Small business owners hope to recoup losses due to COVID-19 pandemic

Teresa Stepzinski
| Florida Times-Union

Jacksonville’s small business owners are hurting.

Merchants throughout the city have suffered an as-yet-unknown loss of revenue likely totaling millions of dollars due to the COVID-19 pandemic with its mandatory lockdown, crowd capacity caps, social distancing and reasonable customer reluctance to shop in person.

“It’s been brutal. Really bad,” Joe Carlucci, president of the San Marco Merchants Association, said of the pandemic’s impact on local small business owners.

“Retailers even before the pandemic were feeling the pressure of everybody going to Amazon to shop online. So you throw in a pandemic and a lot of them had to adapt and they did. But they also lost a lot of revenue,” Carlucci said.

Many Jacksonville small business owners say they’re counting on the holiday shopping season — beginning this week with Black Friday and Small Business Saturday — as an opportunity to recoup their retail losses as well as reconnect with customers directly.

Many small retailers have pivoted to online sales, curbside pickup and free local delivery or shipping, but nothing replaces in-person sales, multiple merchants told the Times-Union.

Compounding the challenge for Avondale merchants is the cancellation of this year’s annual Christmas in Avondale celebration due to concern about the pandemic. A holiday tradition for about 30 years, the event historically is one of the busiest and most lucrative for the merchants.

Meanwhile, the similar Holiday Magic festivities in San Marco remain on the schedule for early December.

More: Local businesses gear up for Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday sales

More: Black Friday on the First Coast will have a different feel this year

Shop owners in the city’s popular retail districts of Five Points, Springfield, San Marco and King Street say holiday sales are more important this year than in the past. 

But they emphasized that “it won’t make or break us.” The holiday sales, they say, won’t determine whether their stores will remain open or be forced to close.

Customer support throughout the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn has been priceless. The bottom line is that loyal customers and people in the community have been a lifeline, shop owners said.

As they encourage people to come out to shop in their stores this holiday season, merchants say another way customers can support the city’s independent stores is by shopping safely. 

That means wearing a face mask, practicing social distancing and using hand sanitizer in their stores.

Their businesses vary from home decor to gourmet spices to books, comics, collectibles and dog care, but the Jacksonville merchants say the significance of this year’s holiday shopping season shouldn’t be discounted.

Small business holiday shopping projections

At least 69 percent of small businesses in the United States say the winter holiday season is a top sales opportunity for their business, the recent Visa Back to Business Study Holiday Edition showed.

Amid concern about the pandemic and uncertainty about the economy, the study showed about 86 percent of Americans intend to shop this holiday season. At least 60 percent of consumers nationwide plan to do half or more of their winter holiday season shopping at local retailers, according to the study.

Saturday is the annual Small Business Saturday. Established by American Express in 2010, the nationwide campaign encourages consumers to shop in their own communities during the holiday season.

Last year,  Small Business Saturday sales reached a record high, with an estimated $19.6 billion in reported spending by about 110 million people nationwide, according to the American Express Shop Small Impact study released this month.

“Small businesses need our support more than ever as they continue to navigate the effects of COVID-19,” Elizabeth Rutledge, chief marketing officer for American Express, said in a news release accompanying the study.

“We know 88 percent of U.S. consumers feel a personal commitment to support small businesses in the wake of the pandemic,” Rutledge said. “Whether online, curbside or safely in store, we’re reminding consumers that they can help make an impact by shopping small and sharing their favorite small businesses on social media all holiday season long.” 

The American Express study said that 89 percent of consumers say they are more likely to shop at a small business that friends or peers have recommended. Endorsements of small businesses on social media might be worth up to an estimated $197 billion for the nation’s small business economy, according to the study.

Five Points and Springfield

“Shopping small this year is going to be huge for us. … because we lost a lot during this whole pandemic,” said Jamee Yocum, who with her husband, Matt Pittman, own BARK on PARK in Five Points and BARK on MAIN in Springfield.

BARK describes itself as “an urban dog boutique” offering dog grooming, daycare, boarding and training as well as dog food, homemade treats and supplies.

The original store at 1021 Park St. in Five Points has been in business 11 years. The couple opened a second dog grooming storefront in Springfield two years ago at 1713 N. Main St.

Internet shopping is in full bloom this year. People have moved to ordering merchandise online and having it delivered in a day or two. That makes it tough for brick-and-mortar shops like their business, Yocum said. 

“We tried our hardest to help the local residents get what they need in regards to things for their animals, but this whole pandemic has really put a damper on people coming out and shopping,” she said. 

The couple hopes residents are aware how important it is to shop local this year.

“If they don’t shop small businesses, then small business is going to go away,” Yocum said. Friends who had small businesses elsewhere in Florida had to close permanently because of too few in-store customers, she said.

“I would hate for Five Points and my friends and business owners to have to close their doors because we’re not getting the shopping that we need to survive,” Yocum said.

Pittman said that during April their business was considered non-essential under the state-mandated closure of businesses.

“We completely shut our doors at both locations,” he said. “Dog food was still considered essential, but we weren’t allowed to have our doors open and people shopping.”

Pittman said their whole grooming, boarding and daycare revenue all went away.

“So, we did a pivot and developed our online store so people would be able to order everything they needed for their animals online and we started a delivery service and curbside pickup as well,” Pittman said. They also developed their own line of dog treats.

Nonetheless, the business loss “was very heavy” during that month. The loss was big but it gave them a chance to make a good move forward for BARK and the brand of BARK, he said.

Since then, customers are returning to in-store shopping. So far, about 75 percent are back at the Five Points store, and 50 percent in Springfield, Yocum said.

