Retail sales a mixed plot for businesses

If 2001 were a movie, retail business owners in Hillsboro would give it mixed reviews. The loss of two major retailers in the downtown area, combined with the aftermath of national terrorism and a sluggish economy could have been grist for a localized Stephen King nail-biter.

But those plot lines were offset by a general consensus of good sales overall and a plethora of ownerships changes, new businesses and facility remodeling as optimism prevailed going into 2002.

Carol Wiebe, executive director of the Hillsboro Management Board, said the sense she got for 2001 was that Hillsboro held its own.

“The people I visited with felt like they had a favorable holiday season,” she said.

Jeannie Reiswig, newly elected president of the Chamber of Commerce said the city maintained its status quo.

“The Sept. 11 tragedy had something to do with consumer buying,” Reiswig said. “I would think we felt that a little bit.”

“I think people were trying to watch their money a little bit more,” she added. “And we’ve also lost a couple of businesses downtown, so that doesn’t help us either.”

Reiswig said the outlook for the Chamber in 2002 is to determine what services members want from the organization.

“We want to be more member oriented and not just board oriented,” Reiswig said.

Wiebe added: “We are looking forward to 2002 and addressing it with some ambitious goals. And we hope to make some significant progress in the upcoming year.”

Businesses will experience a somewhat tougher climate than they’ve had in the past, said Rhonda Toal, the Chamber’s executive secretary. “But I’m certain the Chamber is a strong support for them and, as a community and group of retailers pulling together, we can weather the storm and come out OK.”

Wiebe expressed optimism about the possibilities for growth in Hillsboro, and pointed to the the remodeling project and expansion Central National Bank that began late in 2001.

“That’s very big-for one of our five financial institutions to remodel and set up a whole new structure is wonderful,” she said. “It’s a great, positive step.”

She said opportunities are available for people to grow their businesses, including two retail-store vacancies on Main Street, the old post office building and the Dairy Farmers of America plant at the north end of Main.

Beyond the downtown business district, Alco Discount Store began plans for remodeling in 2002 with the dual goal of expanding the product line and giving the store a new look.

Construction is scheduled to start in early February.

Main Street Program

In December, Jeanne Stinson, director of the Main Street program in Kansas, addressed the Hillsboro community at a luncheon meeting to explain the dynamics of the program to be considered this year.

It is structured to provide management training, evaluation, assistance, strategies and incentive dollars with the ultimate goal of revitalizing a community’s historic business district.

The program also helps the community analyze ways to enhance existing businesses and identify new retailers as potential successful partners in the business community.

Cities have to apply to be accepted in the program, and very few who apply are accepted, Stinson said.

Mayor Delores Dalke, who was instrumental in organizing the introductory meeting, said she heard enough about the program at state and national meetings of municipalities that she thought Hillsboro should at least be informed of it.

A second meeting is planned by Dalke this year to test community interest.

Closings and expansions

A significant setback for the downtown business district occurred in July when owners Kevin and Dooz Pankratz consolidated their Sunflower Office and Kitchen Corner in Newton, in July.

In 2001, Andy Friesen, owner of Friesen Furniture Center, announced he would be retiring and would began a reduction of inventory sale, which continued into 2002.

The spacious store would make for a fine retail spot, Wiebe said, but the loss of Friesens is a tough loss for the community.

“They’ve been a faithful Hillsboro retailer for 27 years, and it’s an immense loss.”

Outweighing the number of closings were the number of new business that opened or changed ownership or management during 2001.

Scott and Janell Braden opened Braden Computer in April in what used to be a bait shop on D Street.

“I was basically doing business out of my house, and I figured I made more money doing that than I did painting,” Scott Braden said. “I customize computers for people-build them to their needs, repair, remove viruses, and I have Alltell cell phones now.”

“Business in 2001 was good up until the terrorist attack, and then it was down for a month or two,” he said. “Other than that, it’s been great.”

Braden said he plans to hire someone this year in a technology position.

In February, George and Carol Boucher opened Boucher’s Red Barn, which specializes in antiques and collectibles with an emphasis on antique glassware.

“It was our first year in such a small town, and we’re satisfied,” George said.

His customer base increased steadily during the year.

“We thought the Christmas retail season was good. It wasn’t fantastic, but it was good,” he said.

Plans for 2002 are to continue to grow and become more solid in the community, Boucher said.

Another antiques and collectibles store, Molly’s on Main Street, opened last March and specializes in primitive antiques and decorator items.

“I’ve been satisfied with the amount of traffic we’ve had since we opened,” said owner Sharon Mueller.

Sales have been “fairly good” and she said she’s pleased to be reaching customers outside of Hillsboro amd well into Marion and Harvey counties.

“I’ve heard the comments for many years that Hillsboro needed an antique store,” Mueller said. “Now we have a couple of them, and I think that has been the attraction for customers.”

Les Flaming owned Hillsboro Carpet Center with Virgil Peters and last August, Les and his wife Neoma took over full ownership.

“Ever since we have been there, the business has been real good,” Neoma Flaming said.

They have hired a new employee beginning this month.

Prairie Flower and Garden Shop was purchased last January by Ken and Carmon Jones. They and their three employees provide flower and gift items to Hillsboro and the rest of Marion County.

