Safety a higher priority than sales for many small retailers

Published 2:00 pm Thursday, December 24, 2020

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NEW YORK — Dan Marshall’s toy store should be crowded this time of the year with parents and grandparents buying gifts and children trying out games. Instead, only a handful of customers are in Mischief Toy Store at any time, and their visits are short and efficient.

Yet while the coronavirus outbreak is giving Marshall his most challenging holiday season in over 20 years in business, his priority is keeping everyone — customers and all the workers in his family-run business — safe. So, he’s encouraging shoppers to buy from the Mischief Toy Store website or order by phone rather than at the St. Paul, Minnesota, shop. He also arranges for virtual shopping trips, where customers can see the store’s merchandise online.

“We are in the weird position of wanting people to shop, but not wanting them to come into the store,” Marshall says.

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Retailers are taking extraordinary steps this holiday season in hopes of lessening the spread of the virus. The steps go beyond limiting the number of people in a store; besides encouraging online shopping, many owners are setting up appointments before and after hours for private shopping trips. Owners ask customers in their stores to limit the amount of time they spend there. Curbside pickup, delivery and shipping are standard operating procedure.

All this is in addition to state and local restrictions on how many people can be in a store at a time. Some owners, Marshall included, have decided to set a limit even where there are no government orders. He’s allowing 10 people in at once, a third of what he’d expect during the holiday season.

Small and independent retailers have been among the hardest-hit businesses during the pandemic. Not only are they contending with government restrictions, but many consumers worried about catching the virus don’t want to shop in person. The plunge in revenue has forced more than 8,600 stores to close this year, according to Coresight Research, a market research firm that specializes in retailing.

Consumers reluctance was reflected in a 1.1% drop in retail sales in November, according to the Commerce Department.

The changes in stores this year can be dramatic or subtle. In toy stores, usually children can plow through bins of small toys and pick out what they want. There’s a cluster of small items at the checkout counter that parents buy on impulse, extending the shopping trip a bit and adding to the retailer’s bottom line. Not this year; Marshall, whose revenue is likely to be down 30% this year, is emphasizing safety over profits.

“We wanted to expedite that process and keep people moving,” Marshall says. But, he adds, “it’s not how a toy store wants to do business.”

Emily and John Murray have gone further, deciding last month to close their baby products store and operate entirely online even though Michigan is allowing retailers to remain open.

“We felt it was the right thing to do,” Emily Murray says.

The Murrays expected Modern Natural Baby to suffer a massive revenue drop. Instead, sales have been up 15% from a year go, in part because the Murrays are doing two live videos a day showcasing their merchandise. Almost all their customers are opting for curbside pickup at the store in Ferndale, outside Detroit.

The Murrays believe customers’ response is due to the fact parents are worried about being in stores, and to their desire to support small businesses.

“We were worried about upsetting customers, but the response was overwhelmingly positive,” she says.

Store owners are also helping customers shop more efficiently. At Perch, a gift and home furnishings store in San Francisco, a growing number of customers are taking advantage of private shopping appointments. Owner Zoel Fages is reserving the last two hours of each day for appointments and gives shoppers a questionnaire to fill out ahead of time so he can set aside gift suggestions before they arrive.

When customers arrive at EcoHome Fine Gifts & Home Decor in Atlanta, a sign welcomes them but also asks them to be considerate because other shoppers would like to enter the store. And they’re paying attention, staying usually 20 to 30 minutes rather than the hour to hour and a-half owner Lawton Hall expects for this time of the year.

“I’m pleasantly surprised at how cooperative people have been,” Hall says. The store is currently serving about 15 to 20 people at a time, half the usual number.

They also don’t seem to mind that some of the usual amenities the store offers, like free coffee, aren’t available. Many aren’t in the mood to chat with employees.

“Most people just want to get out and not be distracted,” Hall says. His revenue is better than he expected, perhaps because many customers don’t eat at restaurants. They have more money to spend on gifts or on their homes.

Most of Sadie Cherney’s customers would rather shop online than come to her three Clothes Mentor shops in the Greenville, South Carolina, area. On Black Friday, she counted 82 people in her stores at the busiest time of the day, a fifth of what she’s seen in previous years. Revenue is down about a third from normal.

While online shopping is helping Cherney’s stores survive, it can take staffers 40 hours a week to keep the site fresh. Clothes Mentor, a franchise retailer, buys and sells gently used clothing. So each garment is unique, and the site has thousands of images to upload and then, when the clothes have sold, be taken down.

“The work feels like running six stores, not three,” Cherney says.

“I am definitely fatiguing. I want to be resilient, but it’s getting a little harder,” Cherney says.