With Black Friday here and Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday just ahead, Pasadena shopkeepers are hoping that customers – hamstrung by the surging pandemic – will continue to patronize their businesses online to provide the seasonal boost many depend on to turn an annual profit.
City officials launched the “We’re Open, Keep Us Open” campaign earlier this month to encourage residents to support local businesses.
Even those not yet comfortable perusing shops in person can support local businesses by ordering from them online, rather than using giant retailers such as Amazon.
“We’re all about keeping our local businesses up and running,” said city spokeswoman Lisa Derderian. “The livelihood of both the owners and the staff really rely on the holiday season.”
“The next month is going to be critical to help them sustain,” she said. And it’s not simply a matter of economics.
“This is somebody’s livelihood. Somebody that likely also lives in town,” Derderian said. “Behind every local retail owner, there’s a family. We need to keep these families up and running. So shopping online is a safe way to support local businesses.”
Frederich Hill, owner of the The Original Whistle Stop toy train store in Pasadena, said he’s ready.
“I am all set up for both online shopping and mail order. You name it, I’ve got it,” he said.
In the past, the holiday season has traditionally been a boon to the business as Pasadenans set up train sets around their Christmas trees, Hill said. “Before COVID, we’d probably sell about 150 train sets during the season for Christmas time.”
This year, “I’m ready for it. And I hope like hell we have it,” he said.
If the season is to be a success, Hill said it will likely depend on strong online business, as he’s expecting a significant drop in foot traffic.
“The day after Thanksgiving usually is our best day for retail sales, but I don’t think we’re going to have it this year because families aren’t traveling for Thanksgiving,” he said. “I think Friday is going to be a very slow day because we depend on travelers.”
He estimated that in the week leading up to Thanksgiving, sales had been about 50 percent online and 50 percent in-person.
“What scares me is all the vacant buildings. Next door to me, the cleaners have gone out of business. The furniture store across the street is shut down. They’re gone,” Hill said. “COVID is doing a lot of damage to businesses.”
And while Hill said his shop may not be able to match every price offered by big online retailers, he can provide a level of service companies like Amazon cannot. “That’s what we do. We offer service. We don’t offer toy trains. We offer service.”
While it’s impossible to know what the coming weeks hold in store, “Right now, I’m an optimist and I’ll go out kicking and screaming. So I know I’ll be here,” Hill said.
While The Original Whistle Stop and other businesses have had an online presence for years, some others, like the nonprofit fair trade shop Ten Thousand Villages in Pasadena, have stepped up their online game in direct response to the pandemic.
“We didn’t have a website two months ago. Now we do. So we have tried to adjust quickly,” said Executive Store Manager Rebecca Dunn.
It’s generally the policy of the store’s parent company to not allow individual locations to host individual websites, “but we were able to get one for ourselves just to meet the curbside demand, and also in case there was another closure,” Dunn said.
“We definitely depend on November and December to take us through the whole year,” she said. “We’re basically taking a loss each month up until November, December. So we’re very classically retail in that way.”
Dunn said she was grateful for a loyal customer base that appreciated the store’s fair trade policies and nonprofit structure.
“We get a lot of grace from our customers. A lot of people are seeking us out or even donating to our store or prioritizing us over Amazon, over online delivery, and telling their friends about us,” she said.
The summer was very rough, but customer support and federal assistance helped keep the business afloat, Dunn said. And things appear to have been steadily improving since.
“We’re only 10 percent down for November compared to last year,” she said. “We were averaging about 50 percent to 60 percent down each month; 80 percent down for the fiscal year. So we’ve really been able to close in that gap.”
But with the future path of the virus, and the response of public health officials, uncertain, “I kind of take it moment to moment,” Dunn said.
Elisa B. women’s clothing store owner Elisa Bruley said she, too, generally depends on the holiday shopping season as a pivotal point in the year.
“It’s my biggest season of the year. It’s huge. And we put a lot of stock in it, physically and mentally,” Bruley said.
“My prediction is it’s definitely not going to be as busy as we have been in past holiday seasons, but I do know many of my customers have expressed that they want to support their local businesses,” she said.
“There is a real embrace of small business right now,” she added. “I think that they’re going to find any way they can to support me, even if it means shopping from our website.”
The weekend following Thanksgiving generally brings a big sales event to Elisa B., the owner said.
“Obviously, this year it’ll be a bit more mellow, but we’re still offering discounts and doing a gift card promotion and offering, as usual, free gift wrapping,” Bruley said. Contactless delivery service and curbside pickup have also been added as options for customers.
“As a business owner, you’re always worried about something. But now, it’s just that the worry has compounded exponentially, because it’s just this sort of nonstop uncertainty about what’s going to happen,” she said.
Bruley said the thought of shutting down the store was “unthinkable.”
“But the reality is, if this continues the way it has been, there’s that chance,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to maintain my business and keep my doors open. I know there are a lot of people who aren’t as fortunate. So throughout all of this worry and strife, I do consider myself lucky.”
Not all businesses are able to easily transition to an online format, however.
At the Bee Cottage floral and decoration business, owner Nicole Robeson said her showroom just doesn’t translate into a website.
“My customer wants to see the product in-store,” she said. “They want to physically see it and touch it.”
But like many other businesses, “The next four weeks are very important,” Robeson said.
“We’ve still been pretty busy. I think people are staying at home more and they’re wanting to decorate more this year because they’re looking at the same four walls. A lot of people are working from home,” she said. “So we have had a lot of people still coming in, or at least calling, wanting to decorate for the season and redo stuff in their home.”
Robeson said she did not believe an additional business shutdown would be appropriate.
“It doesn’t make any sense to shut down more than what they’ve done. A thousand people can walk into Target, and they’re not social distancing there, and my store is small,” she said. “People still ride the city bus in a closed in vessel. I just don’t understand the way that they do the shutdowns. It doesn’t really make any sense.”
“People just need to wear their mask and get on out there and shop. Support small business,” Robeson said.
For those who do decide to tackle holiday shopping in person this year in Pasadena, “know that all the safety guidelines are in place and being strictly enforced,” Derderian said.
City teams made up of health inspectors and code compliance officers “are really stepping up enforcement efforts so that people feel safe frequenting retail businesses or restaurants,” she said.
The Original Whistle Stop’s website can be found at thewhistlestop.com.
The Ten Thousand Villages website is posted at https://www.villagespasadena.com/ .
The website of Elisa B can be accessed at elisab.com.
The Bee Cottage website is available at beecottagepasadena.com.