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For several retail shops in Park Ridge, the challenges of online shopping and the ongoing pandemic competed with parking limitations this holiday shopping season.
The nearly three-month closure of the city’s public parking lot at Summit and Prospect Avenues left the Uptown business district with 170 fewer parking spaces and the owners of some gift shops along Prospect Avenue frustrated.
“Business could have been sensational, because it’s sensational all over the place, but they tanked us,” said Holly Stricker, co-owner of Hill’s Hallmark, her comments directed at the Park Ridge City Council, which voted to start a reconstruction project of the Central Lot this year. “Nobody closes a parking lot in the fourth quarter of the year.”
Stricker was one of four business owners who urged city officials in September to hold off on approving the reconstruction of the lot with permeable brick pavers until the holiday shopping season was over.
Earlier in the year, city officials said that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District could not commit to funding the grant it had awarded to the city if the parking lot was pushed back to next year, as some aldermen had discussed.
The parking lot, which closed on Sept. 29, reopened on the afternoon of Dec. 17.
Park Ridge Mayor Marty Maloney this week acknowledged that the “timing of the project was not ideal” and that he has heard from frustrated business owners about the closure.
“I completely understand their complaints and concerns and they are entirely justified, but it was either move forward at this time or we lose the grant funding,” he said.
Jackie Mathews, executive director of the Park Ridge Chamber of Commerce, agreed that the parking lot closure posed a challenge, but with it reopening just days before Christmas, she expressed some hope.
“We are looking forward to people being supportive and coming out in the days before Christmas and after Christmas throughout 2022 to support our retailers.”
Stricker said many customers avoided her Hallmark store because it was too difficult for them to find convenient parking in the area.
“The customers that have made it here have been extraordinary and wonderful … but the customers that couldn’t get here are really mad,” she said. “And we don’t know if they are going to be back.”
Amy DeGrazio, owner of Edie Boutique and Marigold, clothing and accessory shops on Prospect, called the closure of the parking lot “horrendous” for local businesses, though she acknowledged that compared to the 2020 season, business is much improved.
“The issue is that everything is back to normal, but there are (170) less people who can park Uptown,” she said, explaining that customers have complained about having to drive around to find available parking spots. “Thankfully our customers are committed and God bless the weather for being nice.”
Had it snowed or been extremely cold this year, DeGrazio believes the loss of the parking lot would have far more negatively impacted business.
At least this year, shoppers have a reason to dress up and accessorize, she said.
“No one needed a new outfit to rock around their living room alone because the family (was) coming over,” DeGrazio said of Christmas 2020. “It’s a whole different mindset this year.”
Natalie Amabile, owner of 2 Sisters A&L Boutique on Prospect, said business at her shop is “not as good as it was last year,” likely due to the parking situation. Still, many customers have noted that they prefer to shop local rather than at mall stores or online, she said.
“I do feel like customers are still being loyal to shopping small and shopping local, which is amazing to us, especially with the obstacles facing us with the parking lot going on,” she said. “I was very scared coming into the season.”
Other than the parking lot, the lack of traditional Christmastime weather could also be having an impact on holiday sales, Amabile suggested.
“People are shopping for themselves, which is wonderful, but I feel like this week is going to be a push because there’s no snow on the ground and they’re not thinking of Christmas being a week away,” she said last week.
Ordering their merchandise early helped Edie, Marigold and 2 Sisters avoid pandemic-related supply chain problems and delays, the owners said.
With multiple independently-owned, small gift shops doing business, Uptown Park Ridge is an anomaly in the area, with neighboring communities dominated by larger retail chain stores.
“I do think we are unique,” Maloney acknowledged. “It’s a challenging time because we don’t have the retail that other communities have, but we also have some unique places and businesses that residents in town have developed relationships with.”
The result is that, despite the parking limitations, customers have not completely avoided the businesses Uptown, Maloney indicated.
“The traffic in and out of businesses has been very brisk — despite the parking situation, despite the uncertainty surrounding COVID,” he insisted.
For Sheila Duda, owner of Tea Lula, an independent loose leaf tea shop that relies on street parking more than the Central Parking Lot, business has been good this year, even if shipping delays have prevented some teas from hitting the shelves and forced the shop to be creative with gift sets.
“It seems like there’s a sentiment that people really want to shop local this holiday and support the businesses in their community,” she said. “I’ve heard that from numerous customers. That’s been so reassuring and appreciated.”
Unlike last year, when online orders and contact-less pickup dominated sales, the shop is back to interacting with customers, which is what Tea Lula was built upon, Duda said.
“This year, it’s been such a pleasure working with customers, talking to them, helping them to find a gift for a loved one or coworker,” she said. “That has returned us to where we were pre-COVID.”
Robert Solari, owner of Solari and Huntington Fine Jewelers on Main Street, called the 2021 holiday season “one of the best we’ve had in several years.”
“I think because so many people work from home, they are shopping local,” he said. “They are not actually hitting the malls or going downtown to Michigan Avenue.”
Solari said he frequently hears from customers that they prefer to patronize local businesses when they can.
Mathews, of the chamber, acknowledged that while the organization encouraged patrons to order takeout from local restaurants during the shut-downs of the previous year, more could have been done for small retailers. Moving forward, this is also true, she said.
“Just thinking about shopping local is always super-important,” Mathews said.
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