Specialty retailers hope fall turnaround continues for holidays

PROBLEM SOLVER: Kathleen Madden, general manager of Sassafras on Sutton book and toy store, stands next to the puzzles on the store's second floor, which opened this year. She says local customers have played an important role in keeping the store going during the pandemic: "Everybody wants us and the other small businesses to succeed." Photo by Mark Barrett

This year has been anxiety-filled for everyone, but independent retailers and their employees have had more reasons to worry than many.

Most small shops in North Carolina had to shut down for several weeks as the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring. Once they reopened, more weeks passed with few customers passing through their doors.

Retailers have had to deal with people who don’t want to wear masks in their shops, challenges keeping their stores stocked because of COVID-related issues in manufacturers’ supply chains, reduced demand related to a weak economy and even more competition from online sales. Lurking in the background all the while has been the fear that a customer could pass the virus on to them.

So, it may be surprising to hear that owners and managers of mom and pop shops in downtown Black Mountain generally say that, all things considered, 2020 may not be a financial disaster after all.

“We’re still alive. We’re still here,” says Tom McMurtry, co-owner with his wife, Kim, of Europa, a shop selling Polish pottery, French pocketknives, Italian glass and other fine gift items. “Unless they shut us down for several months, we’ll be OK.”

However, the success of most retailers here and elsewhere still depends heavily on what happens during the holiday shopping season. Some are guardedly optimistic that November and December sales will provide at least a decent end to a crazy year, but they acknowledge that the course of the pandemic or a flat economy could prevent that.

As McMurtry suggested, sales would take a huge hit if the recent dramatic increases in COVID-19 cases in North Carolina and the nation prompt Gov. Roy Cooper to impose another shutdown of nonessential businesses. Even if Cooper or local government officials do not institute any further restrictions, record-setting case counts may persuade many potential customers to stay home and do their shopping on Amazon.

National forecasts suggest specialty retailers like those here, in Biltmore Village and in downtown areas of Western North Carolina cities and towns like Asheville, Hendersonville, Waynesville, Sylva and Brevard already face headwinds.

International accounting and consulting firm Deloitte forecasts that overall holiday spending in the United States will increase only 1%-1.5% this year. That would be a major dip from the 4.1% average annual growth the U.S. has seen this decade, according to real estate consulting firm CBRE.

Some analysts suggest there will be no growth in holiday sales, and others predict a decline. A poll for news site Morning Consult found that 45% of consumers planned to spend less on the holidays than usual, 41% said they’ll spend the same, and only 14% will spend more.

Many analysts predict the long-term trend toward more shopping online will get a major boost this year as shoppers shy away from crowds or continue habits developed when many stores were closed.

No camps and retreats, no sales

Shopkeepers here say they made it through some bleak months earlier in 2020, and an increase in business that began in August or September gives them hope for the crucial holiday shopping season.

Streets in downtown Black Mountain are lined with specialty shops selling hiking shoes, women’s clothes, books, all manner of toys, pottery, T-shirts, collectible figurines, books, furniture, cupcakes, souvenirs, wine, Gurgle Pot pitchers, violins, cuckoo clocks, fine art and crafts, and more. Shopkeepers say their customers are a mix of tourists, seasonal residents and those who live here year-round.

Summer camps and religious retreats in the area either shut down or dramatically reduced operations this summer, and many tourists stayed away because of fears about the safety of travel.

“Summer’s about all the summer camps and the retreats. None of that happened,” says Bob Bissett, owner of Mountain Me, a gift store.

Several retailers made comments similar to that of John McFerrin, owner of outdoor clothing and equipment store Take a Hike Mountain Outfitters. “Foot traffic was way down, and sales were down substantially in June and July,” he says.

State figures tell a similar story about Buncombe County as a whole. The state Department of Revenue says retail sales reported for June, July and August in the county were down 9.2% this year over the same months in 2019.

Even after Cooper’s shutdown order was lifted, many retailers here reopened with significantly reduced operating hours. “There was literally no one on the streets,” says Connie Pruitt, general manager of Periwinkles, which sells women’s clothing and accessories.

New strategies

To cope with the downturn, several retailers beefed up their online offerings while their shops were closed or business was slow. Internet sales of crafts or other one-of-a-kind products can be a challenge, but websites that in the past had primarily been designed to lure shoppers to visit a store became important means of making sales online. Other retailers added products, relied on other business lines to bring in revenue or just waited for things to change.

