Tag Archives: retailers

Cities struggle as big box retailers fight to minimize tax assessments

Some big-box retailers in Wisconsin have successfully challenged their tax assessments by claiming they should pay the same rate as a store that’s closed and remains vacant.

Critics say that “dark store” legal loophole could cause municipalities to raise residential taxes to make up the difference.

The legal tactic is relatively new and has some cities struggling to keep up, according to Rocco Vita, chairman of the Wisconsin Association of Assessing Officers’ Legislative Committee.

“The stores have this very polished and professional legal team that peddles a product — property tax mitigation strategies,” Vita said. “All of a sudden, this strategy is gaining power in the Midwest. It has taken people by surprise.”

The Wisconsin Department of Revenue requires property tax assessors to account for the fair market value of a property. That includes both the value of the building and its location.

Retailers have successfully argued in court that there should be no tax difference between their thriving businesses and the vacant retailers down the block, Vita said.

In one case, Menards argued in a lawsuit filed in July that the value of its store in Fond du Lac assessed by the city at $9.2 million should be no more than $5.2 million. A similar lawsuit from Target argues that Fond du Lac should reduce its taxes on the retailer by about a third, according to USA Today Network-Wisconsin.

In another case, Oshkosh was ordered to pay Walgreens nearly $306,000 in overcharged taxes, plus court fees and interest. Last summer, two similar lawsuits surfaced from Menards and Lowe’s.

Oshkosh City Attorney Lynn Lorenson said municipalities are worried that as retailers win these lawsuits, more stores will follow. The limits of the loophole are unclear, she said.

“If one type of business or one type of property gets more favorable treatment, then everybody is going to be looking at that,” Lorenson said. “They’ll say, ‘If Walgreens had success, maybe we can use a similar argument.””

The League of Wisconsin Municipalities has helped draft legislation to plug the loophole, according to Curt Witynski, the league’s assistant director. The league hopes lawmakers will introduce in January.

Store rewards programs: Are they worth the hassle?

You grab the gallon of milk you forgot yesterday, pick up the cheapest toothpaste, and head over to the checkout line. Just when your quick trip to the grocery store is almost over, the employee at the register says, “Do you have a rewards card? It’s free to join.”

From department stores to drugstores, retailers are asking consumers to enroll in rewards programs, also called loyalty programs, for access to better deals. But signing up may not be worth the hassle. And getting stuck in line behind people using the cards makes you wish they’d disappear.

“First of all, you’re just going to be annihilated with emails,” says Kurt Jetta, CEO and founder of retail and consumer analytics firm TABS Analytics. “It’s not a weekly thing. It’s a daily thing for most of these retailers.”

The benefits of rewards programs, however, might include exclusive coupons, early access to sale events, and rewards points that can be redeemed for discounts or products. That lures many shoppers to sign up. The 2015 Colloquy Loyalty Census found that the average U.S. household is enrolled in 29 loyalty programs, but actively participates in only 12.

Rather than signing up for several rewards programs, it may be more beneficial to stick with one or two you’ll use frequently. Some retailers, such as Nordstrom and Best Buy, structure their programs so that the heaviest spenders reap the greatest rewards. To reach the highest tier of the My Best Buy program, for instance, members have to spend $3,500 in purchases per calendar year. This unlocks a longer returns and exchanges window (45 days compared with the standard 15) and more points for purchases (1.25 points for each dollar spent compared with 0.5 points).

“The perks really go with people who spend the most with a certain brand,” says Bob Phibbs, CEO of consultancy firm The Retail Doctor. Phibbs recommends looking over your credit card statement to get a sense of where your money is going. If your spending habits show you’re already loyal to a particular store or brand, you could get the most from a membership there.

If you’ve already signed up for several programs, read the fine print on promotions to help you cut back. Cancel memberships at stores that frequently send out offers with short expiration periods for points or strict purchase requirements.

Some rewards programs get better over time if you’re willing to wait. Jetta describes rewards programs as an agreement between the store and the shopper: Customers provide demographic or contact information to sign up for a program, and stores use the information to change programs in ways that could potentially retain more customers and increase spending.

In 2015, for example, Starbucks announced partnerships with Spotify and The New York Times to give members access to free music and content. “They could’ve built a program that was strictly based on buy 10 coffees, get one free, but they’ve now extended it across the store,” says Jeff Berry, senior director of research and development at data analytics company LoyaltyOne. “They’ve really tried to create relevant benefits to their customers.”

So when should you add another store rewards program card to your already crowded key ring? Enroll only if you shop at a store frequently and you’ll actually use the benefits.

Otherwise, politely decline when the cashier asks you to sign up.


New grant program aims to preserve State Street’s unique retail businesses

To prevent small, independent retailers in the State Street area from being squeezed out of existence by proliferating bars and restaurants, Madison is acting to preserve the quirky nature of its best-known retail district.

The Retail Improvement Grant Program, announced in early February, will offer retailers matching grants of up to $50,000 to assist with the costs of interior and exterior renovations. The program’s goal is to encourage property owners and independent retailers to reinvest in downtown.

