It’s a brand new year, full of promise and potential. It’s a time to reflect on the past year and plan ahead for the year to come. As we all settle into our own personal resolutions, businesses are doing the same. In this series, Hindsight 2023, we talk with some of Downtown Fort Wayne’s industry leaders and experts, and ask them for their reflections on 2023 and their goals for the new year.
In this first edition, we’re looking at retail. Throughout the decades, shopping in and around Downtown Fort Wayne has ebbed and flowed. In recent years, though, urban sprawl and the explosion of online shopping have both made brick-and-mortar retail in the inner city a challenging space to flourish in. Rent is always rising, margins are often tight, and good wages are expensive to provide.
Despite these struggles, dedicated business owners throughout the 99 blocks have built, pivoted, reworked, and thrived in an ever-evolving economy. We talked to three women who run Downtown Fort Wayne staples, to get some insight into the last year. They shared their successes, their failures, and their plans for turning those failures into further success, in true entrepreneurial form.
Here’s a look at what’s happening in the retail sector — with insights from The Find, The Urban Hippie, and House to Home!
Anya Smead, The Find
Molly: I’ve always loved shopping at The Find! From a consumer’s perspective, though, I’m sure I miss a lot of the market fluctuations that I imagine are significantly more tangible for you. What changes have you seen and felt in the retail space over the last year?
Anya: In general, I would say the retail industry has slowed down a bit. However, Downtown Fort Wayne continues to expand, and the foot traffic has been great for our business. The landscape of the retail industry is changing in other ways, too, with everything accessible at the touch of a button. While keeping up as a brick-and-mortar store has been a challenge, our team is always ready to meet it head on.
Molly: I’m so glad things are going well! What specifically worked well for you in 2023?
Anya: Changing up the products that we carry has proven to be a great move for us. I took over the store in May of last year, and I wanted to add some of my own personality and flair. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and I am so excited to continue with some new products in the new year.
Molly: That’s exciting! And I love what you’ve done with the place. On the flipside, what hard lessons, if any, did you learn in 2023?
Anya: One of the hardest lessons I think any business owner has to learn is not everyone will enjoy your store and your products. I try my absolute best to make the store a space where everyone feels welcome and can have a fun shopping experience. But at the end of the day, sometimes people just don’t find what they’re looking for. And that’s okay! I think it’s more important to give people an excellent experience, so that they feel great about coming back if they’re looking for something else.
Molly: I like that philosophy. And you’re so right! I always go back to the places I feel good in. So, looking ahead, what are your aspirations for The Find in 2024?
Anya: We have some pretty large aspirations for the store, but in general I want to keep growing. I would love to expand our men’s line as well as our online presence. Being a new business owner has been an adventure, and I am so excited to keep the adventure going in the new year!
Visit The Find online or at 133 West Wayne Street.
Open Tuesday through Friday, 11 to 6, and Saturday 11 to 5 — check their website for updated hours!
Tammy Castleberry, Urban Hippie
Molly: Urban Hippie has been around for almost a decade, so I’m sure you’ve seen the retail industry change over the years. What changes did you see in 2023 specifically?
Tammy: One big change I’ve seen is brick-and-mortar retail seems to be going through another phase, so it’s key for small business retailers to ramp up their online presence. Another change is as we see more and more large fast-fashion retailers enter the market, it has become even more important to keep customers engaged in meaningful ways.
Molly: I see what you mean. Small, local businesses like yours are more sustainable for people’s budgets and the environment, so it’s important to engage customers on those fronts. Aside from ramping up your online presence and keeping customers engaged, what else worked well for you in 2023?
Tammy: That’s a challenging question to answer. We planned to move earlier in 2022, but construction delays pushed that into winter ‘22/’23. In addition, unbeknownst to us, Google had changed our business listing to “permanently closed,” so many of our existing customers thought we had. It took a couple of months for Google to correct the information, and even longer for our customers to find us again. So much of 2023 was just getting the word out and rebuilding our momentum.
Molly: That sounds frustrating. Looking back on all that, what hard lessons did you take away?
Tammy: The hardest lesson for us has been learning that what has worked before won’t necessarily always work. There are two business maxims I believe, though, which have helped: you have to have faith in who you are and what you bring to the industry. At the same time, being a business owner means staying fluid, recognizing when the industry is changing, and navigating those changes.
