KYNDELL HARKNESS, STAR TRIBUNE
Owners of Patina, Christine Ward and Rick Haase stand among the holiday displays at one of their stores in Minneapolis.
There were no "doorbuster deals" and no one busting down the door at the Patina lifestyle store in south Minneapolis on the morning of Black Friday. Shortly before opening, store manager Karin Tappero fired up an extra cash register, turned on the holiday music and straightened the cat toys.
"Most of our employees and shoppers won't roll in until the afternoon," she said. "Unlike Herberger's, where my sister works and had to be in at 4 a.m., there's no pushing and shoving when we open the doors."
Big stores dominate shoppers' attention and make most of the noise during the holiday season, but it's also the make-or-break time of the year for small retailers. At Patina, December alone will account for about 30 percent of the year's sales. What looks like a sprint for the popular lifestyle boutique, which has seven locations across the Twin Cities, is actually a marathon that began more than a year ago.
Indeed, Rick Haase, who, with his wife, Christine Ward, started and owns Patina, is already placing orders for the 2016 holiday season. "We have to order now from suppliers that don't deliver on time," he said.
Most orders for the holidays are placed in January and February and arrive in June or July for placement in stores in October and November. They're one-shot deals where, if the item sells out, there's little chance to reorder before Christmas.
"It's like going to the casino every day," Haase said. "Win big or go home. It's a risk."
The National Retail Federation found that a small retailer's ability to adapt and select items not found in big box stores is key to attracting shoppers. Patina's seven buyers specifically ask suppliers if items they are interested in also will be sold at stores like Target and Wal-Mart. If the answer is yes, they think twice. Patina decided to stay away from "Star Wars" items this holiday, for instance.
"You try to develop relationships with suppliers," Haase said. "But you can't control it if they expand their distribution."
One morning in early October, about 20 people — store managers, merchandisers, buyers, Haase and Ward — met before opening time at the flagship store at 50th and Bryant to discuss the "grid," or store layout, for 37 themed displays they would prepare for the holiday season. The first order of business was the ornaments display, typically the first to go up.
Gwen Westberg, Patina's lead visual merchandiser, the night before had put the finishing touches on the display, a tall, four-sided pedestal with different items on each side. As she explained it, store managers took pictures of it with their iPads. "Every ornament placement is deliberate," Westberg told her colleagues. "Replicate it exactly. Each side has a theme."
Placed near the floor of the display was life-size guinea pig ornament. "It looks better from that vantage point than at eye level," Westberg said.
That move worked: The guinea pig is Patina's top-selling ornament so far this year.
Westberg pointed out in another meeting that the stockings above the entrance display should hang at the same height. "The straight line and repetition puts shoppers at ease in a store where there is a lot to look at," she said.
Haase likened the group's deliberation over the floor plan to the creation of a story. Each display is designed to flow seamlessly to the next, with items of varying sizes, colors, shapes and textures are chosen for each one.
One new display for Patina this holiday is dominated by blue and white hues in blankets, pillows and accessories. A ceramic whale is paired with a book that has a whale on the cover, sitting next to a candle with a sea salt fragrance. "The three do better together than if they were separate," Westberg said.
When an item doesn't sell well, the first thought at Patina is not that customers don't want it but that it's not being marketed correctly. "More than likely, it's not paired with the right items," Tappero said.
Patina's first holiday displays, for the ornaments, went up in mid-October in its seven stores, but represented just a small fraction of the planning. By the first week of November, holiday foods, stocking stuffers, toys and kitchen items replaced the Halloween and Day of the Dead goods.
During that same period, managers started interviewing part-time seasonal help. Patina, which has 170 permanent employees, hires about 10 part-time employees for each store, 70 in all. They start in waves in November and early December.
Each week, Patina's merchandisers and managers moved in small ways to position holiday goods more prominently. At one early morning meeting at the flagship store, Westberg reminded the group of managers to inspect window displays from outside at night. The reason — many Patina shoppers visit after work on weekdays, when it's already dark.
This autumn's warmer-than-usual weather also shaped the store's planning. Haase and West told the group they didn't want customers seeing an abundance of Christmas when temperatures were in the 60s and 70s in October and earlier this month. As a result, Patina stores weren't fully decorated for the holidays until late November.
Even then, Patina's shelves were trimmed with less tinsel and glitter than in the past. One reason is that Haase wanted shoppers to pay more attention to goods on the shelves. The other reason, he said, "People don't have as much time to decorate their homes and we want to reflect that."
Tina Wilcox, CEO and creative director at Black, a retail branding agency in Minneapolis, described Patina as one of the best gift shops in the country, partly for its ability to adapt quickly. "They're doing a lot of things right. They buy in smaller quantities that make people buy before items sell out," she said.
Patina last year discontinued online sales, a move unthinkable to many retailers now. Wilcox thinks it was smart. "Patina has so much to look at that it's hard to replicate online," she said.
Haase and Ward started the store in 1993 and, with its constantly changing products, describe Patina on its website as an "art project in process." It has grown to about $14 million in annual sales and the couple project this year's holiday sales to rise 5 to 7 percent. "I'm feeling very optimistic," Haase said. "Barring bad weather, we should have a solid year."
Ward said that, for her, the season is more about creating an experience for shoppers. "The energy and the hustle and bustle of our customers makes us want to do better," she said.
The couple make it a practice to stay out of their stores on Thanksgiving weekend, leaving them to the managers and specialty teams. "We're crazy busy for the rest of the year," Haase said.
When Carly Goodlund, 24, and Samantha Nestaval, 23, walked into the Patina at 50th and Bryant Friday morning, they had it to themselves. "I'd rather be in a place where I'm not fighting the crowds today," Goodlund said as they picked up stocking stuffers.
"Look at this," Nestaval said, pointing to a painted wooden crèche. "You can't find any of this at Target. That's what I like."