Highland Park merchants hope whimsy spurs shopping
Harrison Poulsom, 3, of Highland Park decorates a gingerbread house with Sabrina Pira (center), 3, and sister Anita, 7, of Highland Park inside a heated tent Friday, one of the strategies used by merchants this season to encourage local shopping. | Ryan P
Updated: January 3, 2013 7:29AM
HIGHLAND PARK — Some Highland Park merchants are trying new strategies to lure customers to their niche boutiques and specialty shops far from the maddening mall crowds.
“I have watched the business community of Highland Park evolve over the years and love that it has always had a focus on one-of-a-kind, unique shops that are mostly owner operated,” said Leslie Blesius, owner of Jolie Maison, an upscale home decor store, and a leading champion of the Shop Local movement.
Highland Park merchants have been feeling the effects of changing shopping patterns — not to mention an economic downturn that put a chill on consumer spending. Merchants believe some of the “retail leakage” stems from a proliferation of new shopping options in nearby suburbs and the convenience of shopping online.
Last Friday and Saturday, some downtown merchants turned a block of Central Avenue into a winter wonderland with real snow, live reindeer and a North Pole. In a heated tent, visitors were invited to make gingerbread houses, drawing some inspiration from an ornate, five-foot gingerbread castle. The festivities included holiday carolers and fire-roasted chestnuts.
The events were sponsored by several retailers working to raise awareness to the rare finds available in Highland Park’s local boutiques. “The annual ... event brings people to town that may otherwise not know about all the great businesses we have,” said Jessica Weglarz, executive director of the Downtown Highland Park Alliance. “It showcases the uniqueness and variety of options families have to dine, shop and be entertained in Downtown Highland Park.”
As a sign of success, sponsors note that 1,000 gingerbread houses were given out in 90 minutes and on Saturday 500 were decorated in a little more than an hour. Sponsors also gave out 2,000 gingerbread cookies, roasted 180 pounds of chestnuts and went through 64 gallons of crepe batter.
“Not only was it a fun weekend for families, but it created an enormous amount of shopping traffic inside Jolie Maison and other participating retail outlets,” said Blesius, noting some customers visited her store for the first time and some were new to downtown Highland Park. “I also recognized many people who returned from last year’s event.”
The initiatives come as downtown Highland Park is about to lose the Saks Fifth Avenue store that has anchored Renaissance Place since the retail and move-theater development opened in 2000. That will create a large vacancy of 49,000 square feet.
Saks Inc. announced Sept. 5 that it would be closing the Highland Park store, as well as one outside Austin, Texas, after the holiday shopping season.
The city’s Business and Economic Development Commission has recommended the city develop strategic and marketing plans to better position the city for the intense competition for new businesses and consumers.