Some took out federal Paycheck Protection Program loans to help with payroll costs or used grants from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority to buy product inventory. Many now offer curbside service, and some will do local delivery.

The Black Mountain kitchen store known as common housefly had had a website offering a small number of mostly big-ticket items for sale for four or five years, owner Mike Liss says, but shoppers can now find 2,000 or more items there. “The commitment we made was to try to put as much of the merchandise on the site as possible,” he says. “The website is what kept us afloat.”

The site started popping up high on internet search pages when people were looking for coffee grinders, he says, and orders came in from around the country. “We sold a ton of grinders. … It’s really hard to figure out why that happened. I’d like to say I’m a marketing genius, but the truth is I don’t know,” Liss says.

Owner Robert Hope reworked the showroom of C.W. Moose Trading Co., which sells souvenirs, gifts, footwear and leather handbags, and hired a professional to photograph merchandise to spruce up its website.

At Acoustic Corner, which sells guitars, violins, banjos and other stringed musical instruments, sales of vintage instruments via the website, sales to school orchestras and instrument repairs became especially important, owner Joe Friddle says. While people have had more time on their hands at home, “There have been a significant number of people who have decided to take those (music) lessons and get that guitar or fiddle fixed,” resulting in a bump in the shop’s repair business.

McMurtry added software allowing him to sell plaques with information about customers’ family names on them and relied on another business he owns, printing T-shirts.

Several shopkeepers said area residents stepped up and increased efforts to shop local.

“Black Mountain is a special community,” said Scott Counce, owner of The Merry Wine Market. “The town really took to heart ‘love your neighbor, love your business’ that you want to come out of this” with its doors still open.

In the first few weeks after common housefly reopened, “Almost everybody who walked in the store would say, ‘We’re trying to support local businesses,’” Liss said. “So good for them. It worked.”

Still, at book, toy and gift store Sassafras on Sutton, “We basically had to lay off our entire staff” early on, General Manager Kathleen Madden said, and temporarily close the coffee bar even after the shutdown was over. But the shutdown also provided time for the shop to expand into an upstairs floor, turning it into a large toy store. Sassafras began offering customized gift boxes with goods chosen by employees working with buyers’ preferences on the store website. There was a good flow of shoppers and several employees helping them when a reporter visited on a recent Thursday morning.

A fall revival

The pendulum began swinging toward better sales for many shops in late summer or early fall. Shopkeepers said they began seeing more and more customers visiting from out of town as well as more locals feeling comfortable being around others.

Shoppers wanted to get out of the house and “get out of the big city,” McFerrin said. “People think that small town USA is probably a little safer than big city USA.”

Figures from the Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce visitor center downtown tell part of the story. The number of people who came into the center from January to August of this year fell more than a third over the same period of 2019, but visitation for September and October jumped 40% over last year’s total for those two months.

Sharon Tabor, the chamber’s executive director, says that switch and her conversations with local businesses make her optimistic about what lies ahead: “I think Christmas will be equal to or better than last year.”

The chamber has made pandemic-related changes in some of the holiday events it puts on. The town Christmas parade has been canceled. A video of scenes from past parades will be available online instead. In years past, most downtown shops stayed open late on a Friday evening in early December as part of Holly Jolly, a well-attended festival that included street musicians, Santa Claus and special food and drink offerings. There will be no Holly Jolly this year, but the chamber has hired musicians to roam the streets Friday evenings and Saturdays. Another promotion will allow people to enter drawings for a cash prize as they shop with local merchants.

“We want to still have the holiday spirit but not encourage (people) congregating,” Tabor says.

Several stores are still open fewer hours than before the pandemic hit — if you are planning a visit, later in the week is a better bet than a Monday morning. Several shopkeepers say it is unlikely that overall sales for 2020 will equal those of a year ago.

But, Tabor said, only a few Black Mountain businesses have shut down this year.

Store owners say customers, with a few exceptions, have cooperated in observing their pleas to wear masks in their shops, and they will continue safety protocols to protect themselves and customers. Many stores have Plexiglas barriers around their checkout areas, and it is hard to miss signs in store windows asking customers to wear masks.

Shopkeepers are anxious to see how many holiday shoppers show up.

With COVID case counts rising, “I’m a little nervous,” confessed Dianne Caraway, owner of gift and home accents store Bramblewood.

So is Hope, the C.W. Moose Trading Co. owner, but he says he is ready: “I’m planning and have inventory for a successful and busier holiday season than in the past. I remain hopeful.”



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