Small businesses hope downtown traffic will return — soon

With word that downtown employees will be back, Satiya Amporful has moved her clothing and cultural goods store Gaviidae Commons from the ground floor to a larger space at airway level to capture more traffic.

Although the store has seen a 40% increase in business since the beginning of the year, that’s not enough to make it happen, she said.

Amporful and other retailers in downtown Minneapolis and the North Loop said that while nearly 50% of downtown workers have returned on a mixed schedule, their old habits of meeting people or wandering the skywalks — and doing some shopping or looking for services — are Repair or dry cleaning – not done.

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 if sales are up again, they are now facing supply chain issues and inflation, which makes increased traffic necessary.

Optimists always see a glimmer of increased activity and hope once workers get used to the mixed schedule, habits will develop.

Parking garages are nearly full, and he no longer feels like he’s the only person working in his building, said Greg Harris, technical advisor at Skyway Techs, a mobile, laptop and desktop repair shop in the Canadian Pacific building in downtown.

“I can see the workers are back,” he said.

Skyway Techs is one of the few tech repair shops in the city center and relies heavily on business highway traffic.

Harris said that before the pandemic, most Skyway Techs customers were people whose employers did not have a dedicated tech repair team, or who needed to repair personal equipment. Skyway Techs also offers an on-site service for downtown businesses.

After orders for the initial pandemic shutdown were lifted in 2020, Harris is back. But for the rest of that year and 2021, he was only handling 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.

In the past two and a half months, Harris said, sales have nearly doubled compared to the winter months of 2021.

Amporful said other stores are now slowly reopening along the Heavenly Lanes, creating more foot traffic and increasing the number of curious people who might stop in at Uniquely Global. But converting a limited number of window shoppers into paying customers is still challenging.

Amporful imports clothing, artwork, jewelry and accessories through a partnership with artists in Ghana, where her husband has a family, and other countries such as Guatemala, Morocco, Mexico and Kenya. Many of her designs are inspired by Japan, where she grew up.

Pop-up sites have started. Acceptance into a Minneapolis City Council assistance program called Chameleon Shoppes helped her secure a small studio on Gaviidae Street in October. This eventually allowed her to move to her current location.

Funded by personal savings, including pension funds, her business has faced like most major challenges during the pandemic. She was forced to take shelter in Ghana during a trip, which limited access to her business and inventory, shutting down the company’s online presence.

It is at the point where the store needs to perform in order to stay in business.

To attract more people to Uniquely Global, Amporful plans to host classes where people can learn how to make organic African soaps and skin care products, but also host cultural awareness discussions.

“I want people to come and have experience,” she said.

However, standing in the way of more foot traffic downtown is a disgrace that downtown is unsafe.

Downtown Council and other stakeholders and Dana Swindler at MartinPatrick3 believe that more people downtown on a regular basis will make shoppers feel more comfortable walking around.

They believe that the more workers who spend more time downtown, the more this will happen.

“They are the driving force for safety,” Swindler said.

According to the latest data from the Minneapolis Downtown Council, nearly 50% of all downtown employees who worked in the office before the pandemic have returned with some capacity. This number includes some recent organizations that have started making a comeback over the past few weeks, such as Xcel Energy and Wells Fargo.

For Swindler and her husband Greg Walsh, who founded MartinPatrick3 in 1994, waiting for more downtown workers to return is the latest in a long string of hurdles over the past 24 months for a store that was in expansion mode before the pandemic.

The state-ordered shutdown was longer than expected in the spring of 2020.

“It’s been months, not days,” he said. “Months without anyone.”

While many local stores have joined national retailers and launched online sales to counter the shutdown, Swindler chose not to. He believed that the cost would not prove a good long-term investment.

When the stores reopened, he decided to expand the inventory again, this time adding women’s clothing for the first time, to increase sales.

In combination with the firm’s established interior design business, MartinPatrick3 has maintained its operations, though not without pain. Swindler said the company employed nearly 38 people at the start of the pandemic, and about 70% were laid off to keep the company afloat.

With business gaining some over the course of the pandemic, former employees have been rehired, but as with other businesses, the store has had to pay higher wages.

With a healthy customer base, Swindler said, financially, MartinPatrick3 is on pace to get back to where it was before the pandemic, but it took two years. And the company is almost fully staffed.

“We are fortunate,” he said.

But now a new challenge has emerged – supply chain disruption.

“Fortunately, the supply chain is happening now, not then,” Swindler said. But he underscores the need to improve foot traffic so that problems do not start piling up.

Angela Lamb-Onaiga, owner of TiAngy Designs, an ethnic clothing store at IDS, couldn’t agree more.

As the holidays approached, business was booming in Lamb-Onayiga, but fell sharply after Christmas as the season changed and the changing COVID-19 omicron cases increased in Minnesota.

Over the past few weeks, she said, there’s been another notable uptick in the business.

However, the pleasure of increasing business is short-lived. She said the delays in the inventories were a nightmare.

Shipments were delayed several times, prompting her to switch airlines.

“I have to hold my breath every time,” she said.

TiAngy Designs, also supported by the Chameleon Shoppes Program, sells handbags, art pieces and clothing made in Nigeria. Lamb-Onayiga has a family in Africa.

Previously located in Gaviidae Commons, TiAngy was preparing to move to a larger suite on the first floor in March 2020 when the pandemic hit downtown. Lamb-Onayiga, who also works a full-time social services job, has switched to selling products online from her home. With continuous delays to shipments, depleted inventory has led to a temporary halt in its business for a short period.

Eventually, Lamb-Onayiga reconnected with Chameleon Shoppes and settled in IDS in May, with the help of a small loan from the Small Business Association, she said.

Lamb-Onayiga hopes it can maintain enough sales to stay open for at least a few more years.

Despite the daily struggle of running her business, she has managed to maintain a positive attitude. With the warmer months approaching, you’d expect shoppers to be more inclined to buy her stuff to match her spring and summer outfits.

“Running this kind of business takes a lot, but I think it’s more than feasible because people can’t have it [anywhere]She said.