Economy & Business
10:56 am
Fri December 6, 2013

Holiday Shopping Crucial for Milwaukee Artisans

Like their big box competitors, many Milwaukee artists and artisans rely on the holiday shopping season for a big revenue boost – some for as much as a 40 percent of their annual sales.

But it’s not just local vendors who profit at this time of year; so does the city at large.

A report by Civic Economics shows that if Milwaukee shoppers shifted just 10 percent of their annual purchases from chain stores to local, independent businesses, they would put an additional $311 million to the annual local economy each year.

The report also says independent shops re-circulate more than three times as much revenue into the local economy as do national chains.

“The owners of these businesses are your neighbors. They pay their taxes here, they employ local people who then spend money locally so it's kind of a ripple effect that does make a difference,” says Nancy Quinn, managing director of Local First Milwaukee, which co-commissioned the study.

Such a market shift would be especially welcomed right now by Milwaukeeans who make and sell local goods.

Indulgence Chocolatiers does 30 to 40 percent of its annual sales during December. Owner Julie Waterman says life at the company’s kitchen in Walker’s Point has been “intense,” since business ramped up early in November.

Indulgence supplies chocolate treats to about 200 retail outlets. It also has stores in Walker’s Point and Shorewood, and takes special orders.

“This week we’ve got a ton of client gifts and big bulk orders coming in, and then the two weeks before Christmas you have all the people just dropping by to pick up a box of 12 truffles, because they’re visiting so and so, so it just keeps getting busier and busier until all the sudden New Year’s hits,” Waterman says.

Waterman says she fell in love with fine chocolates while traveling in Europe. But she understands the challenge of finding shoppers who feel the same way.

“That’s where the educational component comes in. For us, it’s getting people to taste our chocolate, getting them to look at all of the chocolatiers, so they can see there are actually people making it,” Waterman says.

Indulgence also offers samples – a different flavor each day -- and it holds classes on pairing chocolate with beverages.

Local potter Jean Wells is all too familiar with Waterman’s challenges. She says all local artists and artisans compete with the big box stores, especially in price range.

Some of the plates made by local potter Jean Wells will be given as gifts this month
Some of the plates made by local potter Jean Wells will be given as gifts this month
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

Wells crafts pottery at her home in Brown Deer. She makes dishes and vases with fanciful designs. One depicts robots on a moonscape. Another features monkeys hanging upside down.

Wells says, like Waterman, she's learned the value of educating potential buyers about what makes locally produced items special, and sometimes more expensive than mass-marketed products. For instance, there's the quality of handmade goods, as well as the artist's "cost of being self employed and earning a decent wage, buying health care, supporting a family.”

Both the potter and the chocolatier hope to attract customers on Sunday. The two will be vendors when the group Local First Milwaukee holds its annual holiday gift fair.

Nancy Quinn of Local First says shoppers who buy local are often seeking gifts for people who’ve moved away, or want items chain stores don’t carry. And Quinn says there’s something else local artisans and artists can offer shoppers.

“They can listen to their customers and they can be more nimble and they can respond. They can either make more of something or come up with a new idea, because they’ve seen a change in our community, and that can’t happen when you’re purchasing at a big box store,” Quinn says.

Perhaps that flexibility explains the truffles at Indulgence, which feature whiskey and bacon. They’ve been especially popular with male customers. Owner Julie Waterman says customers have been asking Indulgence to make a chocolate goodie with bacon “forever.”