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Selling is always in season for some small businesses

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  • Navigating the off-season

    • Remind the customer: If you completely change your wares halfway through the year, be sure to communicate it. Michael Kooiman, marketing director for Oasis Pools Plus, which morphs into Peppermint Forest Christmas Shop every October, says he sends an email blast and also touts the switch on both stores’ websites and on the answering machine.

    • Use displays strategically: Holiday Haus has a reputation for its Christmas decor, but to remind customers about its other seasonal offerings, it puts a lot of effort into road front window displays, owner Connie Kleinberg says. “You think people don’t see them when they’re whizzing by but they do,” she says.

    •  Take a vacation: Over the years, Kleinberg found that the slowest days were around July 4. So that’s when she shuts down the store for a week and takes a vacation. It’s the last one she’ll get before the frenzy: “Three quarters of the store becomes Christmas by Labor Day,” she says.



It’s always Christmas at Holiday Haus.

Yet on a sticky June day, as employees of the downtown Matthews shop dress Christmas trees, they work alongside American flags and Uncle Sam yard art. Sparkling ornaments are not far from picnic-themed salt and pepper shakers shaped like hotdogs and hamburgers.

No matter what time of year, at least half of the 2,300-square-foot store is always dedicated to Christmas trimmings and thousands of ornaments. “It’s amazing how many people buy Christmas all year-round,” says store owner Connie Kleinberg.

But the other part of the store is devoted to other holidays and occasions. So, customers might find heart-shaped wreaths around Valentine’s Day. Or pumpkin flags in the fall. All that helps drive foot traffic year-round, she says.

North Carolina is home to a number of tourism-related businesses – from putt-putt courses capitalizing on the summer beachgoers to ski slopes catering to winter outdoorsmen – many of which close in the off-season.

But Charlotte is also home to a number of seasonal retailers that have found a way to last the off-season.

For 20 years, Penland Christmas Tree Farm in York, S.C., has also grown and sold landscaping trees and hardwoods.

Pool and patio furniture retailer Oasis Pools Plus in Pineville started opening each fall as Peppermint Forest Christmas Shop.

And then you have Kleinberg’s Holiday Haus, which showcases its bread-and-butter inventory alongside hundreds of other gift-shop-type items.

“The issue is going to be one of supply and demand,” says Charles Bodkin, a professor of marketing at UNC Charlotte. “When it goes out of season, they’re going to have to ... add new product lines that would sell.”

And though the solutions to the off-season vary dramatically, entrepreneurs and industry experts agree on this: Navigating an off-season requires strategy and creativity.

Few one-season wonders

The U.S. has a strong heritage of seasonal businesses, says George McAllister, director of the UNC Charlotte Small Business and Technology Development Center, which advises about 800 businesses a year.

Just think of the original small businesses: farms. At the time, it was unavoidable – you grew and sold crops, and those profits had to last you the rest of the year, McAllister says.

Now some entrepreneurs find the seasonal model attractive because of the flexibility it affords, says McAllister, who’s worked with dozens of small-business owners with that mindset.

McAllister says he once worked with a Certified Public Accountant who only worked during tax season. After April each year, he packed his bags and moved to the beach.

Others might do landscaping in the summer, then escape to Colorado to ski all winter, he said.

But “there aren’t a lot of companies out there than can just operate in one season,” McAllister says.

That was the case with Oasis Pools Plus, says marketing director Michael Kooiman, 32, whose family owns the store.

Oasis Pools opened in 1979, and after one season of lackluster winter sales, Kooiman’s father, Wally, decided to supplement the business by selling Christmas decorations in the off-season. They called it Peppermint Forest.

Now, from October to December, the 35,000-square-foot building in Pineville carries hundreds of artificial Christmas trees, wreaths, garlands, candles and ornaments. They have 14 full-time employees year-round, as well as another 15 who work during the holiday rush.

The business closes in January to swap inventory, then sells pools and patio furniture from February to August. In September, they close again to pack up the pools and bring out the tinsel.

“It works for us,” Kooiman says.

Bodkin says the Oasis Pools/Peppermint Forest model makes sense from a logistics standpoint. Though a pool store doesn’t have to operate as a Christmas store in the off-season, it helps that both inventories are nonperishable and come in boxes – unlike, for example, running a summertime plant nursery in the space, he says.

But then there’s the matter of training employees in two operations. “It adds to the complexity,” McAllister says.

It also takes a good marketing plan to explain it to consumers.

The Kooimans usually remind customers via email when they’re switching inventory, and they reference both businesses on the store answering machine. And though there are separate websites for each operation, they cross-market the other business on each and link to the other website.

But with two names on the building, it still confuses some customers.

“People will walk in (during the summer) and say, ‘Where’s Peppermint Forest?’ Kooiman says. “It’s a blessing and a curse.”

Ice queens, Easter bunnies

Since she opened Holiday Haus in 1997, Kleinberg has always sold Christmas decor, whether it’s beside hand lotions, Easter bunnies or graduation gifts. A shipment of ice queens sold out in August last year, Kleinberg says.

Right now, she has one part-time and two full-time employees.

One manages shipping for their online store, which also has thousands of offerings. In the off-season, they’ll get anywhere from four to 20 online orders a day, often from out-of-state shoppers. (Nativity scenes are always popular gifts during wedding season, Kleinberg says.)

It’s not the same as during peak holidays sales, when the store has 10,000 ornaments in stock and more than 1,000 shoppers on a Saturday, Kleinberg says, but it helps.

Recently, to tout their nonholiday wares as well, Kleinberg hired a designer to handle custom wreaths, gift baskets and floral designs for any time of year.

And even in the heat of summer, they’re still a destination.

Locals will often bring in their out-of-town guests to browse. Says Kleinberg: “I’ll hear people come in and say, ‘You should see this place at Christmas.’ ”

McMillan: 704-358-6045 Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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