Stores are starting to see signs that customers are craving a return to in-person retail therapy.
While retailers believe the shift to online shopping during the pandemic will be a lasting change, there are signs that customers also are ready to return to brick-and-mortar shopping.
In Minnesota, retailers big and small saw upticks in foot traffic in late January, said Bruce Nustad, president of the Minnesota Retailers Association. Usually, that increase comes in the first half of the month when customers return Christmas gifts and shop sales.
"I think that it actually makes a tremendous difference, especially to those stores that survived the holiday shopping season," Nustad said about the slight increase in traffic. "That foot traffic is that glimmer of light that the second quarter of 2021 might be OK."
Heather Fox and the rest of the staff at her Foxwell home store in Edina had originally expected to have a very slow January in terms of traffic, but it turned out to be "a great, very busy month," she said.
Fox and husband Brad — the married pair of Realtors, renovators and stars of HGTV's "Stay or Sell" — had expected to open Foxwell in April, but with everything going on last year, the opening was delayed until late last June.
At the Foxwell, located on the corner of 44th Street and S. France Avenue, customers can find a curated array of home decor from scented candles to Turkish rugs. In addition to the retail store, the space houses the company's design studio and offices for Fox Homes real estate agents.
While Foxwell has a robust presence on Instagram, its website won't allow people to actually shop for items virtually until possibly this summer. People must venture to the store to buy the home items they like.
"I want our shoppers to feel comfortable, happy and like they're able to have a little escape," Heather Fox said. "We sell pretty things, and I am a believer that your home should reflect who you are. I think we have something for everyone and nothing makes me happier than watching shoppers get that little spark in their eye when they see what speaks to them."
Nationally, foot traffic at a handful of major stores has started to go in a positive direction to begin the year, according to data reported last week by retail analytics firm Placer.ai.
Minneapolis-based Target saw an increase of less than 1% in January, still better than the 1.5% overall decline it saw in the second half of last year. Richfield electronics retailer Best Buy did even better with visits rising by 1.5% year-over-year compared with a drop of more than 10% in the second half of 2020.
Twin Cities companies weren't the only ones to find positive results in the new year. T.J. Maxx was up 1.5% and sister company HomeGoods saw a huge 25.2% climb, showcasing just how many people want to hunt for home furnishings in person.
Malls, too, have seen the bump.
Since reopening in June, the Mall of America has seen a steady and manageable increase in visitors, though numbers still remain lower than before the pandemic and occupancy restrictions continue to affect attractions and dining, the mall said in a statement last week.
At Rosedale Center, January and February are usually slower months, but the mall is seeing a rebound in traffic so far this year, said mall general manager Lisa Crain.
"I was just in the center last night, and I was amazed," she said. "I think people are getting back into their habits."
Rosedale Center manages home-goods store Rose & Loon, which sells an evolving collection of items from local makers. The store's numbers were better this past December than they were in 2019, Crain said. Rose & Loon offers some gift boxes of products online, but a lot of things people have to buy in person.
"I think people were just wanting that experience of touching and feeling," Crain said.
Joe Redden, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, compared the pent-up demand for in-store shopping to the way people likely will flock to traveling after the pandemic.
"People are bored with staying in their homes so much," Redden said. "There simply is no replacement for seeing the brightness of the colors, feeling the texture of a soft fabric, assessing the fit and comfort, and so on. In a way, retail shopping in person may seem like walking outside into bright sunshine after being in a dark room for hours."
Nustad, from the Minnesota Retailers Association, said there has been some normalization of what shopping looks like during a pandemic, making customers more comfortable with in-person trips.
Also, people are likely using some of their stimulus money for discretionary spending since they assume that more stimulus money is coming, Nustad said. Confidence is also growing in the vaccine, he said.
In-store shopping tends to lead to higher spending because of impulse buying, Nustad added.
Target has made a big push to renovate brick-and-mortar stores, saying the in-person shopping experience is key and that customers who shopped in the renovated stores before the pandemic spent more than before.
Retailers are cautiously optimistic. Customer preferences changed quickly during the pandemic, and it is yet to be determined how big the shift back to in-store shopping is — or how long it will last.