“The strength of the downtown has always been in our mix of locally owned businesses,” says Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison Inc., which works closely with the central Business Improvement District.

The face of downtown Madison has changed in recent years, as millennials have flocked to new condo and apartment towers near cultural centers. As a result, the funky flavor of the city’s most densely populated area is changing, too.

Downtown Madison Inc. regularly surveys its market. In 1998 there were 47 restaurants and specialty foods/drink establishments. Today there are 99.

In 1989, food and drink establishments accounted for 21 percent of all State Street’s business space. That  doubled to 42 percent by 2014. During the same period, food and drink businesses skyrocketed from 8 percent to 24 percent of  ground floor space in the Capitol Square area.

news - images - Madison
Facade improvement at 1602 Gilson St. in Madison, made possible by a city program that’s now expanding to include interior improvements. (Photo: City of Madison)

Ruth Rohlich, the city’s business development specialist, witnesses the same trend in Austin, where her family lives. “(Austin’s) Sixth Street experienced a kind of turn like this,” she says. Shops gave way to restaurants and bars. There was a move there to revive retail, but “the difficult thing is that once that expense has occurred — in turning a retail space into space with restaurant/bar capability — it’s just so hard to turn those back.”

The Retail Improvement Grant program is designed to prevent such conversions from happening in the first place. Restaurants and bars are not eligible for the grants. Franchises are accepted if they can demonstrate a specified level of local control. Funding will come from the downtown Tax Incremental Financing district.

Madison is not alone in advancing such assistance. “Many major urban areas have some program like this,” says Rohlich. “The City of Milwaukee has a program like this. There are a number of cities where they call them ‘white box projects,’ where they’re more designed for business districts that maybe have some blight, and so it’s to help encourage retail to move in by helping to pay for some of the costs of initial improvement.

“Ours is a little bit different in that we do have a really successful, very hot market area, so ours is more geared toward preserving some of that independent retail flavor as more and more restaurants and bars begin to take up some of those spaces.”

The retail program uses the city’s Facade Grant Program as a model.

That program was launched in 2001 and deals only with exterior improvements in selected areas. “Since then we have done 84 grants totaling $1.1 million,” says Craig Wilson, housing rehabilitation specialist with the city’s community development division. “That investment has leveraged over $3.2 million in improvements to business facades in many of Madison’s oldest and most visible business districts.”

Another benefit, which is more difficult to measure, “is how the (façade) grants have facilitated businesses to make use of vacant, sometimes neglected buildings,” he says. “Transforming an eyesore into an integral part of the neighborhood adds not only to the tax base, but enhances overall health and desirability of those neighborhoods.”

Facade grant recipients include the Madison Children’s Museum and the oldest Alcoholics Anonymous clubhouse in the state. Another is State Street’s iconic Orpheum Theater, owned by the Paras family. The 1927 vaudeville and movie palace today is a venue for rock and other live concerts.

“The Facade Improvement Grant Program has been great,” says Mary Paras. The Orpheum received matching funds up $10,000 for each of its two entrances.

“On State Street we used the matching funds for installing a granite front, which more closely represents the original design,” she says. “On Johnson Street we used the matching funds to replace a large set of five doors. You could see the cars pass on Johnson Street through the cracks of the old doors, so the new doors are beautiful and help with energy costs.”

Rohlick is already helping several existing businesses with the new grant process. “We’re hoping as we market the program and work with the commercial brokers, we might get some new businesses as well,” she says.

“Our Facade Improvement Program is already a great success, helping small business owners as they strive to maintain the vitality of our community,” says Mayor Paul Soglin, who’s made the health of State Street a priority. “I’m pleased that the city is able to extend this further opportunity. We look forward to working with them.”

LGBT buying for ‘equality’ index delivered for Black Friday

Just in time for Black Friday and the holiday shopping season, the Human Rights Campaign released its consumer guide to hundreds of American companies rated on their LGBT-inclusive policies and practices.

The Buying for Workplace Equality guide, first issued more than a decade ago, provides consumer information based on company scores reported in HRC’s annual Corporate Equality Index, as well as HRC-researched data on additional well-known companies and their brands.

Through the CEI, the HRC Foundation proactively rates Fortune 500 companies and top law firms on LGBT-inclusive workplace policies and practices, and urges smaller companies to also participate. This year, new CEI criteria required that all participating  companies extend explicit LGBT non-discrimination protections to their employees worldwide.  

“Our annual Buying for Workplace Equality guide provides quick, user-friendly help in selecting everything from groceries to cars with LGBT equality in mind,” said Deena Fidas, director of HRC Foundation’s workplace equality program. “With the LGBT community’s buying power in the U.S. edging close to $900 billion, it just makes good business sense to embrace LGBT workplace inclusion.  Every year we hear from members of  the LGBT community and many other fair-minded consumers who want to choose brands that align with their priorities of workplace fairness. They check the buyer’s guide to ensure that their dollars go to businesses that support equality.”

The guide sorts businesses by sectors, assigning them a score ranging from zero to 100 based on LGBT workplace equality, as measured by the CEI and HRC-researched data.

