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Published December 07 2012

Holidays keep specialty kiosk owners busy

FARGO - Gregg Robbins typically only dreams about being home for the holidays.

He can remember only one time he’s been back to his home state of Nebraska for the holidays in the past 15 years.

Robbins and his wife, Julie, own a mall kiosk operation at West Acres Shopping Center with several holiday units. Most of their shops are open only for the holidays, which is when they do the bulk of their sales.

It means things can get pretty crazy.

“You’re working, you’re working, and you’re going every which direction. And you don’t have time to spend with your family,” said Robbins, who lives in Fargo.

“But at the same time, I’m seeing the joy and the excitement that people are getting from getting an ornament, or they’ll get a calendar or a game,” he said. “And they’re going to use it for their families … and I’m helping bring that joy to their family.”

Robbins is one of the entrepreneurs who work in the common-space areas at West Acres. There are about three-dozen such units at West Acres, including seasonal, year-round and advertising set-ups. Of those, 10 are at the mall for the holidays, said Jim Ross, West Acres senior leasing manager.

Gregg and Julie Robbins have two Go Calendar shops and two Holiday Memories shops, which sell Christmas ornaments, and a location called Go Games. They also have holiday kiosks in a Bismarck mall.

Besides their holiday-only shops, they have a unit at West Acres that sells sunglasses for part of the year and a new kiosk called Pinch and Pour that sells olive oils and balsamic vinegars.

The holidays are important to the seasonal kiosk and cart industry, said Patricia Norins, publisher of Specialty Retail Report, which is a magazine for entrepreneurs interested in learning more about the cart and kiosk industry. It’s a time when traffic in malls increases and consumers are prepared to spend.

Although these vendors often occupy small spaces, Norins said her group’s last report on the seasonal kiosk-cart business put the industry’s annual U.S. sales at $8 billion. That figure includes seasonal carts/

kiosks and temporary stores and is not limited to holiday sales.

Robbins started in the kiosk business in the mid-1990s. He said the best part is probably the freedom it allows.

If he wants to go on a trip, he can do that, and he doesn’t need to worry about having two weeks of vacation built up. He can also take a day off if he wants.

“It’s hard to do it this time of year, you know, obviously,” he said.

Robbins said people don’t realize how much work goes into the operation.

“Like today, I’ve started out the day with one project, and I’ve had to ship something else to Bis-marck,” he said. “I had to call in an order because something was done; find an order from UPS because it was lost. Downstairs, packing stuff, rearranging our store room. … The phone rings constant, nonstop. … You know, I get my coffee at 7, and I’m going until midnight.”

Despite its demands, Robbins said he likes the business.

“I love the people,” he said.

Robbins also said he has a great partner in West Acres.

“They’re just fantastic to work with, from the management to the maintenance,” he said.

While Robins is a veteran in the kiosk game, Gina and Jordan Schumacher are at the other end of the spectrum.

This is their first year operating a mall kiosk. They own the Sheepskin Co., in the north wing of West Acres, a bit past the food court. They also own a Luxury Bath business in Fargo, which is their primary occupation.

“This we call kind of our winter hobby,” Gina Schumacher said with a laugh.

As the name implies, the Schumacher kiosk sells sheepskin products, including gloves, hats, slippers and steering wheel covers.

The hours are demanding.

“It’s kind of like ‘Deadliest Catch,’ we joke,” Gina Schumacher said, referring to the Discovery Channel program about the short, intense Alaskan Bering Sea crab-fishing business.

“We can do anything for 14 weeks, but it would be exhausting if we tried to do it longer than that,” she said.

The “basic cart agreements” for vendors using one of West Acre’s kiosk units in November and December is $6,000 per month, Ross said. That’s three times the rate for a typical month. Vendors on a 12-month lease do not have to pay the higher holiday rate during those months.

It’s a pretty penny, but the mall does about 20 to 25 percent of its annual business in November and December, Ross said.

“If you want to just purchase the space during the optimal traffic period, it has to come with a premium price,” he said.

Schumacher said the cost to operate their kiosk at the mall is in line with the business potential.

“It’s all relative,” she said. “To other people, they might think it is expensive. But when you know what the potential is for sales, it’s very reasonable.”

Schumacher worked in leasing for more than nine years at the Empire Mall in Sioux Falls, S.D., where she saw the success sheepskin products had there.

“I would say it’s a pretty low risk for a potential high reward with the right product,” she said. “And since I have kind of an inside edge knowing what the sales did in Sioux Falls, it was easy to expect at least that amount here.”

Schumacher said she’s enjoying the business, and so far it’s looking good financially.

“At some points you think, ‘Oh, are we going to make enough to make it worth it?’ I mean, we were putting in a lot of hours and waiting till the end of the season to see how it all looks,” she said. “But, at this point, I think we’ll make a healthy profit.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734