It has been a tough couple of years for many big box retailers. Last month Sears and Mattress Firm became just the latest in a series of major companies to file for bankruptcy and close stores.
While it may be bad news for chain stores, things are looking up for small, local retailers.
That’s especially evident in downtown Bellingham.
“I feel like it’s about to hit a second renaissance of retail downtown,” Alice Clark, executive director of the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, said.
In October, the city moved ahead with a plan to enter into an agreement with local developers Jeff McClure and Jeff Kochman to renovate and redevelop the building at 1314 Cornwall Ave., which used to house JC Penney before Bellis Fair Mall was built in 1988.
“It’s going to be a huge game changer,” Clark said.
A number of smaller retailers have recently popped up downtown, including jewelry maker Apse Adorn, houseplant store Babygreens and adult boutique WinkWink.
“Our vacancy rate is pretty low right now,” Clark said. “As soon as things become available, they seem to get occupied pretty quickly.”
Some of the most successful retailers are the ones that have adapted to customer’s changing habits, and found new ways to entice them into the store.
“People are really looking for more of an experience when they go into a store,” Clark said. The design of the storefront, the product displays, the merchandising, even the smell of a store can now play a big role in drawing customers in, Clark said.
While some businesses remain solely focused on their physical store, others have embraced the internet.
“People are finding ways to compete with online,” Clark said.
One of those businesses is Modsock. It maintains its retail store at 1323 Cornwall Ave., where it carries hundreds of designs of novelty socks.
In the back however, the narrow space more closely resembles a warehouse facility.
Cardboard boxes stacked almost to the ceiling are full of the company’s own line of socks, that are shipped out wholesale to other stores all around the world.
Behind that is another room, where products for online sales are stored.
By the end of the holiday season, Modsock owner Urania Shaklee estimates that 200,000 pairs of socks will move through the 1,000 square-foot backroom space.
Shaklee and her husband moved to Bellingham in 2011, and opened ModSock shortly afterward.
At the time, novelty socks stores weren’t as popular as they are now.
“It certainly felt new when I was doing it,” she said. Now, it’s not uncommon to find stores just dedicated to socks. “I’m glad that this has taken hold,” she said.
Normally, an increase in sock stores would be an increase in competition. But it’s a little more complicated for Modsock.
“Competition is a funny word for us,” Shaklee said. That’s because most of the company’s revenue now comes from selling its own line of socks wholesale around the world. The company ships product to almost 300 stores across the U.S. and into Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands.
Shaklee launched her own line of socks in 2014, around the same time she began selling online.
The world of novelty sock sales can be unpredictable.
This spring, former President George HW Bush wore a pair of Modsocks to his wife Barbara Bush’s funeral.
The design was of stacks of books, in honor of Barbara Bush’s activism for family literacy.
Photos of George HW Bush, wearing the socks, were all over the national news.
“Suddenly Texas loved us,” Shaklee said. Sales of that design exploded.
Running the brick and mortar store helps the company stay on top of trends.
“Instead of thinking of it as a retail store, we think of it as a test lab,” Shaklee said.
In talking to customers in person, she and staff can find out what new designs might sell well, but, crucially, they also learn what words customers are using to describe the product.
Shaklee can take that information and use it to optimize the website and product descriptions on Amazon.
But wholesale is still the fasting-growing part of the business.
That growth has started to cause some issues Shaklee didn’t foresee.
“The cost of living is high for the size of the city,” Shaklee said. “That’s starting to create some problems for me as we scale.”
Earlier this year, Shaklee saw a news article that brought her attention to the high cost of housing in Bellingham, especially as it relates to wages.
After reading the article, Shaklee decided to raise the wages of her 11 employees by 32 percent, to bring it in line with the cost of living in Bellingham.
“That wasn’t a small thing to do, but I felt like it was necessary,” she said.
Some of her employees have worked for the company for five years.
“It’s really important to me to work with people I enjoy working with,” she said.
If Modsock wasn’t so diversified, and hadn’t experienced such explosive growth, those raises wouldn’t have been possible, Shaklee said.
Over the past three years, the company has experienced 250 percent growth each year.
Last year, wholesale sales surpassed retail sales for the first time.
Now wholesale makes up about half of the company’s revenue.
Online and in-store sales make up a quarter of sales each.
“The brand, as a business has the most potential in terms of sales revenue,” Shaklee said.