The categories include:

  • Apparel & Accessories
  • Banking & Finance
  • Food & Beverage
  • Home & Garden
  • Restaurants
  • Technology

Businesses and their products are divided based on their rating into red, yellow and green categories so that consumers can easily determine which brands support LGBT workplace equality:

  • Green (80-100): Businesses/brands with the highest workplace equality scores.
  • Yellow (46-79): Businesses/brands that have taken steps toward a fair-minded workplace and receive a moderate workplace equality score.
  • Red (0-45): Businesses/brands that receive our lowest workplace equality scores

The new guide includes more than 570 companies — 449 of those are rated in the CEI and an additional 121 have been independently researched by the HRC Foundation. A total of 5,496 affiliated businesses and brands are featured in this year’s report. Companies independently researched have declined invitations to actively participate in the CEI; their scores are based on publicly-verifiable information.

‘Shop Sure’ when navigating Black Friday sales

The day after Thanksgiving was originally dubbed “Black Friday” as a negative — due to the crowds and, often, aggressive behavior.

But now Black Friday is a positive for many shoppers, especially those who love good deals. It’s the single busiest shopping day of the year.

Last year, nearly 140 million shoppers hit the stores, spending $50.9 billion. According to a National Retail Federation survey, this year’s holiday shoppers plan to spend an average $463 on family members, up from $458 last year.

Retailers are gearing up for the big day, especially the “big box” stores that sell name brand appliances, housewares, electronics and other popular gift items. Newspapers are stuffed with sale flyers, commercials are promoting “door buster” deals, and online ads promise the best bargains.

How much can shoppers save? NRF says items are discounted an average of 24 percent.

Wisconsin Better Business Bureau offers the following six tips to make your Black Friday shopping experience productive — and maybe even more enjoyable:

1. Learn about advertising tricks and gimmicks. The new BBB #AdTruth campaign highlights bad ads and helps you learn to identify the most common schemes and cons. Check it out at bbb.org/adtruth.

2. Do your research. Read product reviews, check out bbb.org for Business Reviews, look at the sales flyers and ads, compare prices, look for early promotions and “flash sales.” For tips on searching online, check out the new BBB Digital IQ project at bbb.org/digitalIQ.

3. Read the fine print. Some stores only honor sale ads during a certain time frame, or on certain days. Some stores may only allow you to purchase one item, particularly large, popular and/or deeply discounted products.

4. Know the advertiser. Some of the best deals are only available online, but be careful. It’s easy for a fake site to mimic a famous retailer’s website, so make sure you are shopping with a legitimate site. Check out bbb.org to read more about stores or websites unfamiliar to you.

5. Sign-up for email alerts. Many stores release their best Black Friday deals to people who have signed up to receive their emails. Just make sure it’s the real business and not a scammer.

6. Ask for gift receipts and save warranty information. A gift receipt can be tucked into a gift item or card so that the recipient can return or exchange a gift if it’s not just right. Be sure to pass along any information about returns, exchanges, repairs, and warranties to the person who will use the item.

Check out bbb.org to look up a business, file a complaint, write a customer review, report a scam, read tips, follow us on social media, and more!

ASK THE EXPERTS: The best gifts this holiday season

“Unwrap” gift recommendations from local experts.

WiG contacted seven local businesses and organizations, each of which offered their insight into what you should look for this holiday season.


Where: The Exclusive Company, locations in West Bend, Oshkosh, Appleton, Green Bay, Milwaukee, Greenfield and Janesville

In-house expert: Milwaukee store manager Brian Kirk

Best new LP: Adele’s 25 is the record to buy this season and available at the Exclusive Company starting on Nov. 20. $22 in vinyl.

Best classic rock LP: The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, whose Andy Warhol-designed cover has become as classic as the album. A real collector’s item. $25 in vinyl.

Classic jazz: John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, which will jazz up any holiday party. $15–25 in vinyl.

Best local CD: Milwaukee band Testa Rosa’s new CD, Testa Rosa III, showcasing Betty Blexud-Strigens’ striking voice. $11.


Where: Thief Wines

In-house expert: Owner Phil Bilodeau 

Best Chardonnay: Desparada 2013. From Edna Valley, California, this chardonnay is well balanced with lots of creamy butteriness and a nice acidity. $35.

Best Pinot Noir: Failla 2013. This classic pinot from the Sonoma Coast offers savory earthy notes and cherry/strawberry fruits. A nice wine to accompany dinner. $48.

Best Champagne: Michel Rocourt Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru. A grower Champagne (meaning they grow all their own grapes), this 100 percent chardonnay Champagne is a great value. $43.

Splurge wine: Pahlmeyer Jayson 2013. This red blend from Napa Valley is lush, hedonistic, full-bodied and offers a smooth finish. $54.


Where: Milwaukee Art Museum Store, 700 N. Art Museum Drive. 

