Summer can be brutal for business, but it doesn't have to be

Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

Campus Corner is full of people during the fall, and especially on OU game days. But the summer slowdown is very real and can be hurtful for businesses. But it doesn't have to be with some knowledge and a preparation.

Anyone who's lived in Norman long enough knows how to handle Campus Corner on game days. During the football season, street closings and the surge of fans and University of Oklahoma students creates a traffic nightmare. But it's boom time for local businesses.

Contrast that with the height of summer. The students are gone, it's hot, and that familiar college town buzz for bars, boutiques and restaurants evaporates with the spring rain.

Or does it?

Norman businesses -- those on Campus Corner particularly -- will tell you summer time is definitely slower. From the end of May to mid-August, at the absolute earliest, the normal wave of customers shifts to a new migration schedule, and this can spell disaster for businesses if they don't prepare.

"For the businesses who have been down here, they know how it works," Jeff Stewart, owner of O'Connell's Irish Pub and Grille at 769 Asp Ave., said. "The new businesses who are going into their first or for some maybe their second summer, they can get caught off guard pretty easily. But everybody who works a lot with the university -- because it revolves around the university -- they're accustomed to it and plan accordingly."

Scotty Jackson, co-owner of Apple Tree Chocolate at 754 Asp Ave., said the first summer was toughest. The lack of foot traffic resulted in revenue that was less than half of what was expected.

But over the years, they and many other businesses have learned. For example, more families will visit Apple Tree together in the summer, Jackson plans accordingly.

"We get less transactions, but it's more families," Jackson said. "The amount per the transaction is more."

Jackson said he also thinks permanent Norman residents are starting to recognize what summer time means for Campus Corner. It's quieter, there's more parking available, and that means an easier time enjoying all the shops and restaurants there.

"Campus Corner has always been my favorite during the summer, because to the ones that know, parking is easier," he said. "I guess a lot of Norman has been clued into that."

But just because the academic year has come to an end, that doesn't mean all the students are gone. In fact, general manager Allison Tompkins said it has helped keep business up at clothing store Lucca, 319 W Boyd St..

"At the very beginning of the summer, business definitely slowed down," Tompkins said. "But we've been busy with all of the student orientations. It seems like there have been a lot of them."

June and July are big months for student orientation. Soon-to-be OU freshmen come to campus for a few days for tours and to get themselves prepared for the fall semester to come.

"It's a wonderful program they put on, throughout June and July," Stewart said. "That helps. We get an awful lot of people for that. And then the camps."

Band camps, cheerleading camps, football and basketball camps; they all bring in customers, Stewart said. O'Connell's still gets its usual rush: lunch, dinner and then the late night crowd.

"But each of those numbers in the hills and valleys is smaller in the summer," he said.

Another thing orientation and university events bring is parents. While the kids are off learning about their new life on campus, moms and dads will head off to see what Norman is all about.

"The parents get an idea of where [students] can come back to," Paige Beal, who has been the owner of Tulips Home and Gift store at 570 Buchanan Ave. for about five years, said.

And just as the orientation crowd begins to wind down, Tompkins said the sorority rush crowd ramps up starting in August. From there, it's downhill into the fall season.

That doesn't mean stores don't prepare. Jackson said Apple Tree will change the way it buys inventory, and Lucca takes the time to sell off its current stock to make way for new fashions for back-to-school shopping.

Deb Clark and Natasha Rice own Sandalwood & Sage at 322 E Main St. -- though their corporation is still called Mystic Forest Treasures, which Rice opened on Lindsey Street and later Campus Corner in the early '90s.

Though the impact of OU students leaving in the summer doesn't hit Main Street businesses quite as hard, the season still forces Clark and Rice to make some changes.

"We buy heavier in March, so the store is stocked as we head into summertime," Rice said. "We're always buying, but we're more mindful about it in the summer."

Clark also owned a store on Campus Corner before joining forces with Rice. Even now on Main Street, she said the impact of OU parents making the shopping rounds is visible.

"That is a whole level of tourism," Clark said. "They want to see what kind of town is this that I'm sending my kid to."

Stewart said the most important thing for him over the summer is making sure O'Connell's employees are taken care of. If customer numbers are low, that makes tips hard to come by for bartenders and servers.

"The main thing you want to worry about is your core staff," Stewart said. "You have to take care of them. So many get tips, and tips are going to be down because there's less people. So you want to help them in any way you can."

To try to supplement this, O'Connell's will hold bingo nights, and Stewart said the pots can get pretty big. The most recent one was $1,100, and he said they will do another one in July.

Businesses also use the much more calmer summer atmosphere to their advantage. Apple Tree will host family-friendly events like chocolate dipping classes, while O'Connell's will push new or slower-moving items to customers to see what works and what needs to be re-worked.

And while it is not the most glamorous part about running a business, the summer time is ideal for cleaning.

For those who have learned, summer time doesn't have to be the hot, barren wasteland it may seem. But of course, after the Fourth of July buzz settles down and August comes around, everyone's ready to get back to normal.

"We're all ready for the students to come back and that excitement that comes with it," Rice said.