do business, so it's not hurting as much as it could."
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.