In-house expert: Donele Pettit-Mieding, marketing and web store manager

Outstanding ornament: “Snowy Afternoon,” hand-painted by local artist Christiane Grauert, celebrates the winter season in Milwaukee at twilight and features the museum’s newly renovated lakefront galleries. Meet the artist and have her personalize your ornament on Dec. 3 11 a.m.-3 p.m. $24.

Best house guest gift: A set of Walking Milwaukee Cards, 10 mapped, self-guided walking tours of downtown Milwaukee that highlight the city’s iconic architecture. $20.

Clever colleague gift: The “Orbanizer,” a handcrafted wire ball, holds pens, utensils, craft tools and even flowers. $28.

Haute hostess gift: Midwest artist Laurie Freivogel’s handmade glass collection — silk screened images of vintage cameras on fused glass — celebrates the museum’s new exhibition, Larry Sultan: Here and Home, which runs through Jan. 24. Coasters, cheeseboards and trays run $18–$120. 


In-house expert: Dave Fantle, chief marketing officer for United Performing Arts Fund.

Best way to give back: Talk about the gift that keeps on giving — make a tax-deductible donation of $100 or more to UPAF and get a smart card offering two-for-one value on performances for each of UPAF’s 15 member groups, as well as discounts at local restaurants. $100.

Best holiday ballet: Milwaukee Ballet’s holiday chestnut, The Nutcracker, is truly a group effort, with featured performances from the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, 150 students from the Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy, and of course, the Milwaukee Ballet company. Through Dec. 27 at the Uihlein Hall Marcus Center. $25–$105.

Best holiday play: This season, Milwaukee Repertory Theater celebrates 40 years of staging Charles Dickens’ beloved classic, A Christmas Carol, on Dec. 24. Wisconsin actor Jonathan Smoots will return for his second year as Scrooge, along with a cast of Carol-ers old and new. Tickets are $35–$85.

Best after-the-holidays show to look forward to: The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra celebrates the work of multi-Tony Award-winning composer Jerry Herman, with a one-night-only performance featuring songs from Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage Aux Folles, among others. Jan. 13 at the Marcus Center. $20-$110.


Where: WELL Salon + Spa, Pfister Hotel, 424 E. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee.

In-house expert: Lisa Brandt, esthetician at Well Salon + Spa at the Pfister Hotel.

Best pampering package: The Pure Decadence package, featuring a hydrotherapy bath, an aroma glow body scrub and an hour-long massage or a facial, is the perfect way to eliminate holiday stress. $190.

Best pre-party prep: Airbrush makeup and a set of must-have party lashes create a flawless look for your party pics and selfies. Makeup, $85; lashes, $20.

Best me-too package: Give to you, your partner and your relationship with the You Plus Me package, which includes a luxurious couple’s massage and a couple’s hydrotherapy bath. $295.

Best treatment on the run: The Express Yourself package, featuring a 30-minute massage, an express facial and an express mani-pedi, is a welcome gift for the busy people in your life. $210.


Where: Boswell Books, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee.

In-house Experts: Book buyers Jason Kennedy and Anne Mechler-Hickson.

Best coffee table book of 2015: Milwaukee, City of Neighborhoods by local historian John Gurda and published by Historic Milwaukee, Inc. looks at 37 Milwaukee neighborhoods, from past to present. $45.

Best children’s book: With its gorgeous illustrations of homes of every kind — from an artist’s home to a bee’s home, a shoe home to a tree home, Home, by Car
son Ellis, offers insight into the meaning of “home sweet home.” $17.

Best cookbook: The Food Lab: Better Cooking Through Science, by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, teaches how to make the perfect pan-fried steak, homemade mac ‘n’ cheese, moist turkey and much more by using science as a guide. $50.

Best new series for teens: Set in a high-fantasy world similar to ancient Rome, Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes, the first in a series, tells the story of a slave fighting for her family and a young soldier fighting for his freedom. $20.


Where: Little Monsters, 2445 N. Farwell Ave., Milwaukee.

In-house expert: Owner Andie Zacher.

Best craft toys: Make-your-own snow globe/totebag/friendship bracelets/tiaras/swords and superhero masks are just the thing to conquer holiday break boredom. $21–$42.

Best musical toys: Encourage a love of music with a simple harmonica, an old-fashioned accordion or a microphone that comes with its own stand — not to mention background rhythms. $10–$55.

Best old school toys: All the stuff you grew up with is back, from the Simon game to Ross Across, plus record players, telephones, View-Masters, clocks from the ’60s and ’70s and all the old Fisher Price stuff. Let’s hope the kids get a chance to play too. $22–$40.

Best stocking stuffers: Sometimes the best gifts come in small sizes. Stuff their stockings with miniature toys, games, pretend play objects and a range of holiday candies. $5 and up.

Madison’s malls offer quirks and character

A community’s shopping destinations reveal a lot about a community’s character. Madison, the state’s second-largest city and the home to Wisconsin’s largest university, boasts stores that pack a lot of variety into a little bit of real estate.

Consider State Street, the mile-long pedestrian mall that connects the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus to the Capitol. The many shops along State Street reflect the quirkiness of the city’s academic, political and hipster influences.

