When the pandemic first hit, Katherine Forrest, owner of Bowerbird and Friends in Peterborough, shut down her shop for nearly two months, compelled by the governor’s “Stay At Home” order. Now, Forrest is contemplating a similar shutdown during what she expects will be a very slow winter sales season.
“I don’t think it’s going to hurt us that much,” Forrest noted in mid-December. “Typically, January and February are quiet, but I think it’s going to be really quiet this year.”
Since she’s expecting few customers, Forrest says she might be better off using a few weeks to inventory the store and build an online presence, something she has managed to survive the pandemic without. Even so, closing down seemed scary, and Forrest hadn’t yet made up her mind about how she would handle the winter sales slump.
Uncertainty is something that many retail owners are dealing with, both around the country and throughout the Monadnock Region. Since coronavirus shut down large swaths of the U.S. economy in March, the retail industry has been rocked. While online mega-retailers, such as Amazon, are seeing profits skyrocket, most retailers have seen a sales slump. Overall, it’s estimated that the American retail market dropped more than 10 percent in 2020, a more significant fall than in 2009, during the Global Financial Crisis.
Nancy C. Kyle, president and CEO of the N.H. Retail Association, says retailers are worried about how the pandemic will continue to affect them in the long term. The spring shutdown, followed by a lackluster holiday season dominated by stormy weather, has many retailers starting 2021 on uncertain footing, she says.
“Any one of these things a retailer can deal with, but together it’s a lot,” Kyle notes.
One of the biggest adjustments that retailers have made during the pandemic is pivoting to online sales. Nationally, e-commerce is projected to be up 18 percent, while brick-and-mortar sales will fall 14 percent.
Despite that, small retailers in the Greater Keene area say that they’ve been able to weather the pandemic without relying on digital sales. Forrest posts on Instagram and Facebook; she has a website but rarely makes online sales. Most people, she says, like the experiencing of shopping in person for her antiques and gifts. She’s reluctant to direct her resources to build up an online presence.
“Honestly, this is a time I should be pushing it, but I haven’t been,” she says.
Robert “Woody” Woodworth, owner of Burrows Specialized Sports in Brattleboro, doesn’t even have a website, although the business has a Facebook page. Despite that, sales have been steady at Burrows, as more people take an interest in socially distant outdoor sports like biking and now cross-country skiing. Woodworth expects to finish 2020 about on track with what he was expecting financially, despite the pandemic. He’s happy with that outcome.
“In small retail, to make a little bit is a success,” he says.
Kyle said that small retailers — especially mom and pop businesses — face many challenges in growing online sales. It’s not as simple as listing inventory on a website, she notes. While browsing through each shop on Main Street is a fun activity during normal times, going to each store’s website to order online is too much of a hassle for most buyers, she says.
“When you can get everything on your list with one click, it takes more effort to go to small retailers and shop online,” she says. “They can try to compete, but their sales will never equal what a larger, non-brick-and-mortar retailer will do.”
Woodworth’s biggest challenge during the pandemic has been chasing down inventory. With demand for outdoor equipment up around the globe, his supply chain has been interrupted and overwhelmed.
“I spend a lot of time chasing inventory … one pair of boots or two pairs of skis,” he says.
However, his bigger worry is whether the business that he’s seeing now will last after the novelty of spending more time outdoors wears off.
“I’m trying to think ahead and look ahead, but do it optimistically and realistically,” he says. “A question in my mind is, will all these people stick with [these activities] once the pandemic is over?”
Although he expects that some bikes that he’s sold will soon be collecting dust rather than coming back to him for regular servicing, he thinks he’s gained some new customers for the long haul, too.
“Some people will continue once they discover how much fun this is, and that’s good for business,” Woodworth says.
Ken Hamshaw, president of Hamshaw Hardware in Keene, also expects to see some changes from this year’s stay in place. Hamshaw Hardware has implemented services, such as curbside pickup, to make it as easy as possible for customers to shop locally, he says. Although the hardware industry isn’t usually at the forefront of technology, Hamshaw expects that the importance of online sales is here for good.
“We’ve been pushed in that direction faster than we would have normally,” he notes.
Kyle says that after a few months of the pandemic, online retail had accelerated more than it would have during the following five years if the status quo had held.
“That’s a seismic change,” she says.
With time, retailers are feeling more confident that they’ll survive the pandemic, even if they don’t know what 2021 will bring.
“I don’t feel as nervous,” Forrest says.
However, Kyle notes that small businesses and big-box stores still need local support to survive.
“These are the people who have invested in our communities. They’re paying taxes and hiring our families,” she says. “For all the times they were hit up for money for fundraising … they’ve always been there for you. Now you need to be there for them.”