Retailers Greet Sales Matching, Exceeding Pre-COVID Times

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Eva Popovec, owner of the Art Café in Boardman, happily shows off a new product that will be available in the next few weeks at the Southern Park Mall pottery painting studio and a related Esty shop.

The rectangular platter, surrounded by a border of pizzelles, is imprinted with the origin of the traditional local wedding staple, the Youngstown cookie table.   

Popovec is preparing to introduce the new platters as Art Café, which opened at the mall in 2012, emerges from a strong holiday shopping season. More than half of the tables in the nearly 5,000 square-foot studio Monday afternoon were occupied by patrons working on ceramic art projects that will be fired in one of its three kilns and picked up at a later date.   

“We’re not selling a plate here. We’re selling an experience,” Popovec said.

For Art Café and other local retailers, the holiday shopping season represented a return to normal – or better. Business in November and December was back at 2019 levels, she reported.  

In prior weeks, customers came to paint items they were giving as gifts, from ornaments given by a young child to a ceramic Christmas tree.  Smart phones are put away as patrons concentrate on “making memories,” and creating items that their owners will treasure forever.

“We have become the place that people want to bring the visiting relatives,” she said. “We get customers from bigger cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland just coming to visit the store.”

Overall business was up during the holiday season compared with two years ago, Brianna Komara Pridon, co-owner of Komara Jewelers in Cornersburg, said.

“It was a different season than we’ve ever had,” Pridon said. Sales started earlier in November than usual. Also, while overall store traffic was down, customers purchased more expensive items. 

In particular, they were shopping for diamonds.

“Engagements always happen around the holidays, but since COVID, people are making those decisions quicker than they used to so we had a lot more engagements than usual,” she said. In addition, the store also saw more upgrades to diamonds on their existing rings as they added larger ones.

Diamond earrings also were a top seller, she continued. They’ve always been popular but, with people wearing masks to fight the pandemic, “the one thing you can see very easily is a nice pair of diamond earrings,” she remarked 

Holiday season sales were better than expected at Kraynak’s in Hermitage, Pa. “People were definitely in a shopping and buying mood,” Dan Zippie, general manager, reported. He didn’t have exact figures available, but sales definitely were up from last year.   

“The challenge was getting the product in a timely fashion,” he added. Demand was particularly strong for Christmas trees, which were subject to shipping delays. Artificial trees that were supposed to arrive in June didn’t come in until September, which fortunately was in time for patrons who visit the store’s popular Christmas Tree Lane when it opened. Though no one toy stood out, Pop It fidget toys were sought-after items for stocking suffers, he said.

“We were very thankful,” Leana Hiller says. She and her husband own Leana’s Books and More in Hermitage, Pa. and Bargain Book Stuff in Grove City. In November, they opened a location in Austintown that features both concepts.

Leanna's Books and More, Austintown
Owner Leanna Miller stands inside the new Austintown location of Leanna’s Books and More.

The brick-and-mortar locations as well as the stores’ websites did well, with double-digit sales increases overall for the month of December, she reported.

“We were very happy with the numbers,” she said.

Children’s books and novels were top sellers this year, she reported.  While there was a no single hot book like 2018’s “Becoming” by Michelle Obama, new releases by David Baldacci, Nicholas Sparks, Nora Roberts and Danielle Steel helped boost sales.

At Reyers Shoe Store, which in August moved from its longtime Sharon, Pa. base to the Cafaro Co.’s Eastwood Mall in Niles, co-owner Mark Jubelirer – as Art Café’s Popovec did – likened this year’s performance to 2019 levels.

“Without this dramatic new direction, we would not have much hope for the future, but now we do,” he said. 

The period of October through Sunday was up 51% from the same period last year. Categories that had “dramatic sales” included slippers, casual athletic footwear and “anything named Uggs,” Jubelirer reported. He predicted that first quarter 2022 would surpass the same period two years earlier.

“The fact that we’re in the best mall in Ohio allowed us to ride the coattails of the Cafaro marketing group, and as landlords go, the Cafaro people are absolutely wonderful,” he said. “They’ve taken very good care of us. The mall is highly trafficked, it’s clean, it’s filled with viable businesses and the surrounding area gives it all the more viability.”     

Infinite Consortium Gaming, a downtown Sharon retailer located across from Reyers’ former store, opened a second location this year at Eastwood. Though both stores overall met what owner Tom Vaughn acknowledged were “pretty high expectations,” the new Niles store “definitely surpassed” expectations.

“The collectibles market exploded in the past couple of years – cards and figures and different things like that,” he said. There is a debate in the industry regarding whether a “sleeping giant” awakened in recent years of people wanting to reconnect with their childhoods on an ongoing basis or whether there is a collectibles bubble.

Anime figure lines such as Demon Slayer, One Piece and Naturo were among the in-demand products at the stores, Vaughn said. Though both stores have distinct clientele – the downtown Sharon operation is more of a destination store, while the Eastwood shop draws more casual passers who are visiting the mall – there was no difference he could see in the types of products purchased from each. 

Pictured at top: Eva Popovec shows off the rectangular platter depicting the origin of the Youngstown cookie table.   

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.