Amid Record Holiday Returns, Local Retailers Lean into Goodwill, Good Service

Post-holiday merchandise returns could total $95 billion, according to one survey. But Twin Cities specialty stores report decent December results and very few post-Christmas returns.

Amid Record Holiday Returns, Local Retailers Lean into Goodwill, Good Service
A focus on experience and community makes shoppers less likely to return holiday purchases, says the owner of Grace Hill Design in Wayzata.

While national retailers weather what one survey predicted could be a 20 percent increase in post-holiday merchandise returns this year—a whopping $90 to $95 billion, according to B-Stock Solutions—independent stores in the Twin Cities say they aren’t experiencing the after Christmas slide. In fact, at GoodThings, the White Bear Lake-based gift retailer that took over two former Bibelot stores earlier this year, returns are down 40 percent over 2018, owner Tyler Conrad says.

Conrad estimated that returns add up to less than 1 percent of holiday sales—a figure echoed by other boutique owners, including Julie Stamps of 14 Hill in Minneapolis. The store owners don't credit their assortment so much as the attitude of consumers who shop small and shop local.

“I think the fact that we are a local, small business may stop people from just buying in bulk to see what will stick as they strategize their gift giving.  I also think people may be more sensitive to the effect returns may have on a small business versus a large big box store,” says Kristi Patterson, owner of Grace Hill Design, a home store in Wayzata that went out of its way this year to add more gifts and personalized items (which can’t be returned). “So far, we have literally had no returns. This year, we also had several customers tell us they committed to shopping local for all their holiday gift giving, which was such a great way to support to their community.”

Even so, Patterson says holiday sales at Grace Hill are down slightly from 2018. She’s still sorting out how much of that is actually related to gifts versus non-holiday purchases in December. “It felt like we were up this year based on traffic and units sold, but I think we offered more lower price point items this year, so the overall sales number is down slightly.”

Over at 50th & France, the owner of Gather home and gift store Michael Hagie says earnings were up for the season, but foot traffic was down. At Gather, ornaments and Christmas trim drive fourth quarter sales. “With the cultural shift to a more minimalist approach to Christmas home decor, I have followed suit by more carefully curating Gather's holiday collection,” Hagie says. Gather doesn’t allow returns or exchanges on any seasonal items—which is clearly stated on store signs. Despite the fact that national surveys find liberal return policies are a major factor in where consumers buy, Gather doesn’t get many complaints. “I believe many (shoppers) understand the impact that returns have on my small business.”

Locally owned Galleria boutique Roe Wolfe expects to meet its December sales goal—largely due to customers buying for themselves. “We don’t really experience the huge return frenzy that many retailers experience after the holidays,” says store manager Jennifer Hirschi. “The customers who do need to return are more than happy to exchange for something else or take a store credit to use in the future…most consumers understand a small local retailer doesn’t give cash back for gifts. We try to offer a special experience and unique mix of merchandise.”

But experience only goes so far if customers can’t find what they want. It’s a juggle, says longtime retailer Michael Druskin, who recently opened North Loop men’s store Jaxon Gray. “We focused on providing as much one on one service as possible to ensure we could help our customers find gifts that would be the right style and fit for each recipient. We also aimed to have a great assortment of our key items in stock after holiday for exchanges as there is nothing more disappointing than wanting to change the size or color and seeing the store is so picked over that you can't find anything.”

Traffic in the days since Christmas has been brisk at Mona Williams, a local shop located at Mall of America, and it's not returns that are bringing them in. “So many people told me (Christmas) snuck up on them this year so they are shopping for themselves while they are still in a festive mood,” says owner Patric Richardson. "As I sit here in MOA at 8 p.m. on Sunday, the mall is still bustling with activity.  People are having fun and shopping.  This bodes well for 2020!”


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