I spent the majority of my 43-year journalism career writing stories about the trials and
tribulations of small businesses, mostly retailers.
There have been good and bad years for all merchants. A sometimes challenging economy, the
advent of big box and discount retailers, the rapid development of online shopping and
changing consumer demographics all helped push and pull the success for retailers.
None of those years seem as challenging as 2020. The pandemic has taken its toll everywhere,
not least of which is small retailers. Many have closed their businesses, letting go of workers
But there are also stories of small merchants who with innovation, determination and a loyal
customer base were able to make a go of it. Not all survived, but many did. And some even
managed to expand.
Not surprisingly, many retailers who already were struggling were the first to call it quits. Large
companies like Gordmans, Pier 1 and others shut down completely while others like Best Buy,
Bed Bath & Beyond and Victoria’s Secret significantly trimmed their store numbers.
In all, 2020 was challenging for retailers with 2021 up in the air. Will the economy rebound? Will
shoppers return to stores or continue online buying? Will pent-up demand match consumer
During my years at the Des Moines Register and previous stints at five other midwest
newspapers, I loved writing about small business owners who invested their life savings, took
on debt and jumped into creating a business that represented a lifelong goal or passion.
I met young entrepreneurs who went into owning a business with blind faith. And others who
gave up corporate jobs to pursue a business they had long dreamed of owning. I met a man
who who fell in love with Des Moines during a visit to the city from his home on the East Coast.
He opened a high-end men’s clothing and accessories shop in downtown Des Moines with the
intent on filling a need he saw in the metro.
The shop and its contents were beautiful and the owner an enthusiastic and friendly merchant.
The problem was that the pricy merchandise, while also high quality, didn’t jibe with the
traditional buying habits of the greater Des Moines market. After two years of struggling, the
There was also the young Des Moines entrepreneur who opened a shop in the ever-changing
Historic Valley Junction retail center. She offered a variety of women’s clothing and accessories
along with an impressive array of home goods, mostly antiques. She outgrew her space and
moved to a larger storefront nearby. She recognized her niche and the tourist traffic drawn to
the area and resisted moving to newer retail areas in the metro. She also successfully operated
holiday pop-up shops that tapped into a gift-buying market without investing in permanent
The common thread among many of the merchants I’ve written about is their drive to be
successful and their willingness to adapt to a changing market. Many stores added online
shopping, curbside pickup and other services to respond to customer needs during the
Restaurants, in particular, have had to find creative ways to offer patrons a safe and convenient
way to eat out. They’ve relied on food delivery services like Door Dash and Grubhub to get
their meals out. And they’ve expanded pickup services along with socially distanced indoor
dining. Not all of the service or food to go was perfect, but owners get kudos for trying to be
inventive in a difficult situation.
Others were not able to sustain the sudden drop in business and shuttered their restaurants. A
relatively new Brazilian steakhouse near downtown Des Moines closed during the pandemic as
did a wine bar in Valley Junction. The National Restaurant Association reports that more than
110,000 restaurants across the country closed this year due to Covid19.
As a reporter, it’s never fun to write about businesses that don’t make it. Most often owners
want to share their experience as well as what worked and what didn’t.
I’ll readily admit that I miss my days as a reporter. I loved meeting people and telling their
stories. I gave up the business two years ago when I was offered a buyout. I became weary of
relentless layoff worries and furloughs.
I’m encouraged that local newspapers like the Register continue to publish and offer stories
about local people and issues.
I still have great curiosity about circumstances when I see a closed sign on a business or I see
construction at a retail center. Some things never change.
Patt Johnson retired in January 2019 after spending 23 years at the Des Moines Register. She
started her journalism career in the 8th grade when she started a newspaper to inform her
classmates of all that was happening in school. From there it was all uphill (how could it not
be?). She covered the business beat at newspapers in Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois before
landing at the Register.