Wilton's WinterFest helps boost local businesses struggling during pandemic

WILTON — Rebranded as the Wilton Chamber of Commerce’s WinterFest, the two-week event focused on supporting local businesses this year amid the pandemic.

Camille Carriero, the chamber’s executive director, said many local small business owners have experienced even bigger dips in sales during the traditionally slow post-holiday lull.

“At this time of the year, it is usually a lot slower after the busy holiday shopping season,” said Cate Finnecy, owner of Classically Cate’s in Wilton.

Classically Cate’s, a quaint boutique, opened in October 2019. It was Finnecy’s first foray into the small business sector. Just months later, Finnecy, a 2014 Wilton High School grad, was faced with a new set of challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a really interesting obstacle to be faced with. From not having a huge amount of experience prior to the pandemic, to not really open with all the restrictions, to then being closed and then reopening,” Finnecy said, detailing the challenges she faced during the early months of the pandemic, when most of the businesses around her were also trying to find level footing.

“(It) gave me the ability to develop my model of business with COVID-19,” Finnecy explained. “It gave me time to really figure out innovative ways to bring business in and it has definitely been a learning experience. I will continue to innovate, try new things and take it day by day.”

Experimenting with a new approach was Carriero’s goal. Last summer, she started devising this plan to put into action in early February. Over the first two weeks of this month, residents purchased a gift card from a list of chamber businesses. They then could send a a photo of the receipt to the chamber and be mailed a bonus gift certificate worth 20 percent of the card’s total. That bonus gift certificate was eligible to be used at various other small businesses around Wilton, Carriero said.

Although the first day was marred by a big winter storm, the promotion bounced back.

To attract more foot traffic to the area, Wilton Center was decorated with ice sculptures and winter decorations on the promotion’s closing day. A socially distanced meet and greet with a “snowman” was set up last Saturday.

The focus of Carriero, though, was unwavering, and many participating small businesses took advantage.

“I thought it was a great program,” said Pat Blossom, of River Road Art Gallery in Wilton. “I sent an email out to 4,000 customers. I made the message short and sweet, but I knew that 4,000 of them wouldn’t be checking their email for it. That is why I followed up.”

Blossom started calling some of her clientele. She said the overwhelming response from those who ended up participating in the program was appreciation for Blossom’s persistence and clarity in her explaining the details of the promotion.

Carriero initially had set a cap for the amount of money that could be shelled out in bonus certificates from the chamber. Blossom said once that cap was raised, thanks to a sponsorship that she helped facilitate, she was comfortable aiming to sell as many gift certificates to shoppers as she could muster.

“We sold a $1,200 gift card and an $800 gift card, so that was $2,000 right there,” she said. “Others bought (gift cards) for $400 and $300.”

Blossom said the month’s additional $2,500 strictly from large-purchase gift card sales during the chamber’s promotion was “gravy,” but sold more than double that total after tallying all of the marks on the final day.

“We sold about $6,000 worth of gift cards,” she said, equating to roughly $1,200 of usable credit via chamber gift certificates for locals to use in other Wilton small businesses.

Blossom informed each customer who bought a gift card from her store to expect a bonus gift certificate to come from Carriero and the chamber.

For newer Wilton businesses, like Finnecy’s, the program still helped to achieve more visibility and promoted shopping locally.

“I thought it was a great way to bring the community together, while still maintaining social distancing,” Finnecy said. “Having that sense of community even now, seeing new displays that people were putting up in windows, it gave people the chance to explore new shops in town.”

She said that although residents may have lived in Wilton for years, they may not have shopped at a number of the town’s local small businesses, and the WinterFest, an idea that Carriero has worked on since last summer, is really promoting trying new local shops.