Hitting the pavement

BY NAT ALDER | JULY 17, 2014 5:00 AM

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Nothing is more primed for a good sale than downtown Iowa City. Starting today, the tables will be set, the racks and tents assembled, and signs hanged, marking the arrival of the district’s 46th-annual Sidewalk Sales, running today through Saturday.

The premise for the sale is simple: Stores located in downtown that choose to participate place various products outside of their stores — with the only stipulation being that stores must offer products with some sort of discount. The event was originally started in 1968 by the Iowa City Downtown District with the idea that businesses could clean out their old inventories in order to prepare for the fall season. As the years went on, popularity grew. Now, there are 43 businesses participating in the sale, with products ranging from athletics shoes to telephoto lenses.

Among the more popular items sold during the three-day shopping bonanza is clothing. Stores downtown such as Revival, 117 E. College St., a women’s boutique offering new, used, and vintage articles and accoutrements thrive during the event. Anna Wickes, the head of press and marketing at Revival, believes the sale can be used to unify customers, especially those who aren’t familiar with the day-to-day operations of the downtown businesses.

“I would say [Sidewalk Sales] is a way to reach outside of the downtown world,” Wickes said. “There’s not a particular reason like a holiday or anything like that, but it’s a fun excuse to get people downtown shopping as a group.”

The boutique’s sale includes a store-wide discount for all products and a Men’s Pop-Up sale, inwhich new and used men’s clothing will be available. One style that’s trending right now at the clothes supplier the 1990s.

“Especially this summer, it’s a lot of ’90s throwback, a lot of florals,” Wickes said. “We can’t keep secondhand high-waist vintage shorts in stock to save our lives.”

A major component to Iowa City’s retail culture is the concept of resale, the sale of previously owned items, like books, video games, or Members Only jackets. Stores such as Revival are a goldmine for clothing of the pre-owned kind.

“Resale has always been a part of retail,” Wickes said. “Since the day after somebody first ever sold something, somebody resold that thing to somebody else.”

Wickes says resale’s growing popularity can be linked to the buyers increasing infatuation with items of the past — an infatuation Wickes sees as stemming from a more recent pop-culture phenomenon.

“In the last few years, vintage became popular — I think ‘Mad Men’ had a lot to do with that aesthetic,” Wickes said. “And from there, resale became more visible and more accepted as part of retail.”

Another reason resale maintains its popularity in the Iowa City landscape is the freedom buyers have to truly customize their own appearance, to be at once both individual and trendy. Plus, it’s cheap.

“It allows you a lot more flexibility in terms of putting together your own style,” Wickes said. “You can get items from different eras, you can get items that are really well-made. You can try out trends for $6.”

While stores such as Revival have the geographical advantage of actually being located next to a sidewalk, some businesses are not so lucky. But while certain places may not have a sidewalk to sell on, owners and managers are still encouraged to whip out the discount. Stores as Sweets and Treats in the Old Capitol Town Center follow this model with great success. Monique Holtkamp has owned the store for three and a half years and has had her store participate in the Sidewalk Sales each of those.

“For the Sidewalk Sales, we’ll offer crazy deals that you generally won’t find here,” she said. “It’s neat to be a part of it, and we are inside, in a mall, but we do really well. People know we’re here.”

Products for sale at Sweets and Treats this weekend include a large variety of chocolate.

“Chocolate-covered gummy bears, organic cocoa nibs, European chocolate bars,” Holtkamp said. “We have a chocolate right now that pops. It’s called the Firecracker.”

Holtkamp believes that, like Revival, nostalgia is a hook for the customers.

“Retro is big,” she said. “I find that people love to reminisce; they love to come to my shop and find things they haven’t seen since their childhood.”

Betsy Potter, the director of operations for the Iowa City Downtown District Association, believes the event facilitates businesses’ access to eager shoppers while successfully promoting the area’s various establishments.

“This is the promotional event of our businesses,” she said. “We’re just here to create a cohesive messaging and marketing effort, because we think that works really well — when we market the whole downtown for Sidewalk Sales rather than one individual business trying to do it on its own.”

She knows the sales may last only three days, but the results go a long way.

“It’s a sale for one weekend,” Holtkamp said. “But it gives you the opportunity to gain new and potential lifetime followers.”

And why people are so sure shoppers will flock to downtown this weekend? Wickes has an answer.

“We’re Midwesterners,” she said. “We love a good deal.”

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