“We had a very good year,” Carmon said. “We put in new carpet, another sink in the back room to help us take better care of our flowers, plus an automatic flower-food system that goes right into the water.”

They also added gift lines to the shop last year, including items such as root candles, Ty plush, candies and crystal items.

“We had two more designers go to school for floral designing,” Jones said.

One full-time employee and Jones’ mother went to floral design school, so they now have a fully-staffed design crew of five people.

Head to Toe beauty salon owner Michele Carlson had her shop on Main Street for the past 12 years, but in August she moved it to her house.

Carlson said business was good in 2001, but she wanted to go back to school.

“I’m going to Tabor full time to get a teaching degree,” Carlson said. “I’ve really cut down on my clients because I work three days a week. So I work part time and go to school full time.”

Business overview

“We had a good year,” said Jerold Vogt, owner of Vogt’s IGA. “We were up a little bit over 2000.”

Dale Franz, owner of Dale’s Supermarket, said 2001 had its highs and lows.

“It wasn’t a steady year, but there were times where it would be up and times where it would be down,” Franz said. “But overall it was pretty good.

“After Sept. 11, we might have picked up sales a little bit because people were sticking around home a little more,” he said.

Nancy Klaassen, owner of Nancy’s Fashions, said sales were about the same in 2001 as in the previous year.

“But it fluctuated more-there were more ups and downs,” Klaassen said. “Weather may have had something to do with that because we had such weird weather.”

The aftermath of Sept. 11 didn’t affect her sales but she said it did affect her deliveries.

“Anything being shipped or imported became more difficult,” Klaassen said.

Klaassen said her plans for 2002 include “trying to find the right mix for customers.”

Home Expressions, owned by Sherry and Bruce Kunkel and Matt Hiebert, sells carpet, plumbing fixtures and cabinetry.

“I would say business slowed down quite a bit from the year 2000,” Kunkel said. “We saw some new customers in 2001, some from Hillsboro and some from surrounding areas, but not real far out of town.”

Sales slowed after Sept. 11 and picked up in November, Kunkel said.

Looking forward to 2002, Kunkel said, “I think we’re going to add fireplaces and wood-burning stoves this year.”

Auto dealers

Terry Hagen, co-owner of Hillsboro Ford Mercury, said, “As far as the numbers go, I would say we were up a little bit.

“The big news we actually got in 2001 was the new 2002 Thunderbird. That’s a very limited edition automobile, and that was probably the newest model.

“And then the 2002 Explorer and Mountaineer were early launches that came out in 2001.”

Staff stayed the same at the dealership, Hagen said.

“And that’s the stabilization you’re looking for in a small community is the minimal amount of turnover.”

Hagen said the auto industry last year saw the economic climate of a recession amplified and accelerated by the events of Sept. 11.

“And of course, not only myself, but the whole auto industry did what they had to do to shore up,” he said.

The industry experienced zero-percent financing for 60 months as an incentive to attract customers to the new-car showroom.

“We’ve never seen this in the history of the auto industry,” Hagen said. “It became an instant buyers market, which we’ve never seen.”

Before the zero-percent incentive, sales were down. But after the program kicked in, they were up because the promotion achieved what it was supposed to do-sell new cars, Hagen said.

“But, for every positive, there’s three negatives,” he said. “That’s a positive impact on the new car sales, but when you’re giving zero-percent out for new, it can only do one thing on the used end-and that’s drive the price down of your trade-ins.”

It may take a year or more to see what the effect the incentive program will have on the auto industry.

“It’s literally taken buyers out of the market that might have been (purchasing new cars) two to three years down the road,” Hagen said.

“And they bought now because they just couldn’t pass up zero-percent rates.”

Hagen said he expects the service side of his business to be up over what it normally is.

“The service side should be higher just because I think people are going to hold off and potentially need to fix that automobile,” Hagen said.

Doug Wright, owner of Wright’s Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge/Jeep, said, “My sales were up in 2001-I sold more automobiles.”

He said he attributed the increase to the availability of new products at his location.

“We had a new car line-the PT Cruiser, a new mini van, and now we have a new Dodge Ram.

“For 2002, I plan on running my show just as tight as I ran it this year, and I expect sales to be up,” Wright said. “I plan to support the local community, and I hope they continue to support me.”

Jan Schroeder, who owns Irv Schroeder County Motors with her husband, Bruce, said, “The last quarter was quite successful as far as vehicle sales go, but in general the whole year was definitely challenging-sales were down.”

Schroeder said a combination of factors in the first nine months contributed to slower sales.

“Interest rates had been on the rise, so people were conservative about borrowing money,” she said. “Last winter and last spring, home-heating costs and gas prices were up significantly. And also the stock market was down.”

The last quarter of 2001 was better because General Motors offered zero-percent financing, Schroeder said.

“Our service department was fairly busy and successful,” Schroeder said.

The Pontiac Aztek, Buick Rendezvous and Chevy Avalanche were three new products to come out last year.

“In 2002, we’re fairly cautious about the economic conditions as far as car sales go,” Schroeder said. “So we’ll be very careful this year.”

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