How Small Retailers Are Getting Creative to Survive a Pandemic Holiday Season

7 minute read

For Mitchell and Skye Cohen, the third-generation owners of Economy Candy in New York City, the short period between Halloween and New Year’s is usually the busiest season. The store would serve upwards of a thousand customers in a weekend, when shoppers flocked to the small Lower East Side store to buy candy in bulk for holiday gifts and parties.

But this year, the aisles of Economy Candy are uncharacteristically quiet, devoid of their typical crowds of loyal locals and curious tourists. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York City in March, the Cohens halted in-person shopping for the first time in the store’s 83 years. For a business that has always relied on foot traffic for the majority of its revenue, the decision was tough but necessary: the shop wasn’t big enough to keep people a safe distance from one another, and the costs of stocking, staffing and sanitizing far outweighed the profit they’d see if they stayed open. So, for the past nine months, the Cohens have sold their sweets primarily via their website, shipping orders or arranging curbside pickup.

More than 30 million small businesses in the U.S. are struggling for footing in what should be their busiest quarter. A Visa survey taken in September found that 69% of small businesses still viewed the 2020 holiday season as a top sales opportunity–but retail looks vastly different when a health crisis is both upending the economy and changing the way we shop.

For one thing, spending this year will be lower overall, so while small businesses can expect to see a boost in sales over the winter holidays compared with recent months’ sales, it will likely be a smaller uptick than in past years. A September survey by Deloitte found that average retail sales for the year will increase by 1% to 1.5% over the holidays; by comparison, in 2019, that growth was 4.1%.

“We found this year that the overall spending per household was going to be down about 7%,” said Rodney Sides, Deloitte’s vice chairman of U.S. retail and distribution. “People are still spending money, but they’re changing how they’re spending it and what types of things they’re buying. Travel is down, but home decor is up.”

And in the age of social distancing, online shopping will see a boost. A November McKinsey report found that 37% of consumers will shop more online this holiday season. As a result, many small businesses that may have had little to no digital presence are upping their online offerings.

For Maggy Moran, the manager of Revival, a clothing boutique in Iowa City, the pandemic has completely shifted how she operates. Since the shop is in a college town, the months leading up to the holidays have traditionally been big for sales; before the pandemic, students and parents would come to the store to buy clothing and gifts ahead of the school break. This year, however, the University of Iowa will be going all-virtual after Thanksgiving. And with their county’s status as a hot spot for COVID-19 cases, Moran and shop owner Sheila Davisson decided to close the store for in-person shopping and move sales completely online.

“Before the pandemic, online sales were probably less than 10%,” Moran said. “Now our entire inventory is online, and we’ve been trying to make our in-person shopping experience translate to the website.” To aid in this, Revival is offering customers the chance to curate their own holiday gift boxes, which shoppers can build over an email, phone or even video call.

Some businesses are adjusting not only their way of reaching customers but also what they’re selling. For Su Beyazit, the founder of Su’juk, a vintage store and hair salon in Brooklyn, navigating a pandemic holiday season has meant switching up her inventory to meet the change in what people are looking for. In past years, party dresses, holiday sweaters and anything with sequins would fly off the racks, but this year she’s stocking more comfortable clothes and tried-and-true home goods.

After closing her store for three months at the start of the New York outbreak, Beyazit has increased her online retail activity since reopening in the summer and also hosts sidewalk sales. Beyazit displays racks of floral dresses and colorful coats on the street, and keeps masks and sanitizer on deck for anyone who stops by. Ahead of the holidays, she’s teamed up with a local florist for a pop-up outside the store to sell seasonal wreaths and bouquets in a bid to make the most of their limited time outside before winter–and before a spike in cases could force them to close shop again. “We’re preparing for another shutdown creatively, but at least this time, we know what we need to do,” Beyazit said, adding that for now, “we’re still trying to make shopping fun.”

But for some store owners, particularly in hot-spot cities, creative in-person solutions are less feasible. In July, Onikah Asamoa-Caesar opened Fulton Street Books & Coffee, the only Black-owned bookstore in Tulsa, Okla. Since then, she has offered limited socially distanced shopping at her store. She’s opting out of participating in holiday fairs and markets this year for safety reasons; after giving birth to her daughter in April, Asamoa-Caesar has felt the need to be especially careful.

“I’ve said no to so many things that I would love to do, but unfortunately for us, it’s really not safe,” Asamoa-Caesar said. “I don’t want to add to our numbers in any way, I don’t want to put myself in a situation that might not be safe, and I don’t want to endanger my team members. We’re really trying to drive people to our website to do their holiday shopping.”

Jenny DaSilva, the founder and director of Start Small Think Big, a nonprofit that helps underresourced small-business owners, believes that it’s up to consumers to support small businesses during this time. “These are businesses that typically have less than one month’s worth of cash cushion on hand, and they’ve been doing this for nine months,” DaSilva said. “Every day that goes by puts them closer to the brink. I think it is the responsibility of the consumer to meet those businesses.”

The Cohens of Economy Candy have found that kind of support from their community. On the weekends, in an attempt at some kind of normality, they take orders by hand from longtime local customers who line up 6 ft. apart outside the store. But the majority of their revenue now comes from online orders, which were once just 10% of their total sales. And those sales are a fraction of what the store would normally do this time of year. “We rely on the holiday time: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, the general holiday spirit, businesses having their holiday and year-end parties,” Mitchell Cohen said. “We lost tourism, we lost parties, we lost events. We lost 75% of our business.”

It’s a challenge unlike anything else the store has experienced over the nine decades it’s been in business, during which it has survived the Great Depression, 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. But the Cohens remain hopeful that their pivot to online sales can save them this holiday season. They’ve begun making candy care packages in Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and nondenominational themes that encourage customers to celebrate the season with loved ones, even if they have to do so from afar.

“We got by the first 80 years by people telling their friends and people from out of town to go shop at Economy Candy; now, word of mouth is online and on social media,” Mitchell Cohen said. “We need people to shop local and shop mom-and-pops so we can be here for another 80 years.”

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