New Berlin-based Callisters Christmas has built a loyal following selling its customized Christmas ornaments, gifts and decorations at regional malls every holiday season since 1991.
Its mobile kiosks turned into pop-up shops as inventory grew over the past three decades, from 400 ornaments to now 5,000. This year for the first time, Callisters opened its own stand-alone storefront, at the Brookfield Fashion Center on West Bluemound Road.
Expanding outside of malls had been a longtime goal of the family-owned business. The biggest obstacle was the concern that a stand-alone store wouldn't perform as well as its mall locations without the natural foot traffic. But with little availability at local malls this year, Callisters took the leap.
"It was the perfect decision for us and the company," said Michele Zelenak, who founded Callisters with her two sisters. They currently run the business with their husbands and three members of the second generation.
Not only is the Brookfield storefront bringing in foot traffic, Zelenak said, it has also helped expose the brand to a whole new set of customers who had previously never heard of Callisters.
"That's partly due to our own decisions," she said. "We haven't marketed ourselves widely enough throughout the years. We're old school brick and mortar. When the second generation came in, they really pushed us into going online and much more social media marketing."
Plus, the expansive 5,000-square-foot space allows shoppers to physically distance while browsing.
Callisters operates an e-commerce site as well as seasonal locations at Wisconsin State Fair, Minnesota State Fair, and Mall of America in Minneapolis. Sales so far this season have been "incredible" across the board, said Zelenak. "People are not hesitating; they're not hesitating at all. They're just buying," she said.
That checks out with the National Retail Federation's October forecast that holiday sales during November and December would surpass last year's record high by 8.5% to 10.5%. Early signs of that trend were clear in summer, when Callisters opened its doors at Mall of America to what Zelenak described as "crazy shopping and spending."
"Everything is selling. Items that we wouldn't sell more than a dozen of a year, we can't keep on the shelf," she said.
Despite steady sales, 2021 has been "the most challenging year ever" from a supply chain standpoint, she said. Without the industry's trade shows last year, vendors scaled back on purchases, which means Callisters stocked its shelves with half of what it would normally order.
Now as the store engages with a new customer base, it's frustrating that it's not able to deliver the full Callisters experience with a full inventory selection.
Meanwhile, prices are rising. Callisters ordered inventory in January without knowing how high demand would be, and when it tried reordering some large ticket items in August, wholesale prices had risen by $10 per item -- not to mention fuel surcharges and the rising cost of freight.
But that doesn't mean shoppers have to help bear the burden this holiday season, said Zelenak.
"There's no way you can pass these things on if it's a temporary thing," she said. "We're going with the prices we established in January and hoping that next year things will come back down to the normal that we knew."