Despite the closures which resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic, retail sales in Madison remained strong during the first five months of the year, according to Eric Hortness, executive director of the Greater Madison Area Chamber of Commerce.

"Our April and May numbers were down, but not down as much as expected," he said.

In fact, sales in Madison were up 1.43% during the first five months of the year when compared to sales during that same period in 2019. A similar increase was seen in some larger communities like Sioux Falls, which saw an increase of 0.6%, and Aberdeen, which saw an increase of 9.4%. However, sales were down in other communities, such as Brookings, which saw a decrease of 4.85%, and Vermillion, which was down 2.1%.

Hortness credits community support for local businesses with the strong sales numbers.

"It typically works the other way with businesses supporting fundraisers and youth events," he said. "It's great to see the community help businesses get through this mess."

The Chamber was actively engaged in helping to pump money into the local businesses, especially retailers, during this period, Hortness reported. Two programs were especially effective -- the Gift Cards for Good program and the "We're all in This Together" T-Shirts.

Area shoppers received a 20% discount on gift cards purchased through the Gift Cards for Good program. Thirty-seven area retailers, including boutiques, restaurants and convenience stores participated in the program, according to Hortness. The discount was possible due to a joint effort between the Chamber, which contributed 10%, and the businesses themselves, which contributed a matching 10%.

"We ended up selling $48,525 in gift cards," Hortness said.

The Chamber helped both shoppers and businesses remain safe during this time by taking the orders, picking up the gift cards, and sending them to those who took advantage of the deal. For some, the deal with sweetened when they received a match from another local business.

"When we first rolled that out, we had a business that contributed $5,000 to a matching fund," Hortness indicated. "If you were one of the first people who bought a gift card, you received a match, so you received $200 for an $80 price."

He said they set a cap at $50,000 when they started the gift card program and didn't know how long it would take to reach that point. Due to its popularity, the Chamber ended it in four weeks.

With the T-shirt program, individuals could designate a local business to support with the purchase of a T-shirt bearing a design which stated, "We're all in this together."  The T-shirts sold for $20, of which half went to local businesses. Hortness reported 450 shirts were sold.

"Four thousand, five hundred dollars went back to our local businesses from that program," he said.

Both programs were promoted through social media and on the Chamber's weekly online newsletter, Monday Minutes.

Another way in which area shoppers have shown their support for the community is by purchasing Mad Money, according to Hortness. In 2019, between March 15 and May 30, the Chamber sold $9,545 in Mad Money. During that same period in 2020, the Chamber sold $26,286 in Mad Money for a difference of $16,741.

Hortness said some businesses purchased Mad Money for their employees to encourage local shopping. While not all cards have been redeemed, during the timeframe indicated, $18,524.17 was redeemed, which was an increase of $8,179 over 2019.

"It goes back to community members wanting to be supportive of our businesses," he stated.

While noting area successes, Hortness did concede that businesses were affected by the COVID pandemic which resulted in the way they could provide services -- if they remained open.

"They definitely saw a decline, especially the restaurants, but they were happy with the number of people who came in and shopped in their businesses," he said.

He expressed appreciation for the way the businesses, especially restaurants, did their part to help slow the spread of the coronavirus causing COVID-19. Hortness pointed out that when the city placed restrictions on gatherings, restaurants adapted by offering take-out orders.

He is also pleased with the way restaurants continue to do due diligence since those restrictions have been lifted. Hortness said they have placed more room between tables, have begun to use one-time use menus, and are careful to limit the number of customers being served at any one time.

Hortness believes that in allowing local restaurants to serve customers indoors, the city commission struck the right balance. Those business owners have the opportunity to generate revenue and area residents can make choices about the opportunities available.

"If people are not comfortable going into those establishments, they can have take-out or deliveries," he said. "It goes back to everyone being smart about what they're doing."