COLUMBIA — Shuttered for weeks by public health mandates earlier this year and still struggling with reduced sales, locally owned retailers say this holiday shopping season is critical to small businesses’ ability make it through to the new year.
“My lease is up at the end of the year. If things don’t improve dramatically — if I don’t have a good Christmas season — I probably won’t be here after January,” said Lainie Lewis, owner of State Street Trading Co. in West Columbia.
In fact, 62 percent of U.S. small businesses reported they need to see consumer spending return to pre-COVID levels by the end of 2020 in order to stay in business, according to American Express, which fostered the concept of shopping at local businesses the Saturday following the Black Friday start to the holiday sales season.
Lewis, a former interior designer, has worked six days a week for the last three years to keep her artisan jewelry, gift and home goods shop operating.
“January through mid-March was my best two months since opening,” she said, adding, “2020, in the beginning, was looking like it was going to be a banner year.”
Then the coronavirus reached the Palmetto State, shuttering her shop for six weeks. Her landlord helped her, delaying the rent.
Now, Lewis is looking to the holidays, which usually make up 25 percent of her total sales for the year, wondering whether demand will return enough to get her and the 20 local artists she supports through.
“If I go under, that really hits the community,” she said of the artists. “It would be one less place that they can sell their wares.”
Christmas cards and decorations, including sculpted metal reindeer that look like pine cones, ornaments, jewelry and pottery are popular items this time of year. She’s had loyal customers stopping in all summer long.
“All of us need someone to come in and shop local, including the restaurants,” Lewis said.
A global survey, sponsored by Visa, of shoppers and small business owners said 88 percent of consumers have plans for holiday buying, despite the economic challenges the pandemic has created.
In the U.S., 60 percent of those surveyed said they plan to do half or more of their holiday shopping at local retailers. But three in five also say they will do at least half of that shopping online, which makes it important for local retailers to have a virtual option. Foot traffic has long been a staple of small business, but with COVID-19 cases on the rise nationwide, only one in five consumers say they plan to shop exclusively in-person.
“To me this holiday season is one of the most important because you have to believe,” said Stacy Levinson, owner of Brittons clothiers. “It’s been an unbelievable year. We have to have hope.”
Brittons closed in March but was able to keep its employees on a month’s salary, thanks to federal aid money from the Paycheck Protection Program aimed at small businesses to help cover payroll.
Though the year has been one of the most financially difficult for the 70-year, family-owned business, Levinson said they’ll make it through and is keeping up the Christmas tradition of decorating the store to the nines.
“It’s part of the spirit of Christmas for me personally,” she said.
Santa will visit the store Christmas Eve day and each gift will still be wrapped with the store’s signature bow. Ten percent of sales will go to local food banks and with the annual Junior League Holiday Market cancelled, Brittons will support the women’s civic organization with a portion of sales as well on Dec. 5.
Hoping to draw business from those choosing to shop from the safety of their homes, Brittons’ Santa Express will deliver packages within a five mile radius of the store.
“That fourth quarter is very important,” Levinson said, making up 30 percent of the store’s annual sales.
“But I know we will get to the other side,” she said.