A mixed bag for merchants | In Our Opinion, Jan. 3

Owners of many retail businesses in Winslow are beginning to show signs of stress as the economy continues to slide. To cut costs, some are reorganizing and others are moving to smaller spaces. And a few have been forced to go out of business. If the trend continues, it will be difficult for many stores to get through the next few months unscathed, when business is usually slower before picking up as the weather warms. There may be an increase in empty stores come summer.

What can be done? There has been a concerted effort by merchants, the Bainbridge Islands Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Association to have residents shop locally, and there’s evidence that the campaign was successful to some degree during this past Christmas shopping season. And it’s possible that the cold, snowy weather inticed many residents to shop on the island rather than driving treacherous roads to Seattle or Silverdale.

It was probably a wash, however, since many businesses were shut down some days during the week before Christmas because of icy roads or power outages. Some did great, especially grocery and hardware stores, which always do well when people slide into emergency mode.

Besides the grocers, the big winner likely was Ace Hardware, though owner Steve Mikami said sales were down a little from the previous December. But the High School Road business definitely made up for the slow start with increased customers during the two-week coldspell and snowstorm that hit the region before Christmas.

Mikami said faucet covers, snow shovels, ice-melting equipment, sand, sleds, garbage can lids (used as sleds) and many other weather-related inventory left the shelves soon after they were placed. He made four large orders with his distributors from Dec. 12 -23, despite his tendency to be overstocked with inventory of such items during the early-winter months.

When the last shipment came, Mikami said, several people had reached panic mode and were arguing among each other to get items that were being unloaded from the truck. They had seen the truck approaching the store and decided they’d get in line to make sure they got what they needed before the store ran out again.

Mikami said his store’s customer count also may have benefited from people not going to work because of the storm’s intensity, which caused many people to stay on the island rather than driving elsewhere for shovels and sleds.

While vacant shops and offices have popped up in recent months, they have often been quickly replaced by new businesses, such as a new restaurant moving into the old Winslow Way Cafe space. Seemingly, there are always opportunists willing to take the risk of opening a new business with the thought that they can run their enterprise a little better and fill a niche that no one else sees. The allure of entrepreneurship isn’t necessarily on the wane just because times are tough.

The general attitude among island merchants, according to some of them and people such as Chamber Executive Director Kevin Dwyer, is one of resolve. Yes, business is down with people definitely buying less and worrying more about the economy’s future. Still, with the help of the community and by pulling together, many business people are confident they’ll survive this downturn. Many store owners have been in business for decades and have experienced down cycles before. But they also believe they’ve got a good thing going here.

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