Saved by the bells: Holidays are saving grace for struggling shops
Petie Farkas never expected her retail shop to be selling face masks, or holiday ornaments depicting a dumpster fire to sum up 2020, but curveballs are the new norm.
Farkas owns Peachtree Gifts in Multnomah Village. She and other small business owners in the village and nearby strip malls have hung on through a year marked by a global pandemic and resulting economic recession, topped off by social unrest and protests.
Despite a steep decline of in-store shopping and competition from chain retailers boasting deep discounts online, Farkas still saw a steady stream of customers in and out of Peachtree on Nov. 27, Black Friday.
With reduced capacity rules in place, customers waited patiently outside the shop, perusing thoughtfully arranged gift sets and curios.
"We are up in sales for the holiday season," Farkas noted Monday, Dec. 8. "We're really seeing an effort from customers to shop local. Customers know stores really need support right now."
That doesn't mean Peachtree Gifts hasn't had a tough year.
"Overall, I anticipate we'll be down, simply because we'll never be able to make up what we lost when we were completely shut down," Farkas noted of a three-month stint in the spring, when her gift shop was closed.
The six weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are a critical time for retailers, but shoppers got an earlier start this year.
Survey data from the National Retail Federation indicates 59% of consumers who were polled said they started shopping for the holidays in early November. That number increased to 85% by late November. NRF also found that consumers appeared to be spending just as much money on gifts as they did in the previous four years, despite the economy being stymied by the pandemic.
"People are really coming out to shop early," Farkas observed, reflecting on foot traffic in her store and neighboring shops. "We stressed shop early, shop local, and we're really seeing that."
In Hillsdale, Paloma Clothing—up and running for 45 years now—almost didn't make it to winter.
"We've been in business for 45 years, which means we've had 45 holiday seasons. This is definitely the oddest and craziest holiday season ever," said Mike Roach, co-owner of Paloma. Roach said during the early phases of the pandemic, he and his wife, Kim Osgood, gave serious thought to retirement as sales plummeted.
Employees had other plans for them. Roach said the store's employees convinced the owners to let them establish an online store for Paloma, to keep the local clothing retailer in business. In exchange, they'd keep their jobs and health benefits.
Over the course of about 10 days, Paloma staffers revamped the business's website and offered an online shopping platform with shipping and local pick-up options.
"There was a time there when without the online store, my wife and I might have just said, 'time's up,'" Roach said.
Roach said overall, his shop's revenue is down by about 60%, but the online shop has helped soften the blow to Paloma's sales.
Enabling customers to buy local goods online has been tantamount to the success and survival of local retailers, as restrictions imposed by the state have limited their capacity for customers in stores and discouraged residents from making non-essential trips.
Portland's City Council proclaimed the month of December as Buy Local Month, in an effort to bolster local small businesses.
"One of the consequences of the pandemic and people being socially distanced, is that every third vehicle you see on the street is an Amazon vehicle," Mayor Ted Wheeler said Wednesday, Dec. 9 during a council discussion. "This is an important time of year for local retailers in particular. They are struggling under the COVID crisis."
Neighborhood business groups have also gotten creative. An existing Hillsdale Business Association program to place white lights around trees and storefront windows in Hillsdale has been ramped up this year, Roach notes, in an effort to create an inviting, welcoming shopping experience and cut through the darkness of winter and the isolation created by COVID-19.
"We're doing a decent amount of business," Roach noted the week after Black Friday and Small Business Saturday. "People are not afraid of coming out of their houses."
Tye Steinbach, co-owner of Thinker Toys in Multnomah Village, can attest to that.
Steinbach's store was buzzing on a Wednesday morning. In fact, sales for December had surpassed the previous year's sales.
After a low point over the summer, Steinbach said the business rolled out a web page with online shopping functionality.
"Now we're getting 30 to 50% of our sales online," Steinbach noted. "November is up from last November and December is up solidly."
If there's any silver lining to be found amid the COVID-19 pandemic, entrepreneurs say it's that the restrictions have forced them to retool their marketing plans and strengthen their online presence. That will serve them well beyond the pandemic.
Farkas, who doesn't have an online store, said she's engaging with customers via social media for the first time ever.
"We've tried to put tons of products in the front windows and we have really utilized Instagram and Facebook in a way we've never done before," Farkas noted. "There are a lot of things we'll be able to continue to do when this is over that will really help us later."
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