Molly: Your resilience and adaptability are impressive! Now that you’re on the other side of all that, what are your aspirations for Urban Hippie in 2024?
Tammy: For us personally, it’s getting our customers accustomed to a different way of shopping. Convenience is extremely important for a lot of people, and we realize how exciting it is for us to be part of the Downtown Fort Wayne growth, but we also realize it has become a different form of shopping for our customers.
Our hope moving forward is that people take advantage of all the venues around us, whether it’s dining at the amazing restaurants on The Landing, walking around Promenade Park, or visiting a coffee shop or dessert shop.
There’s something special about experiencing Downtown like generations before. I think we’ve all seen the old photos when our city streets were full of people walking and shopping. Walking several blocks to get to a desired destination was just a way of life and a completely different experience.
That experience is the key reason I started my boutique-slash-studio 13 years ago in the Downtown area, even before the revitalization had begun. I knew it was a risk then, but I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. I was an old soul with a love for nostalgia, beautiful old buildings, and as funny as it sounds, the sound of church bells outside the studio. I started in a small obscure space that nobody knew what to do with. The owner of the building didn’t even want to show me the space, but once he did I had to have it. It had an old built-in wall safe and gray file cabinets, with absolutely no outside visibility—not exactly what’s on your checklist when searching for a boutique space! But out of that space came a lot of originality that contributed to our early success.
We’ve moved twice since then due to lack of space, and each time I feel we’ve created a unique space. We’re known just as much for our playlist, plywood floors, and the proprietary “smell” of our shop, as we are for our clothes. I will never be a conformist when it comes to the boutique experience, and moving into 2024, I hope to bring more surprises to the Downtown community.
Visit The Urban Hippie online or on The Landing, at 111 West Columbia Street.
Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 to 7 — check their website for updated hours!
Emily Baker, House to Home
Molly: It seems to be unanimous that in-person retail has slowed down in 2023. What changes have you seen in your industry over the last year?
Emily: Retail has definitely slowed down from previous years. I believe it’s a bit of a delayed COVID effect. Retail for home interiors picked up during COVID, since people were home so much. Now that things are more normal, people are back to traveling more. They’re not stuck inside and are focusing on other things. So we’ve definitely seen a decline over the last year or so in retail sales. However the Design Studio has continued to ramp up, and we have a steady flow of clients who are remodeling or building a custom home.
Molly: Sounds like expanding your services has been great for business! What else worked well for you in 2023?
Emily: Over the last year, we’ve really focused inward on our company culture—looking at our team dynamics and employee training. We have an amazing team of employees right now, who we are actively working to pour into and build up. Finding quality employees who stick around is hard with the current job market and workforce. We’re hoping that, by focusing on our employees and continuing to pour into them first and foremost, we’ll see a positive outcome.
Molly: That does seem to be the direction work culture is trending. It takes a keen business sense to stay in touch with that. On the flipside, were there any hard lessons you learned in 2023?
Emily: That even the best laid plans don’t always turn out. Which we knew, but we were reminded of again. We thought: “finally, a full year where we get to figure out what a new normal is.” Instead we had unexpected employee turnover, had to close our staging services, and experienced a surprise pregnancy, which led to one of our owners being out on maternity leave.
We have been in business five and a half years, and we can’t say we have had a “normal” year yet. There is no normal in the first year. The second year we moved our store location, completely changed our retail model and clientele and welcomed a baby. In our third year we weathered the pandemic. The fourth year we saw the “after-COVID” effect, plus we welcomed another baby. And our fifth year was this last year. We thought 2023 was going to be our first year of some sense of normalcy. But it wasn’t. And there’s a bit of a mental and emotional fatigue with that.
Molly: I imagine so. That’s quite the journey. I’m glad you all made it through. So what are your aspirations for House to Home in 2024?
Emily: That we find and settle into our normal. Of course there will always be challenges and changes, growth and pivoting. But we have yet to really find a groove that we can stay in and scale. We’re ready to find that niche, stay in it, and just really settle in and find stability and strength there.
Visit House to Home online or on The Landing, at 110 West Columbia Street.
Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 to 7 — check their website for updated hours!
Molly Conner is a Fort Wayne native and freelance writer. Having lived in Downtown Fort Wayne throughout her twenties, she loves watching her stomping grounds grow. With her love of storytelling and community in tow, she’s eager to tell Downtown Fort Wayne’s story piece-by-piece—exploring the people, spaces, and organizations that make it thrive.