Chippewa Falls resident Sharon Stephens examines a blanket that depicts the Chippewa Valley region while shopping Monday at The Local Store in downtown Eau Claire. The small business and others across Wisconsin report strong recent sales, but many also report continuing to struggle to make up for losses incurred during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Julian Emerson)
Chippewa Falls resident Sharon Stephens examines a blanket that depicts the Chippewa Valley region while shopping Monday at The Local Store in downtown Eau Claire. The small business and others across Wisconsin report strong recent sales, but many also report continuing to struggle to make up for losses incurred during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Wisconsinites patronized their favorite local stores for Small Business Saturday as the nation’s economic recovery from COVID continues.

Sales were anything but small on Small Business Saturday at The Local Store in downtown Eau Claire. 

One day after Black Friday, the store that offers a wide variety of locally produced items was packed with shoppers seeking items to purchase this holiday season. Products ranging from Eau Claire-themed hats and shirts to Christmas-scented candles flew off the shelves almost as fast as they could be restocked. 

The day culminated in the best-ever one-day sales total for The Local Store, owner Nick Meyer said. 

“It’s always very busy on Small Business Saturday, but this was even above that,” said Meyer, who opened the store in 2010.

Many small business owners across Wisconsin reported being similarly busy on Saturday, a day to recognize the importance of small businesses and support them. 

Owners of small businesses in Madison said sales have been up in recent days and customers have been especially numerous since Thanksgiving. Likewise, main street business owners in northern Wisconsin communities, such as Superior and Bayfield, also report higher-than-normal sales in recent days. And downtown Eau Claire small business operators in addition to Meyer said they were especially busy Saturday.

The positive atmosphere for small businesses seems far-removed from the national and international supply chain woes that have afflicted many businesses, and the bump in traffic for small shops points to the nation’s continued economic recovery from COVID-19.

RELATED: Looking Back on 2020: How COVID Crushed Wisconsin’s Economy

Small business owners in many other Wisconsin communities also report not only strong support on Saturday but in recent weeks, said Shawn Phetteplace, state manager for Main Street Alliance, a small businesses advocacy organization. Many owners promoted the day, and so did state officials, including Gov. Tony Evers, who issued a proclamation urging Wisconsin residents to support small businesses. 

Phetteplace said he appreciated that commitment by Evers and other state officials, who issued a video backing small businesses and visited some of those establishments around the state Saturday.

“Whenever I looked at my [social media] feed that day, there were a ton of people posting about [Small Business Saturday],” he said. “It was really cool to see that.”

Such support of small businesses is needed, Phetteplace said, after so many have struggled during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Many owners report amassing significant debt during the pandemic, especially during its early months when they were forced to shut down in the face of the spreading virus. 

Those difficulties likely are a part of why small businesses are seeing more support now, Phetteplace said. As more people have become aware of the adverse impact of the pandemic on their hometown shops, they have realized they need to support them, he said. 

“People are seeing those local small businesses being a staple of the community. And they want to make sure they can survive,” Phetteplace said, noting many of those businesses took extreme measures to keep their workers employed and operated charitable ventures during the pandemic.

Some customers have turned to local outlets as supply chain problems have delayed or done away with purchasing items at traditional big box stores. Business experts say sales are booming due to pent-up shopping demand caused by the pandemic, and  some people having more disposable income because of government payments such as child tax credit dollars.

Meyer said he notices many people want to get out and shop in person after the coronavirus kept them from doing so for so long. Shopping at some small businesses, especially during the holidays, is about the experience as well as the actual purchase of items, he said. 

“Coming to The Local Store is not only to buy goods, but it’s also an experience that I think people enjoy this time of year,” he said. 

Eau Claire resident Alisa Goetch shopped at Tangled Up In Hue in that city’s downtown on Saturday. She appreciated supporting the small business and said she makes it a point to back local business owners. 

“My dad owned a small business when I was growing up and it was instilled in us,” she said.

These holiday themed soaps are among many locally produced items for sale currently at The Local Store in downtown Eau Claire. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Taking a Chance

Jon Hovland bought an existing small business in New Glarus in April, even as many similar businesses across the state and country struggled to make ends meet. While the venture might have appeared risky, Hovland said he made the purchase in part because he figured backing for small businesses would increase. 

As people realized they could lose the small businesses in their communities and be left with only big-store shopping options, they began to value smaller operators more, Hovland said. 

“I believed there was going to be a strong trend toward shopping small, after we got a glimpse of what it would look like with only the Walmarts and Amazons left,” he said. 

That has happened at the Rusty Raven store Hovland owns, which he describes as “an eccentric shop.” He sells everything from throwing axes to watches to T-shirts and also serves as an outlet for others looking to sell their craft items. Customers can drink beer poured in a taproom in the store as they shop. 

“This summer has been phenomenal. It has far exceeded my expectations,” Hovland said, noting he expects to have a strong holiday sales season. 

Challenges Remain

However, Hovland said the future for small businesses is uncertain. At some point he expects the surge of shoppers eager to buy goods again to slow, and where that demand level winds up may determine the future success of operations like his. 

Meyer said sales have been high this year at his store, and he hopes that trend continues. But higher revenue now is helping many small business owners try to make up for losses they incurred earlier in the pandemic, when income for many dropped off significantly. 

Missy Hughes, secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., acknowledged small business challenges in a Small Business Saturday promotional video she and other state officials were a part of. 

“Our small businesses have been incredibly [hard-hit] during this pandemic,” Hughes said. “But they’ve also been so resilient.” 

Phetteplace said he’s optimistic small businesses will see a sales uptick for the holiday season and beyond. Federal and state aid during the pandemic has kept many of them afloat, he said. But many small businesses continue to struggle, he said, and face significant debt incurred during the pandemic that continues to burden them. 

“People need to keep supporting these small businesses in their communities,” Phetteplace said. “They employ folks in these communities, they are tethers to these communities. And without them, these communities would be so much less.”