Monroe Street runs southwest from Camp Randall Stadium, threading several older west side neighborhoods. The stores and galleries offer more upscale fare, but all are colored with Madison character.

In Madison, even the shopping malls, often the bane of urban existence, put a unique spin or two on the retail experience. Several warrant a visit as you complete your holiday gift list this season.

Hilldale Shopping Center, 426 N. Midvale Blvd., on the city’s near west side, may be one of Madison’s most emblematic malls — thanks to the nature of its tenants and the history of its founding and development.

Originally part of the Hillfarms neighborhood development that enabled Madison to continue its 1960s-era westward expansion, Hilldale sits on land that was once part of the UW School of Agriculture. A 1961 legal tussle between shopping center developers and the UW Board of Regents reached the U.S. Supreme Court, but the justices declined to hear the case. An agreement was reached and the shopping center finally opened on Oct. 25, 1962.

Fast forward 50-plus years to a new and vastly improved Hilldale, characterized by a bright new “street scene” shopping and dining experience to complement an adjoining enclosed mall. 

The space features cleverly designed parking structures and a row of private residence townhouses facing Midvale Boulevard, creating traffic and density issues significant enough to concern the mall’s residential neighbors.

Macy’s anchors Hilldale, occupying space formerly filled by Marshall Field’s and, originally, Gimbels. The upscale department store and its vast array of goods set the tone for the rest of the shopping community.

Sundance Cinemas 608, another anchor tenant that opened in 2007, was the first theater in Robert Redford’s Sundance Group to open in the United States. The six-screen cinema, named for the Madison area code, shows independent, foreign and first-run films with the feature of being able to reserve specific seats.

The smaller stores make Hilldale even more attractive.

Shopping for someone with a sweet tooth? Gigi’s Cupcakes offers creative and delicious baked goods. Specials through Nov. 29 include Apple Pie and Mama’s Butterscotch Bacon cupcakes.

Just down the “street,” DB Infusion Chocolates offers artisanal truffles. Our favorites include the Pomegranate-Malbec, made with pomegranate molasses, Malbec wine and rich dark chocolate. We also like Caribbean Fire, a mashup of Ecuadoran chocolate laced with chipotle peppers, nutmeg, allspice and jerk seasoning.

Upscale clothing is one of Hilldale’s hallmarks and there are few better places for men’s and women’s shoes and accessories than Cornblooms. Locally owned since the 1970s, the store offers one-stop shopping for footwear, handbags, jewelry, wallets, belts and novelty socks. Look for top brands, including Birkenstock, Frye, Dansko, Pikolinos, V Italia and Kanna.

Hilldale also is home to one of only two Anthropologie stores in Wisconsin. The company sells upscale clothing, shoes and home goods — and is a good place to start whether you’re looking for something boho-chic or suiting up for the next wedding.

If you really want to ramp things up, kate spade new york offers ultra chic clothing, shoes, handbags, housewares and gifts. One of only two kate spades in the state, the store’s motto is — “Buy what you love and you’ll never go wrong.” 

The shopping center features Madewell for great jeans — and everything that goes with them — and L’Occitane en Provence for skin and body care products.

On the far west side, commercial areas of Madison and Middleton blend seamlessly, offering a wealth of shopping options. High-end retail outlets tend to cluster at Greenway Station, an open-concept shopping mall at 1650 Deming Way in Middleton, where clothing, accessories and dining options dominate. But the shopping center is not without its economical stores, too.

Chico’s is a perennial favorite among women who want to look their best. The boutique’s artisan jackets and wrinkle-free Travellers collection have built a following.

A wide array of women’s clothing and accessories also can be found at J. Jill, Maurice’s and Soft Surroundings.

Nearby, Pendleton features enduring American style in its classic wool clothing and blankets. Featuring men’s and women’s fashions, the store offers goods woven in American mills for higher quality and that “made in America” cachet.

Athletes can get their game on at several Greenway stores. Total Hockey offers everything for the hockey and lacrosse players and fans in your life, including skate-sharpening and lacrosse stick-stringing services. 

Triathletes, runners and walkers will feel at home at Endurance House, which provides casual and serious athletes with shoes, gear and even a personalized movement profile that helps staff address a customer’s capabilities and needs.

Hunters and fly fishers can gear up at Orvis, home to the Distinctive Country Lifestyle line. Shoppers can find unique clothing and home furnishings while shopping for products for their dogs or even taking fly-fishing lessons.

Greenway Stations also offers Christopher & Banks and Marshalls for lower cost alternatives to chic designer togs and you can outfit your feet at DSW (aka Designer Shoe Warehouse) with the latest in discount fashion footwear.

Once you tire of shopping, you can top at Claddagh Irish Pub, Cold Stone Creamery or any other of Greenway Station’s many restaurants for a pick-me-up and chances to review your purchases.

Remember, if you buy what you love — even if it’s a pint of Guinness stout or two scoops of your favorite frozen confection mixed before your eyes on a frozen granite slab — you’ll never go wrong.

Give the gift that lasts forever: A great experience

Buying presents for people is hard. So stop doing it — and get them something they’ll like even better.

