Batten down the hatches.
That's the motto for this upcoming holiday season. It might seem somewhat fantastical, but as a small retailer in Bend, riding out this next round of Covid-19 closures is akin to captaining a weather-beaten ship taking on a concerning amount of water. Your crew is exhausted, the captain is slightly disheveled and all that's left is resounding optimism — because let's face it, it's eight months into a global pandemic and there isn't much else when faced with an impending storm surge.
- Design by Darris Hurst
"They weathered together the fiercest storms of faction," wrote Thomas Macaulay back in 1650, some thirty years before the first pilgrims arrived on America's shores and to which, fittingly, envelopes this week's holiday. Shipping metaphors aside, weathering the COVID-19 storm looks a bit different in 2020.
First, the good news. With the first 10 days of the holiday season behind us, American consumers have increased their spending by 21% from last year, according to data compiled by Adobe Analytics, which monitors online sales. The day before the U.S. election, American consumers spent a whopping $2.2 billion—a 31% increase from the year before—and spent $2 billion on Election Day, which was a 27% jump from the 2016 election.
Good, right? This increased spending? Not so fast. A whopping $21.7 billion, nearly 81%, of this consumer spending has taken place online — likely stemming from the fact that a reported 63% of consumers cite health concerns and are avoiding brick-and-mortar stores.
As small local businesses go, many are dependent on in-person foot traffic, a bulk of which come from an already shortened tourist season. With the now impending holiday season at risk, what slice of the proverbial holiday pie do local businesses get?
The reality of how companies are dealing with the COVID crisis and preparing for recovery is a very different story from the rosier national narrative. It's a story of a pivot to business models conducive to short-term survival as well as long-term resilience and growth. Since American consumers have shown just what they prefer —the ease of one-click, two-day delivery—many within the Central Oregon small business community are sounding the alarm as we head into the holiday season.
Go online, but shop locally, they say. It might be more difficult, more costly and take more time, but the innovative and vibrant community for which Bend is known and celebrated may severely dampen if we lose the small businesses that can't weather this impending storm.
Which to tackle first? Instagram? Shopify TikTok?
The second instantaneous shutdown triggered last week was, as most retailers quipped, expected since the summer. So too is the expectation that this will last much longer than the two weeks Gov. Kate Brown has stated.
"This lockdown is a test, you know? A trial for everyone to see how we do with Thanksgiving and see if infections skyrocket," said Alicia Renner, owner of three local businesses including Northwest Trading Post, Howl Attire and Mud Lake Studios—the latter, a community ceramics art studio space located in the Old Ironworks Building. Renner echoes the statements of most other small business owners the Source Weekly spoke with, who are bracing for a longer and stricter lockdown ahead of the Christmas holidays. "I feel like it's getting people used to the idea again and then we will have a lockdown for the rest of winter," Renner says, which she adds, "is understandable, considering COVID is very real."
- Magdelena Bokowa
- If it ain't one thing, it's another: Local business owner Alicia Renner counts herself lucky thanks to a strong online presence, but has struggled with pandemic-related supply chain slowdowns.
Renner says she's tried to embrace the slowdown by using the time to connect with local artists inside Mud Lake and to take time out for herself. Yet she knows that she's one of the lucky ones in that her co-operative business model—in which member artists rent studio space located inside the building—offsets her rental costs in a way that takes the pressure off when things like a global pandemic shut you down. She's also had her brand, Howl Attire, for nine years and has an established online consumer base. "I'm always amazed at the lengths people will go to find my work and wait for my product." It's a scenario newer makers might not yet have had to face.
She notes that for her hand-sewn garments, a disrupted supply chain has meant her custom pieces can take much longer to produce. "My canvas comes from Scotland and the distributor shut down back in the spring, so it was a whole big process trying to figure out how I can still buy from them without having to spend money on a big wholesale shipment."
Bracing for the worst but hoping for the best is the motto for 2020, and that's what this upcoming holiday season will be. Renner speaks of the two upcoming holiday markets that are usually a big moneymaker for the artists the studio supports. "At this point, we are going ahead with a modified version of Small Business Saturday (this Saturday, Nov. 28) where shoppers can socially distance shop for $20 or under gifts such as handmade ornaments." Craft-O, a collaborative event spread out across the IronWorks facility, featuring more than 50 designers and makers, though, may be a different story, considering the mid-December timeline.
"We'll see," she says, noting that many artists bank on short time frames to support themselves during the longer, quieter periods. "If that holiday income is gone, then I'm not sure what will happen."
Pivoting to an online shop seems like the go-to reality, but navigating and integrating a new platform into your existing business model can be a daunting, time-consuming effort. Shopify, one of the largest online platforms, is one of the biggest beneficiaries of COVID-19, with a stock price up 143% this year. Its revenue almost doubled in the third quarter to $767 million alone, and its president, Harley Finkelstein, said the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the online transition by a decade. "I think you're going to see a massive paradigm shift," he said in an interview with CNBC. "My grandparents are now going to buy groceries online for the rest of their lives, which is something that never would've happened."
At a first glance, an online shop is an answer. Yet it takes time, energy and large upfront costs to stay on top of constantly shifting inventory, supported by the need for high-quality photos, snappy captions and adjusted pricing. Not to mention facing the lines at the postal office. "My struggle is trying to figure out how to continue to sell everyone's work, when I don't have an online store, and I don't really have the time or money to set one up," says Renner. "That's one of the details I'm having a hard time with right now is figuring out how to sell everyone's work, and keep everyone sustained and happy."