“Springfield has been a huge loss,” she said about the drop in business that is now slowly coming back. Grooming, boarding and daycare are a big part of the cash flow for the business, the couple said.

The holiday shopping season won’t be a make-or-break situation for them, Pittman said.

“But it definitely is a crucial time for the success of the business,” Pittman said. “Holiday season is always great. Luckily, we have great gifts for everyone. So normally we do around Small Business Saturday through the holiday season see a great pickup of revenue.”

Double whammy hits Avondale

All Spiced Up in vondale is a cozy shop with a bold premise: “Be a legendary chef at home.” 

“We feel very blessed that we still have our door open,” said Ana M. Hernandez, owner of the artisan spice company at 3543 St. Johns Ave., which specializes in gourmet blends and rubs made in small batches without the use of any processed ingredients. 

“I think we all have seen a loss of small businesses in our community. So we all have experienced it,” Hernandez said. “I think COVID certainly has closed many, many businesses that otherwise wouldn’t have closed.”  

She launched the business 12 years ago and brought it to Avondale in 2008.

“What I know in my heart and my gut is that foot traffic hasn’t been the same. We don’t have people coming in and shopping like they used to but we’re very, very blessed that they still do. Our customers have been very, very loyal,” said Hernandez, who runs the shop with Bronwyn Benoit.

Hernandez said they changed their business model, canceling wine tasting and cooking classes. Instead, they do limited seatings with social distancing.

“I tell people I go to work every day and throw spaghetti up against the wall and see what works and what sticks because we’re in uncharted territory,” she said, noting this year has been the toughest emotionally “because of the uncertainty of tomorrow and whether we can keep the doors open.”

The cancellation of Christmas in Avondale is a bitter but necessary pill to swallow, said Chris Hardison, co-owner of Design Additions at 3569 St. Johns Ave.

“This year Avondale is going to be hit harder because we are not going to have Christmas in Avondale, which is normally a huge, huge event,” said Hardison as he double-checked the gift shop’s inventory of home decor, furniture, unique accent pieces, jewelry, antiques and other goods.

“We are facing an uphill battle,” he said about the double whammy of the pandemic and celebration cancellation. “Over the past few years, the crowd has grown so tremendously that we really don’t want to take the risk of being a super-spreader event.”

Hardison, though, said he and other merchants are moving forward. 

“We have bought and prepared and gotten the shop ready as a normal holiday season with the anticipation that we might have to do what we previously did back in the spring, and switch to door delivery of curbside pickup model if necessary,” Hardison said.

In business since 2003 and at his current space since 2005, Hardison said he hopes to see his regular customers and that they will bring in some new ones.

“This year. It has been a struggle, but we are holding our own,” said Hardison, noting that Small Business Saturday has always been “a huge day for us.”

He said because of the pandemic, people “might not be decorating their homes to the nines this year, but they still will be buying gifts for co-workers, friends, family and neighbors.”

San Marco

Small business owners in San Marco also are in the homestretch of preparing for holiday shoppers.

In addition, they’re also gearing up for the annual Holiday Magic in historic San Marco Square at 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5. The celebration is combined with the Festival of Lights 5K this year, Carlucci said.

Carlucci said they also are doing a Christmas Arts Market from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19. Pandemic prevention precautions including face masks and social distancing will be required. Hand sanitizer stations also will be available, he said.

Those events “are huge for the San Marco merchants,” Carlucci said. 

“These local shops have been virtually very stagnant over the last six months. … We can’t have 5,000 people in the square like Avondale normally packs out for their celebration, but we did feel like we wanted to do something just because it’s been a rough year,” he said.

Carlucci said for the most part, San Marco merchants have been resilient, but one or two stores have closed.

“The others are sticking in there and hopefully we’ll get a good Christmas season,” he said.

Several San Marco merchants said they’re optimistic that the holiday festivities as well as Small Business Saturday, will bolster their sales.

San Marco Books and More, which has had a challenging year, is among the businesses looking forward to the return of holiday shoppers in-person.

A year ago  the bookstore at 1971 San Marco Blvd. was among four small businesses that sustained heavy smoke damage when an electrical fire destroyed the neighboring Beach Diner.

Four months later in March, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and soon ran rampant through Florida, closing stores temporarily and keeping residents home.

Desiree Bailey’s parents, who own the independent bookstore, already had a website in place — because of the temporary shutdown due to the diner fire — for online sales.

“So when everything shut down due to the virus, we moved everything online and we were able to continue to serve our customers via curbside and free shipping,” she said.

Bailey thinks the pandemic has opened the eyes of more people to the importance of supporting small local businesses.

“When you make a couple purchases at a local store or local restaurant, it goes so much farther in the community than if you make purchases at Amazon or a big box store,” Bailey said.

King Street District

Coliseum of Comics has been a longtime mainstay in the King Street District of Riverside.

Located at 2724 Park St., the store has been in business for nearly 38 years. The pandemic has been a challenge, but owner Phil Boyle said they’ve been fortunate to have a dedicated fan base who “love comics and collectibles.”

“They were back the minute the doors reopened,” Boyle said of his customers.

“Sales are certainly down, but we’re maintaining,” he said. “It’s also been a strange time as some collectors are selling their collections as they either move to a smaller place or to make ends meet.”

On the flipside, Boyle said they have “a lot more people looking for alternate investments, and comics have always been a safe haven for that.”

Boyle also said they always look forward to Small Business Saturday as a boost because November and early December are some of the slow sales periods for the shop.

Like other local small business owners, Boyle is confident his shop will survive.

“We will not close. We’ve been at this for nearly four decades and positioned to come out of 2020 a bit battered but ready for 2021,” Boyle said.

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