Small businesses hope downtown foot traffic will return soon
With news that downtown employees would be returning, Satiya Amporful moved her Gaviidae Commons clothing and cultural goods store from the ground floor to a larger space at airway level to capture more traffic.
While the store has seen 40% more business year-to-date, that’s not enough to get there, she said.
The problem, said Amporful and other retailers in downtown Minneapolis and North Loop, is that while nearly 50% of downtown workers have returned on a hybrid schedule, their old habits of meeting people or wandering the skyways – and shopping or seeking repair or dry cleaning services – don’t.
So retailers from Amporful — a Navy veteran who launched Uniquely Global in 2019 — to pre-pandemic success stories like MartinPatrick3 in the North Loop have reached a critical moment. Even though sales are on the rise again, they are now facing supply chain and inflation issues, making it essential to have more foot traffic.
Still optimistic, they see glimmers of increased activity and hope that once workers get used to a hybrid schedule, habits will change.
Greg Harris, technical consultant at Skyway Techs, a repair shop for mobile devices, laptops and desktop computers in the Canadian Pacific building downtown, said the parking lots are nearly half full. and that he no longer feels like he’s the only person working in his building.
“I see the workers are back,” he said.
Skyway Techs is one of the few downtown tech repair shops and relies heavily on skyway foot traffic for its business.
Before the pandemic, most Skyway Techs customers were people whose employers didn’t have a dedicated tech repair team or needed personal device repairs, Harris said. Skyway Techs also offers on-site service to downtown businesses.
After the initial pandemic shutdown orders were lifted in 2020, Harris returned. But for the rest of this year and 2021, he only processed two or three orders a day. And some of those customers just needed help figuring out things like camera settings on new laptops for video conferencing purposes.
In the past two and a half months, sales have nearly doubled from the winter months of 2021, Harris said.
Amporful said other stores are now slowly reopening along the airways, creating more foot traffic and increasing the number of curious people who might stop by Uniquely Global. But turning a limited number of window shoppers into paying customers remains difficult.
Amporful imports clothing, artwork, jewelry and accessories through a partnership with artists in Ghana, where her husband has family, and other countries such as Guatemala, Morocco, Mexico and Kenya. Many of her designs are inspired by Japan, where she grew up.
The business started with pop-up locations. Acceptance into a Minneapolis Downtown Council assistance program called Chameleon Shoppes helped her secure a small studio apartment at Gaviidae Street in October. This eventually allowed him to move to his current position.
Funded by her personal savings, including her retirement funds, her business, like most, has faced significant challenges during the pandemic. She was forced to shelter in place in Ghana while traveling, limiting access to her business and inventory, leading her to shut down the company’s online presence.
And she’s at the point where the store has to work for her to stay in business.
To attract more people to Uniquely Global, Amporful plans to organize courses where people can learn how to make organic African soaps and skin care products, but also to organize cultural awareness talks.
“I want people to come and have an experience,” she said.
Obstructing increased foot traffic downtown, however, is a stigma that downtown is unsafe, Amporful said.
The Downtown Council, other stakeholders and Dana Swindler of MartinPatrick3 believe that more people downtown on a regular basis will make shoppers more comfortable walking around.
They believe that as more workers spend more time downtown, this will happen.
“They are the impetus toward safety,” Swindler said.
According to the most recent data from the Minneapolis Downtown Council, nearly 50% of total downtown employees who worked in the office before the pandemic have returned to some degree. This figure includes some of the newer organizations that have started returning in recent weeks, such as Xcel Energy and Wells Fargo.
For Swindler and her husband Greg Walsh, who founded MartinPatrick3 in 1994, waiting for more workers to return downtown is the latest in a long series of hurdles over the past 24 months for a store that was in mode expansion before the pandemic.
The state-ordered shutdown was longer than expected in the spring of 2020.
“It was months, not days. Months without anyone,” he said.
While many local stores joined national retailers and launched online sales to counter the shutdown, Swindler opted not to. He believed the cost would not prove to be a good long-term investment.
When stores reopened, he decided to expand his inventory again, this time adding women’s clothing for the first time, to boost sales.
Combined with the company’s stable interior design business, MartinPatrick3 maintained operations, but not without pain. The company employed about 38 people at the start of the pandemic, and about 70% were laid off to keep the business afloat, Swindler said.
As business picks up during the pandemic, former employees have been rehired, but like other businesses, the store has had to pay higher wages.
Thanks to a healthy customer base, MartinPatrick3 is on the verge of getting back to where it was before the pandemic, but it took two years, Swindler said. The company is also almost at full strength in terms of employees.
“We are lucky,” he said.
But now a new challenge has emerged: supply chain disruption.
“Fortunately, the supply chain is happening now and not then,” Swindler said. But it underscores the need to improve foot traffic so the problems don’t start piling up.
Angela Lamb-Onayiga, owner of TiAngy Designs, an ethnic clothing store in IDS Center, totally agrees.
During the holidays, business was booming for Lamb-Onayiga, but fell sharply after Christmas as the season changed and cases of omicron COVID-19 variants spiked in Minnesota.
In recent weeks, there has been another notable increase in cases, she said.
The joy of increased business, however, is short-lived. Inventory backlogs have been a nightmare, she said.
Shipments were repeatedly delayed, forcing her to change air carriers.
“I have to hold my breath every time,” she said.
TiAngy Designs, also supported by the Chameleon Shoppes program, sells Nigerian-made handbags, art pieces and clothing. Lamb-Onayiga has family in Africa.
TiAngy was previously located at Gaviidae Commons, and Lamb-Onayiga was preparing to move into a larger first-floor suite in March 2020 when the pandemic hit and downtown emptied out. Lamb-Onayiga, who also works full-time in social services, has turned to selling products online from her home. With constant delays for shipments, a depleted inventory caused her to put the business on hold for a short time.
Eventually, Lamb-Onayiga reconnected with the Chameleon Shoppes and moved into the IDS Center in May, aided by a small loan from the Small Business Association, she said.
Lamb-Onayiga hopes it can sustain enough sales to stay open for at least a few more years.
Despite the daily struggle to run her business, she managed to maintain a positive attitude. As the warmer months approach, she predicts shoppers will be more likely to buy her items to match spring and summer outfits.
“It’s a lot to run this kind of business, but I think it’s worth it because people just can’t get those [anywhere],” she says.