Both scientific studies and good old common sense are increasingly arguing that material goods aren’t as fulfilling as shared experiences. According to one study by psychologist Thomas Gilovich, while people believe buying or receiving things will bring them happiness and satisfaction, it’s actually experiences — vacations, group adventures, time spent with friends and family — that provide long-term happiness.

That’s great to know in theory. Now put it into practice. In addition to all the boxes you’re thinking of putting under the proverbial tree this holiday season, consider some of these experiential options for your gift list.


Throughout childhood, kids are tasked with making art — finger-paintings, doodles, Play-Doh sculptures. As adults, we rarely have the luxury of artistic creation.

Perhaps that’s why the idea of painting and drinking has taken off across the country — it’s the perfect blend of juvenile and grown-up relaxation.

The concept is simple: show up, have a drink, paint something. Most of the time, you’re led by an instructor, but many groups also offer free painting days, when you can explore independently.

For a good example of what you can expect, consider Splash Studio, 184 N. Broadway, Milwaukee (splashmilwaukee.com). Co-owner Marla Poytinger and husband David opened the painting bar in 2012 as a way to blend her background in arts management and his former work in logistics for the beer industry.

Splash offers eight or nine three-hour sessions a week, each featuring a local artist, for $29 ($34 on select days). When participants arrive, Splash provides them with a canvas, easel, paint, brushes and an apron, as well as a full-service bar. The artist then walks the group through the session’s featured painting — although Marla says participants are free to paint something of their own choosing.

At the end of the session, the painters get to take the original art home, which means giving someone a Splash Studio experience is, in a way, giving a material gift too.

Splash specifically caters to an adult crowd (participants have to be 15 or older), and only has a Milwaukee location, so it may not be the perfect gift for recipients who would want to bring their kids or who live outside southeast Wisconsin. Other painting bar options to consider: Vino and Van Gogh (Madison, vinoandvangoghmadison.com), PaintBar (Delafield and Madison, paint-bar.com), A Stroke of Genius (Waukesha, paintwinestudio.com) and national franchise PaintNite, which holds its events in bars and other venues throughout southeast Wisconsin (paintnite.com).


Have a friend who’d rather get out of the house than get a gift? Two smart, scrappy startups offer a solution: A modern-day twist on the coupon book that’ll feel adventurous, not cheap.

The more established of the startups is City Tins (citytins.com), started by Christin Cilento Ladky and Tara Laatsch as a fundraiser idea. The company sells tins of coasters that double as coupons for area businesses, offering gift recipients a more affordable night out and an excuse to try new things. All tins are $30.

The company offers restaurant and bar & lounge coaster sets for Milwaukee and Madison. Each tin contains more than 20 coasters offering $10 off a $25 tab. New this year in Milwaukee is a performing arts tin, with each coaster providing a buy one, get one ticket offer. And Ladky says the company hopes to launch a pet goods-focused tin in the spring to target a new niche and to give something to offer after the other tins sell out during the holiday season — as they always do.

If your gift recipient is really just a beer person, you could try this year’s PubPass (getpubpass.com). PubPass offers a passport-like booklet for $25 that entitles the holder to free beer at 25 local establishments throughout Milwaukee. Co-founder Jake Nyberg says the company pursues bars that are “places we would take our friends who were in from out of town.” Most, but not all, of the 25 bars specialize in craft beer.


For many people, being trapped in a room with no easy way out would be a nightmare. For the rest, consider offering them an opportunity to jump on a new 2015 trend: escape rooms.

Already a hit abroad, escape rooms have been springing up across the United States over the past few years, as entrepreneurs hop on the bandwagon. Essentially, escape rooms are real-life versions of puzzle mysteries that are ubiquitous across other forms of media — like the Sherlock Holmes stories, The Da Vinci Code and National Treasure — in which a hero or group has to decode a series of increasingly complex clues to get out of a room before time runs out. In the real-world version, the consequences of time running out are much lower, but the challenge provides a thrill that increases the excitement of solving each consecutive puzzle.

Themes of individual rooms vary, as do difficulties. Escape Chambers (escapechambers.com), a franchise with locations in Milwaukee and Madison, has rooms like “The Assignment” (group members play FBI agents trying to prove a history professor is a criminal mastermind), “The Heist” (groups are thieves hoping to rob an art gallery and get away with it) or “The Raid” (a drug raid turns bad when the group finds a time bomb instead). Because a room isn’t fun for participants after they solve it — or if they solve it — escape room companies will change rooms throughout the year.

Tickets for rooms average around $30, but vary from company to company. For other options, consider checking out: Escape Room Wisconsin (Appleton and Green Bay, escaperoomwisconsin.com), EscapeMKE (Milwaukee, escapemke.com) and Seven Keys to Escape (Racine, sevenkeystoescape.com).

Shop local at Milwaukee’s top retail districts

Having trouble finding that perfect gift this year? Braving Black Friday or adventuring on Amazon.com are not the only options. Milwaukee’s diverse shopping districts offer a variety of opportunity and options for every sort of gift recipient — from the fashionista to the quirky uncle and everything in between.


