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Amid inflation’s rising costs, Wichita small businesses look to the holidays with hope

Aida Stenholm in her shoe shop, where she handmakes customized shoes.
Celia Hack
Aida Stenholm in her shoe shop, where she handmakes customized shoes.

KMUW spoke with small business owners in Wichita about the difficult economic year and what the holidays mean for their business.

The brick building toward the back of Clifton Square looks like any other shop. But its conventional exterior belies an interior that’s anything but ordinary — one bursting with color, texture and pattern.

“So here is all my collection of leather,” says Aida Stenholm, who owns the shoe shop, pointing to one wall of the shop. “This is all leather right here.”

The leather that lines the wall comes in almost any color you can imagine: teal, burnt orange, yellow, mauve.

She uses it to craft customized shoes — booties, moccasins, loafers — as well as wallets and computer bags.

But in the past year, the leather that Stenholm uses has shot up in price: Once when she checked, it was up 30%.

“It was crazy, and it scared me,” Stenholm said. “I say, what's going on?”

Stenholm isn’t the only one. Nationwide, inflation hit 9.1% this June, a peak that neared the highest level of inflation since the early 1980s. Though it dropped a few percentage points in October, it’s still higher than normal.

For many Wichita small businesses, that’s meant much of the year has been dedicated to creative problem solving. It also means some are depending on a retail-heavy holiday season to make up for a year that’s kept customers’ pocketbooks closed.

“Most of these retailers, they’re pretty small, so they’re able to be pretty nimble and pretty flexible,” said Wendell Funk, president of the Wichita Independent Business Association.

That’s exactly what Stenholm has done. She stockpiled leather right before prices shot up last March. Then she realized she could avoid buying more leather until prices come down.

But just because small businesses are able to survive doesn’t mean they’re able to thrive.

“I do think they’re probably making a little less on the bottom line in order to try to weather the inflation right now,” Funk said.

Though Stenholm could hold off on buying leather, the cost increases from everything else have taken a toll, including rising electricity prices, wages, even the cost of the glue and needles she uses. She had to let one assistant go.

Celia Hack
Jerry Jones runs Spicy J’s, a local business that sells seasoning mixes.

Other Wichita businesses report similar experiences — and sacrifices. Jerry Jones runs Spicy J’s, a local business that sells seasoning mixes. About six months ago, he noticed that the jars he buys cost 60 cents more. Labels were 40 percent more expensive, too.

That’s meant a hit to profit margins. Especially because Jones hasn’t raised his prices.

“It's our gift to the customers that the prices have not gone up,” Jones said.

Ethan Caylor runs E.D. Caylor, a local candle company. He said his business has expanded enough that he’s able to offset some inflationary costs by getting deals on bulk items. But he’s still felt the impact of inflation.

“I've absorbed most of the costs,” Caylor said. “I think I could raise my prices, but, I don't know… I just don't want to do that to my customers.”

Stenholm hasn’t raised her prices, either. It’s made the last year hard. As inflation squeezed her customers’ budgets, she knew that her handmade leather shoes might not be a necessity. Business lagged.

“I see it was so slow,” Stenholm said. “(For) practically six months, it was terrible.”

The National Retail Federation is forecasting that holiday retail sales will grow between 6 to 8% this year — a healthy amount, despite inflationary challenges. For many small retail businesses, including Stenholm’s, these months pay the bills.

And for Stenholm, that prediction is coming true. Her sales have picked up. And she is breathing a sigh of relief.

“I see a couple weeks ago things start changing,” Stenholm said. “People go out and start looking for Christmas presents.”

“We compete sometimes with big companies like Walmart, Amazon, all these kinds of things. It’s hard to compete … especially these couple months, I know my customers are going to come in and support us.”

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.