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Perham stores offer up experiences online retailers can't match

Downtown Perham is doing well in terms of having a healthy business district, but that comes at a cost of a lot of hard work and good customer service. (Paula Quam / Focus) 1 / 3
Paula Fischer of Nadine's says there aren't a whole lot of places that offer gift wrapping for customers anymore, but they do. (Paula Quam / Focus) 2 / 3
125 Apparel is a new clothing store in Perham that owner Aaron Karvonen just opened up this past summer. (Paula Quam / Focus) 3 / 3

Perham may be a small town with a lot of small businesses, but these days small shops are no place for small ambitions. Business owners in less advantaged mom and pop shops are now forced to operate with as much savvy as the big boys if they want to stay profitable. Big online retailers are encroaching into their territory, and in Perham, there are several shop owners who mean business.

"We've researched and approached this from a standpoint of 'how do you combat online', and we've read a lot from industry experts that you have to stimulate the five senses ... something the computer screen can't do," said Katie Hennagir, who co-owns Bay Window Quilt Shop in Perham, along with her mother, Sarah Hayden. "You have to make sure that when they walk into the store that it's an experience."

Customers who walk into Bay Window Quilt Shop are first hit with the inviting fragrance that reflects the season, then the sight of the ever-changing quaint shop that will very likely look a little different every time a customer walks in.

"We are always striving for that with new displays, unique additions they won't see at another quilt store and inventory that's always turning and changing," said Hennagir, who says although their online business has been impacted by the rise of online shopping and big competition there, their physical store remains strong. And that isn't by chance. They work for their customers, staying fresh and investing in new ideas and making sure they themselves are a big part of their store's value.

"Our shop is lovely retail experience, but it's equally as important that we have experts behind every counter so that when people come in who are new to this (quilting), and they bring a project or pattern or vision, we can help them through that," said Hayden, who says while they don't teach classes anymore, the duo does end up mentoring their customers that need it.

"A website can't do that," smiled Hayden.

The mother-daughter team also work with the high school, which incorporates quilting into one of their FACS classes. Every semester the students are brought into the shop where Hayden and Hennagir give them a presentation, a student discount on the fabric and free patterns for the teachers. Again, it's a cooperation and experience no website could provide.

Staying personal is vital for some of these store owners, who get to know their customers not just by name, but by personal preference.

"When we go to market I often go, 'oh, that's a Mary or that's a Jan or that's whomever' because you know them, you know their size, you know what they like, and you just know they're going to love that," said Denise Schornack of Nadine's Ladies Fashions in Perham.

Just next door, Steve Richter of Richter's Men's Store says there are things he can do that those big online retailers can't.

"We'll hem your pants," said Richter. "We'll wait on you; I can coach people along the way, and they like that, especially if it's people who don't know a lot about this sort of thing."

But what if that personal customer service experience isn't important to someone? Research shows that one of the main reasons people shop online is because they strive to be thrifty and think items are generally less expensive online.

"I really have to refute that," said Aaron Karvonen, owner of three businesses in Perham. "In my businesses we make sure we are the same or lower for every product we sell, and we promote heavily that if you find any of our products online we'll match it or beat it, so I think you have a lot of businesses that are trying to be competitive in that regard to say, 'Number one, we'll never be outdone on price.'"

In fact, Karvonen says, when you factor in the customer service that accompanies that same price, local shoppers are getting more for their buck. In his newest venture, a clothing store called 125 Apparel, Karvonen is able to offer styling advice.

"So if a customer finds that valuable, great," he said. "If we can offer merchandise for similar pricing (as online) it ends up being additional value."

Karvonen says he doesn't believe the Perham business community as a whole can pat itself on the back too much when it comes to earning its residents' business, as he says there are still some who will go the guilt trip route with believing locals should shop with them simply because they're local, rather than engaging in the value proposition route, which from his perspective is the only route to go when trying to compete for business.

"I have to do everything I can do tomorrow so that people want to shop with me every single day," said Karvonen, who says he believes it's the job of every person who operates retail stores to say, 'What makes mine compelling enough to actually visit?'.

"When somebody actually takes the time to walk in our store, what does that mean?" said Karvonen. "They're not just walking in off the street with three hours to burn here, they actually stopped their car, got out, came in, we'd better give them the time and attention they deserve."

Karvonen says he believes in an old, "stolen" line of "people, process and product". If those three things are nailed, he says, then there can be success.

"We try to have really good people and work on that every day, we have to try to have a good process and improve that every day, and then product and pricing ... that has to be really right on, too," said Karvonen, who says he believes that's the winning formula.

"Do I believe I've knocked it out of the park? Not really," said Karvonen, who admits it is fun and exciting to have a new store and to be doing well with his businesses, but he says he still walks in the door every morning and thinks about how he can improve things.

"I don't ever sit in my office, kick my feet up and think, 'wow, I've done a great job here', because I have so much to do every day ... and I wake up every morning excited about the continuous improvement that we're trying to bring."

Paula Quam

Paula Quam is the editor for Forum Communications Co. newspapers in Detroit Lakes and Perham, both in Minnesota.

(218) 844-1466