Perhaps the best place to start discussion of Milwaukee’s shopping districts is the Third Ward. Just south of downtown, the district is packed to the brim with boutiques, galleries and specialty shops, thanks to a successful campaign in the ’90s and early ’00s to draw businesses to the area. Much of the development has continued southward, into Walker’s Point, but the best shopping still remains in this small neighborhood — perfect for a weekend afternoon of wandering.

Third Ward businesses have a reputation for high price points, but there are options for the cost-conscious shopper. 

The big news in the district is the new West Elm store, 342 N. Water St. The modern home decor and furniture store opened in June, amid a great deal of hype from devotees and newcomers. While West Elm is part of a Williams-Sonoma-owned chain, Milwaukee’s store features a curated selection of products from Wisconsin artists as part of its LOCAL initiative. So you don’t have to feel too guilty about shopping at a national outlet instead of something closer to home (westelm.com).

Boutiques are one of the Third Ward’s main draws, and it’d take a full article to go through them all. One that stands out among the crowd is Denim Bar, 317 N. Broadway. Whether your loved ones are hopping back on the ’90s trend and hoping to deck themselves out from head to toe, or if they just need a nice designer pair of jeans, this should be your first stop. Denim Bar offers Wisconsin’s largest selection of denim for both men and women. Denim Bar also features a number of options from owner Heidi Darrow Mains’ original gig, online boutique Stella’s Trunk, featuring luxury gift items from around the world (denimbarmke.com).

You might also consider popping into Lizzibeth, one of the newest additions to the Third Ward. Formerly a pop-up fashion boutique that sold jewelry and clothing in random stores, restaurants and homes, as well as online, Lizzibeth now has a brick-and-mortar location at 550 E. Menomonee St. Owner Lizzi Weasler opened the store in November 2014. A year later, the store is a solid addition to the neighborhood, offering affordable women’s fashion options, with most jewelry priced under $40 and most everything else under $100 (lizzibeth.com).

You know what goes with new clothes? New shoes. And Shoo, 241 N. Broadway, has been the Third Ward’s top place to pick up unique footwear for more than a decade, specializing in hard-to-find footwear lines from the States and abroad. Operated by siblings Kate and Pat Blake, the store is known for its inventory, customer service and antique decor — creating an exceptional shopping experience in a store with a homey feel. For Madisonians, Shoo recently opened a location on State Street (shoostore.com).

If your giftee is the outdoorsy type more obsessed with function than fashion, the Third Ward has an answer. Clear Water Outdoor, 250 N. Water St., is an outdoor clothing and gear store offering such top brands as Patagonia, Mountain Hardwear and Arc’teryx. In addition, the store offers kayak, cross-country ski and snowshoe rentals and lessons

Wrap up a Third Ward shopping experience with a trip to Red Elephant Chocolates, 333 N. Broadway, to complete your list and pick up a tasty reward for yourself. Red Elephant specializes in handmade chocolates, including special seasonal batches, and their product is a perfect stocking stuffer


What the boundaries of Milwaukee’s “East Side” are may differ from person to person, but there’s no denying that traveling north of downtown along Lake Michigan you will find exceptional shopping opportunities. From Brady Street and North Avenue up toward Downer Avenue and Shorewood, there’s a string of businesses worth checking out.

Start with the artsy options of East Meets West, 918 E. Brady St., an Asian art, clothing, accessories and gift shop. With most of its inventory purchased by the owner in her native Thailand, the eclectic shop is packed with one-of-a-kind men’s and women’s apparel and accessories that can’t be found anywhere else in the city.

Further down Brady, you can stumble across Uncommon Items, 1316 E. Brady St. This small boutique doesn’t look like much from the street, but inside it’s stuffed with affordable women’s apparel and handcrafted jewelry, with a bohemian aesthetic

Buying for pet lovers? You won’t want to miss EcoPet, 1229 E. Brady St., a local pet shop with an emphasis on healthy treats and accessories. The shop’s offerings include dog pizza slices and smoothies, natural and organic catnip and a wide selection of affordable travel gear and accessories that the humans’ll love.

Or, if you’re buying for parents of cuddly humans instead of cuddly pets, try Little Monsters, 2445 N. Farwell Ave. This vivid little shop features quirky toys, clothing and miscellaneous other items — and it is designed more for discovering that one special gift than the latest, most on-trend sensation (littlemonstersmilwaukee.com). 

Beans and Barley, 1901 E. North Ave., is best known for its restaurant and deli, but its adjacent specialty market is an out-of-the-box option for loved ones. Plus, while you’re browsing through Beans and Barley’s selection of natural bath and body care items, magazines and books, and food and wine options, you might find something for yourself to take home! (beansandbarley.com)

Still looking for one last thing? That’s exactly what Shorewood’s Mod Gen, 2107 E. Capitol Drive, is for. Around since 2001 as the Garden Room, Mod Gen recently rebranded as a 21st-century general store, expanding to offer more books, home goods, specialty foods, toys and more. (modgenmke.com)


Bay View isn’t just where Milwaukee 30-somethings go to settle down. It’s also a great place for Milwaukeeans of all kinds to find unusual, hip gifts for their artistic and adventurous friends, and the influx of residents to the area over the past few years has come with a similar influx of high-quality businesses.

