RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- With the holiday sales rush wrapped up, small businesses are recapping both the positives and drawbacks presented by 2022.
"2021 we had a record-breaking year, and that trickled into the first half of 2022. We've definitely seen our customers are way more comfortable (coming) back into store to shop," said Kayla Brewer-Cheek, owner of Voda Boutique in North Hills.
Brewer-Cheek, an NC State graduate, worked for Belk before opening her store in downtown Raleigh in 2017.
"In those first two-and-a-half years I had to be really creative, had to be really nimble, and quick on my feet and resourceful. Like really resourceful. Because there were days where sales were non-existent," she explained.
Brewer-Cheek said a move from her original location to North Hills in 2019 made a major difference, fearing possible bankruptcy if the new space didn't open up. She said they were able to capitalize on increased traffic prior to lockdowns caused by the pandemic in 2020, which her business was well-positioned to face.
"I was very thankful that our online store was live and well, and I wasn't having to scramble like a lot of my peers who also own retailers, juggling with during that time. That helped us a lot. We've connected with our customers a lot via social media since the beginning, and having the website was also a huge tool in helping us keep the lights on," Brewer-Cheek said.
Brewer-Cheek said the initial struggles she encountered helped prepare her for the ups and downs stemming from the pandemic, as she continues to take a hands-on approach to all sectors of her business.
"When someone feels good with what they're wearing, it just exudes through their confidence level," she said.
While overall sales this year are up, Brewer-Cheek said the holiday season, a key part of the final quarter of the year, has dipped compared to 2021.
"Cost of living has gone up, so it's really hard for people to justify going and spending clothes that they maybe don't necessarily need, or jewelry or accessories or whatever that we're offering here at Voda when eggs are $4 when they used to be $1.99," Brewer-Cheek explained.
Increased wholesale rates on products have also forced her to raise prices, another barrier which small businesses are facing as they work to meet consumers where they are.
"If anything, we're a little bit over-inventory, because we were projected to continue on the same scale we were on at the end of 2021, and that just hasn't been the case," Brewer-Cheek noted.
A report this month from The US Commerce Department found that manufacturers and trade inventories for October were up nearly 17% year-over-year, with Brewer-Cheek sharing other retailers are also offering discounts to clear space.
"When I was planning to launch the business, I obviously had no idea the economy was going to trend downward. And that affects everything. It affects the supply chain, it affects business decision. It really has a massive effect what your company is, what your company is going to be, how you're going to change. You have to be flexible, you have to be fluid. If you're too rigid, especially at a time like this economically speaking, then you can probably run into some trouble," added Casey Klugman, who launched his eyewear company Les Monts in April.
Klugman, who is currently the lone employee, partnered with a marketing company to generate buzz and awareness.
"With regard to retailers, my B2B business, that has pretty much been me going around New York City with a suitcase and the collection and going from store to store and seeing if anybody's interested in seeing the collection," Klugman explained.
He's found success with social media pushes, noting upticks in web traffic when campaigns are underway. Gaining an understanding of consumer habits, as well as what does and does not work, has been a learning experience.
"I'm a designer by trade, I'm an artist by trade," said Klugman, who expressed excitement as he gains experience in all aspects of running a company.
The visits to brick-and-mortar locations have provided both an opportunity to garner direct feedback and enhance sales, as he learns more about consumer habits.
"When you're speaking to an optician or buyer who knows their eyewear and they're willing to put it in their store with other brands you know are reputable, that's a really good indication to get," Klugman said.
October was his best month, though sales fell in November, before rebounding over the past weeks. He's hoping to carry that momentum into 2023, towards his first anniversary, a feat The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports about 20% of businesses fail to reach.
"It's challenging to weather that storm. There's a lot of ups and downs, and I think that you have to celebrate the small wins, when you have a good week, you have to be really happy about that," Klugman said.
As he works to grow his business, he's pledged a portion of revenue to Mental Health America, with a goal towards destigmatization.
"There's people, friends, family, mentors throughout my life, people who have dealt with mental health struggles, not being in the best head space at one point of time or another, and it's something I've always thought doesn't get the recognition that it deserves probably because it's not something you can always see," Klugman said, adding more brands have made efforts to highlight their social missions.
According to the National Retail Federation, November sales increased by 6.5% year-over-year, though they fell slightly from October; December results are due in January.
A report released earlier this month from the National Retail Federation and Appriss Retail found the average rate of return remained flat at 16.5%.
"Timing is going to be key. Many stores will change their return policies around the holidays. So you're going to have to be up-to-date on those. It could be 45 days, it could be 10, it could be just a week. So before you make a return, make sure you are knowledgeable of return policies," said Nick Hill, a Communications Specialist with the Better Business Bureau.
Certain products and stores only offer store credit instead of returns to the original form of payment; make sure you keep receipts of any items purchased.