Downtown Portland retailers reopen but customers still AWOL
PORTLAND — The great reopening has been cautious. Downtown Portland is still ghostly, and the few non-food stores that are open are quiet.
All these businesses reopened to the public on Friday May 15, the first day they were able given Gov. Kate Brown's reopening rules. Masks are recommended, numbers of customers are limited in proportion to occupancy rules and the ratio to staff, and there are almost medical-grade protocols around sterilizing product that consumers have tried on or put near their faces.
The Tribune talked to four of them to see who's buying, and who's sitting this one out.
Spice and Tea Exchange
536 S.W. Broadway
The owner of this Spice and Tea Exchange franchise, JP Burgbacher, could have stayed open in March and April, as a specialty food retailer, but chose not to reopen until May 15. "One reason was sort of the social consciousness part of it. And the second was there's no customer base. All the hotels are empty," he said. There were no office workers for lunchtime shopping either, not many MAX commuters and no one on their way to restaurants and concerts.
Normally customers are encouraged to open jars and smell the goods but now they don't want to touch anything. "I noticed young people are much more cavalier," he said, referring to lack of masks and lots of touching.
In the two months before, they did some curbside pick-up and by-appointment shopping. "But it's very dismal, quite honestly," he said.
A busy Saturday in December usually sees about 100 people come in and 70 sales. On that Friday, he had three customers all day. The next day 14. A regular Saturday has about 35 sales. Sunday he had five sales. On Monday, eight.
"I'm very happy to be open," Burgbacher said. "Prior to Friday, we had a lot of zero-dollar days. I'd say business is 80% down. But almost 100% of the people that are coming in are buying things.
"People are excited to be in a store," he added. "And they're following all the rules. We wipe everything down regularly, we have hand sanitizer and bleach buckets and we're wearing masks. The only thing I don't like about the mask is nobody can see the smile. So, it takes away from that nonverbal communication."
But time is running out.
"It's a great business in a great location," Burgbacher said. "It can withstand a recession or a mild slump but not a whole pandemic shutdown. It really is foot traffic-driven, and right now there's no foot traffic."
800 S.W. Broadway,
"We reopened that Friday when they said that the stores could start experimenting with being open," owner David Margulis said from behind his fuchsia cloth mask. "The traffic's very light because not many people are going out. However, we've been doing business by appointment."
The high end jewelry — where items range from around $500 to $20,000 — is on the corner of Pioneer Courthouse Square. Prior to the pandemic, the lockable glass doors already allowed staff to screen anyone trying to get in. But now buyer and seller have one more reason to be cautious. Customers are now offered hand sanitizer and masks.
All that bling needs to be kept clean, so after anything is touched staff take it to the back room and dip it in alcohol. They sterilize anything brought in for repair, too. Margulis does everything to make it feel as though an impenetrable barrier is not permanently between the customer and the jewels.
Other downtown luxury goods stores, such as Carl Greve Jewelers and Schumacher Furs, have given up on downtown, so the pressure might be on for Margulis.
But he insists the customers are out there somewhere.
"We do have shoppers and buyers, because not everybody is in a down situation or down mood," he said. "There are people who still want to get engaged. This business is tied in life events like getting married or having a child or giving a gift for graduation. I'd say 70% of our business is tied to life events, to mark them with a piece of jewelry. Because it's enduring."
Michael Allen Fredrickson
Michael Allen's Clothier
811 S.W. Morrison St.
Michael Allen makes 70% of its money on custom clothing, so the best customers need to be measured closely in the fitting room. In a store where jackets routinely cost $1,500 and can go up to $40,000, it was no surprise for owner Mike Fredrickson to sell 40 Italian cloth antivirus masks at $120 a piece on the first day he reopened, May 15.
"Seriously, they have been flying out of here," he said, sitting behind the counter with his dog Mr. Spencer. "We're doing OK. Yeah, we're not doing awesome but we're not hurting."
The new rules are difficult. "Any time someone tries something on, we have to put it in the back for 72 hours," so any viral matter dies, he said.
Although Fredrickson is a member of the Portland Business Alliance, there was no apparent coordination between his downtown retail neighbors, he said. "I'm not quite sure why they haven't opened up yet," he mused.
But on the customer side, there's some intention. "I'm getting a lot of people coming in saying 'We'll make sure you're making it.' Some of the clients that come in just want a break away from the regular stay home routine."
Compound PDX is a streetwear store on Southwest 10th Avenue that was founded in 2002 in Old Town. Miles Miller and his partner Coby manage it, along with the attached consignment store called PDX PLUG. They sell skater clothes, logo T-shirts and accessories. The fitting room in the middle of the floor is made of plastic sheeting and cones and looks like a pop-up cubicle you'd see in a CDC hazmat zone, but it was like that before the coronavirus. It's part of the look.
Asked how the reopening has been, Millers said: "We've only been in this space since November, and for a little bit we weren't sure if we were going to pull out of this thing. But when we got the all-clear to open on Friday, the amount of support that we saw over the weekend was tremendous. And that was the reassurance that we needed to know that we can keep pushing and we can pull through."
The only things customers aren't allowed to try on are headgear and things worn near the face, such as eyeglasses and necklaces. Customer numbers are limited and the store is sanitized every night. Masks are still requested but not required.
Compound PDX has online fulfilment and curbside pick-up. Miller grew up helping his parents run VEGA gymnastics in Camas, Washington. "If I look good, I feel good — that concept of acquiring things that are hard to get has always been tantalizing to me," he said.
And he really wants to see people back in the store and browsing.
"I do think at this rate we will survive. The question is: How long will we be in this state? Can we backslide back into a full closure? I can't foresee that, but we're just trying to be as prepared as we can."
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