Instagram success story, shared
Many small retailers find a happy medium between an online shop and cultivating an online presence in Instagram stories. It's a way to easily distribute bite-sized pieces of daily content while gently reminding customers that they are still there.
- Gwen Shoemaker
- Somewhere That's Green owner John Kish is using Instagram to boost local makers and designers.
One such example is the Somewhere That's Green Instagram—a newly opened plant "shoppe" in the Old Mill. Owner John Kish expanded in the summertime, a seemingly counterintuitive approach if not for the fact that newly quarantined folks are flocking to "greenify" their spaces. "We haven't seen a plant boom this big since the '70s," he told me. Kish posts daily Instagram stories and makes a big push to incorporate local designers, who he says are struggling because of the lack of seasonal markets.
"I'm lucky to be in an industry that is successful during this time, which is why I always try to give back and try to help all my makers," says Kish, who has 20 local designers in his store. He notes he's seen an uptick in local makers receiving custom orders when he tags them in a post. "I think Bend is very local-centric, and so I think driving that unique angle with cross-promotion is really important."
Downtown shops "stay nimble"
Adaptation is key and as noted by Kish and others, Bend is an ideal community to support the switch to online, local consumerism.
"It's a constant reminder to stay nimble, keep it simple and to innovate," says Abraham Gilreath, the owner of two downtown retail boutiques, Ju-bee-lee and Jack and Millie. Gilreath and his wife, Kirsten, also post daily stories of items in the store as a way to maintain visibility and promote a sense of community when consumers are perhaps hesitant to come in. They've tried their hand at virtual shopping for clients with mixed results, so he's gotten creative wading into an online marketing strategy that was once reserved for larger brands: giveaways.
- Magdelena Bokowa
- Abraham and Kirsten Gilreath's approach to surviving a tough retail environment? Stay nimble, keep it simple and innovate.
Seeing the increasing struggle for local restaurants to stay afloat, Gilreath and his wife came up with a marketing idea that has participants dress up and take a snap outside of their favorite local Bend eatery as they're grabbing take-out. The top three creative, best-dressed winners will win a $100 gift certificate to that eatery. Asked how they came up with the idea, Gilreath laughs, "A few too many whiskies around the coffee table."
Central Oregon restaurants: The struggle is real
Bend restaurants are by far the most at risk during the ongoing lockdowns, with many facing high rents, zero liquor and beer revenues and threats of closures with increased risk of COVID exposures. "We need to rally around these guys," says Gilreath. "They struggle so hard to reopen and have to jump through so many hoops to stay open safely. And now, right at the peak of what would be a huge part of their annual money-making part of the year, it's going to be difficult for them to try to weather this storm during another closure."
A recent survey released by the National Restaurant Association found that one in six restaurants closed either permanently or long-term, nearly 3 million workers were out of work and the industry was on track to lose $240 billion in sales by the end of 2020.
"They're a really important part of a vibrant community and culture. Our restaurants, bars and coffee shops are where we gather, where we're social, where we see one another, talk, celebrate and grieve," Gilreath said. "Above all, we need to make sure they stay alive. So that's why we're like, what can we do as a business to help a couple of guys on our block?"
Cross-promotion of other local brands is the backbone of many of the online strategies these local businesses employ.
Tagging vendors and sharing promotions
"What's really awesome is that I'm seeing in our community people helping one another, just through social media, tagging local makers and designers," says Shasta Ashford, owner of Revival Vintage— a boutique vintage retailer that has been open for just under one year. "I'm just encouraging our community, our local crafters and sellers to break the algorithm and to get in front of people." Ashford says she does this by tagging the vendors with which she works. She recently did a social media post listing the small Venmo payments she recently wired to her vendors in an effort to be transparent as to where the money is going in the local community. "For some, that $20 to $50 could honestly make a difference," she said. She also cross-promotes with her next-door neighbor and competitor, another vintage retailer, Luck of the Draw.
- Magdelena Bokowa
- Getting through the pandemic is going to require community, mutual support and, yep, social media, says Shasta Ashford, owner of new shop Revival Vintage.
"I feel like if we all just continue to support each other locally and keep our money away from the big box stores and in our community, that's the best way to get through this... that will help them pay their bills, which is already helping me pay my bills."
Ashford has been investing in sponsored Instagram posts showcasing weekly sales. She'll foot the bill for a retailer or maker because the way that she looks at it, it gets people into her shop and supports her and the retailer. Ashford is trying to find the time to embrace social media and as she puts it, "not biting the hand that feeds." She's also toying with the idea of TikTok so she can reach a broader demographic with short, punchy videos. "How do you get amongst the masses though? How do you compete? It's so saturated. It can be a lot for a one-woman show."
For now, however, perseverance, ingenuity and most importantly, support from the community to shop locally, whether that's in-store, curbside, or online, is what will help these small businesses endure the impending holiday season.
By the Numbers: Reasons to Shop Local2 out of 3
Number of new jobs created by small businesses in the U.S.
Source: Michigan State University Center for Community and Economic Development
Small businesses donate 250% more than larger businesses to locally based nonprofits
1.6X more capital stays in the local community when buying from a local business compared to a chain. 6X more stays in the community when buying local versus buying on online megastores like Amazon.
A study of the impact of 15 local businesses compared with a SuperTarget in New Orleans found that if locals and visitors shifted 10% of their spending from chains to local business, it would generate an additional $235 million a year in local economic activity.
Source: Civic Economics
Counties with vibrant small-business sectors have lower rates of mortality and a lower prevalence of obesity and diabetes, compared to places dominated by big firms.
Source: Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy, and Society