Support local and shop small are two deeply engrained values of southern Minnesota, and despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic local retailers knew this year would be no exception as communities shopped for all their holiday needs.

While some businesses have had to cut back on seasonal employees and increase the hours put in by their usual crew – including owners – it has been a remarkable holiday season in terms of sales in Owatonna and Faribault.

Julie Schultz, co-owner of Costas Candies in downtown Owatonna, said sales have been up more than usual, which helped make up for the extra stress she put in to staffing for the season.

“Overall we ended up with about the same amount of help, but we didn’t want quite so many people here in terms of COVID and wanting to limit interactions with each other and our customers,” Schultz said, stating she usually hires a group of the same seasonal employees back each year along with a few college-aged kids who return home for vacation. “We have a couple older retired ladies who had talked about possibly coming back and helping us, but as things got worse in the communities, they didn’t want to be down here so all of us who are here have worked a little more than usual this season.”

For the most part, Schultz said the most stressful part about staffing the store for the holidays has been ensuring the candy shop can indeed stay open – including if someone were to come in contact with a positive case of COVID-19.

“I had to get people I knew and trusted that they would only be at home and here so that we could stay safe and be able to stay open,” Schultz said. “That was my main concern, we even tried to run split shifts for a while to keep us apart and have less exposure if someone was sick – we just didn’t want to have to totally shut down. But that only lasted about a week before we just said we need everyone here.”

Joe Donahue, the owner of Faribault Ace Hardware, said his staff quarantining as they waited for COVID-19 test results definitely has impacted the flow of the season, but that he is pleased with how they’ve been able to make it work.

“We don’t really hire a lot of additional help just for seasonal work, we like to keep all our people busy all year round, but it’s been a little bit of a challenge,” Donahue said. “Some of our part-time people may be putting in a few more hours, but you just try to get by and roll with the punches. We do what we need to do as a team to get the job done and take care of customers.”

As owner of the store, Donahue is typically hands-on and helping patrons during business hours, doing the more administrative work when he is at home at night. Though this is typical behavior for Donahue, he admits that it may be slightly increased during a highly busy holiday season.

“It has been a very busy, really good Christmas season,” Donahue said. “People are tending to buy things a little differently than they had in the past. We have sold a lot more Christmas lights this year than normal years. I think part of it has to do with people trying to do something to lift their spirits.”

Both Donahue and Schultz agree that shopping locally seems to be one of the biggest ways people in their respective communities have tried to rise above COVID-19, especially over the last month. Both business owners say they have seen a lot of new faces outside of their core customer base visit them recently, and Schultz added she is seeing more activity in downtown Owatonna in general throughout the pandemic.

“The unseasonably warm weather has kept downtown hopping,” Schultz said. “The last couple weeks have been packed down here with people not wanting to travel and go far to shop. Owatonna has been really good about trying to support local businesses in any way that they can, and I hope that this all continues.”

“I hope more people who haven’t shopped local before and downtown have opened their eyes to how much it has to offer,” she continued. “I guess if you’re looking for a positive with COVID-19, I really hope this is it – that more people will now shop local.”

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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