Take Sparrow Collective, 2224 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., as an example of the Bay View aesthetic you can find all along KK Avenue and its tributaries. The artistic consignment store, established in 2009 after similar shops shut their doors, features handcrafted art, jewelry and decor by individual artists and groups — and a lot more of it than you’d think from the modest facade.

But not every Bay View gift destination is a new addition. Rush Mor Records, 2635 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., is Milwaukee’s oldest record store, founded in 1971. It’s also still an essential a place to shop for vinyl lovers, fresh off an exterior makeover earlier this year and packed with music from across every genre and era. (rushmor.com)

If it’s old clothes instead of old records you have in mind, you’re in luck. Bay View’s an antiques, vintage and thrift store hub, with more options than we can list. One of the more established choices is Tip Top Atomic Shop, 2343 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., a kitschy treasure trove of vintage clothing and household goods that’s a retro aficionado’s dream. 

You seldom go wrong gifting a good book, which makes Bay View Books and Music, 2653 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., a must-browse stop. The store is one of Milwaukee’s few old-timey, claustrophobic-in-the-best-way shops not to either close or relocate in the past few years. The shop stocks a healthy assortment of records and DVDs, too. Bonus: The entrance bleeds seamlessly into R Vintage N More, an overstuffed furniture and antique mall that shares the space with the bookstore.

Wrap up the gift hunt with one of the best-smelling places in Milwaukee: Halo Soap, 2227 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. This storefront owned by soapmaker Stacie Cherubini stocks handmade soaps, bath bombs, skin care products and more. Technically, you can also buy any of Halo’s products online, but that’s a terrible, unscented decision. (halosoap.com)

Oregon marijuana shops begin sales to recreational users

Oregon marijuana shops began selling marijuana on Oct. 1 for the first time to recreational users, marking a big day for the budding pot industry.

Some of the more than 250 dispensaries that already offer medical marijuana in Oregon opened their doors soon after midnight— just moments after it became legal to sell to anyone who is at least 21.

At Portland’s Shango Premium Cannabis, co-founder Shane McKee said the first sale to an excited customer came about a minute after midnight, with many others waiting.

“It looks like there is about 60-70 in line out front,” he said in a telephone interview shortly after midnight. “They all seem extremely eager.”

That first buyer, Davia Fleming of Portland, said the sales launch was important.

“I was really excited about that,” said Fleming, who uses the drug for medicinal purposes. “It’s the end of a prohibition.”

She described the atmosphere inside the store as “beautiful. … very friendly; everyone is upbeat.”

Store owners say they’re hopeful they can avoid the shortages and price spikes that followed the start of legal sales last year in Washington and Colorado, the only other states where the drug can now be sold for recreational use. Alaska could begin retail sales next year.

Many stores in Oregon were trying to lure customers with extended hours, food giveaways and discounted marijuana.

McKee said his store offered its first 25 customer a 35-40 percent discount. The store was also handing out soda, coffee, juice and other refreshments.

But he also pointed to what he considered the significance of the moment.

“I think it’s not only historical for folks in Oregon but nationwide — anytime people start selling that as an alternative to alcohol or tobacco.”

Shoppers have one more incentive to buy early and often: Under Oregon law, pot purchases will be tax-free until January — a savings of up to 20 percent.

One store was offering a goody bag with T-shirts, but no free marijuana. Another will have a live band and 10 percent discounts. The marijuana review site Leafly will set up with food trucks at a handful of stores, giving away free meals to anyone who promotes the service on social media.

Several stores have erected billboards in Portland. A shop in Merlin is advertising on the radio.

“I’m just trying to basically stock up for maybe four or five times what the normal volume would be,” said Chris Byers, owner of River City Dispensary in the southern Oregon town of Merlin.

Customers can buy as much as seven grams at a time of dried marijuana flower and leaf — the part that’s generally smoked — plus plants and seeds. For the next year or so, marijuana infused candy, cookies, oils and lotions will be available only to people with medical marijuana cards as the state works on retail regulations involving those products.

Oregon has a robust supply system for marijuana that has supported medical marijuana users and the black market. Companies have invested in massive warehouses in Portland to grow the drug indoors, and southern Oregon has some of the nation’s best conditions for outdoor cultivation of marijuana.

Growers don’t face strict regulations yet, so the supply can more easily flow into retail stores than it did in Washington and Colorado.

Still, there’s concern. Summer has historically been a time of marijuana shortages in Oregon, and most of the outdoor crop isn’t ready to harvest. Indoor growers have had minimal time to ramp up production, since lawmakers only approved the Oct. 1 start date three months ago.

“We have kind of a seasonal growing market here in Oregon,” said Jeremy Pratt, owner of Nectar Cannabis, which has four stores in Portland. “We have lots of product in the fall, and then it kind of gets tight this time of year anyway.”