Brianne and Jared Mees laid off two-thirds of their staff and scaled back operations at Tender Loving Empire in March after coronavirus restrictions forced them to temporarily close their five stores. Their sales remain down 50% for the year.
They believe their record label and handmade gifts store will survive the pandemic, but the next month and a half will be critical. Like other retailers, the Mees rely heavily on Black Friday and holiday sales.
Those could be especially vital this year.
“It’s definitely a make or break season for every single small business owner that I’ve talked to,” Brianne Mees said. “Every single one of them is counting on a good holiday season and if they don’t get it, they could close their doors permanently.”
Holiday sales in November and December account for nearly 20% of annual retail sales across the country, according to the National Retail Federation. For some types of retailers, that figure is significantly higher. Tender Loving Empire usually generates around 30% of its annual sales between Black Friday and the end of the year.
What retailers can expect this year is not as clear. Retail sales rose by a disappointing 0.3% last month, the slowest retail sales growth since the spring, according to the Commerce Department. The sluggish sales growth came as coronavirus cases spiked in Oregon and across the country and negotiations on a new coronavirus relief bill remained stalled in Congress.
New restrictions from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown limiting retailers’ capacity to 75% of normal also went into effect Wednesday and will last for four weeks in Multnomah County. While many Portland retailers say they are already limiting capacity in their stores to well under 75%, the new restrictions could dampen shopping heading into the holiday season.
Black Friday plans
But while Portland retailers don’t expect to see the in-store rush they might see in a normal year this Black Friday, they are still hoping to entice customers with sales and social media campaigns to generate a holiday boost. Tender Loving Empire plans to advertise discount codes on Instagram and through its newsletter.
Retailers say they have put safety measures in place to welcome customers to their stores on Black Friday and through the holiday season, but many are encouraging customers to shop online.
The doorbuster craze that defined Black Friday for many years was waning long before the pandemic, as the holiday shopping season lengthened and more people bought over the internet.
Big chains such as Fred Meyer appear to be forgoing doorbusters altogether this year, offering discounts well ahead of Thanksgiving and making the same prices available online. Walmart appears to be offering its best holiday deals online only.
Independent retailers are making similar adaptations.
Pam Coven, the owner of Imelda’s and Louie’s Shoes, said the business rolled out Black Friday sales early with 15% off storewide beginning last Friday. She said the business has been adhering to enhanced safety measures at its two stores for months and is ready to welcome customers on Black Friday, but will also offer delivery and private shopping to give customers options.
Cassie Ridgway, the owner of Altar, a boutique in Southeast Portland, said the business will allow just five customers in store at a time and has spent months working on its website to encourage people to shop online for Black Friday. It will offer 30% off its house line and 20% off all other items on Black Friday, as well as provide gift certificates to the first 20 customers in stores and online.
Ridgway said the business has set up a gift section on its website and has a new feature that will allow customers to shop virtually over video chat with sales associates. It will also unveil what it hopes will be a fun and satirical online shopping network at Crafty Wonderland, which is hosting virtual events this year beginning the day after Black Friday.
“I think many businesses are holding on to the hope that this will start our holiday season off with some degree of prosperity in a year that has probably been the most cataclysmic of any year that any of us have been in business,” Ridgway said.
Gov. Brown and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announced new campaigns last week to encourage shoppers to safely support Oregon small businesses this holiday season.
As part of the state’s effort, Travel Oregon is promoting local gift guides on their website. The campaign is also highlighting other efforts to promote small businesses, including the Built Oregon Marketplace, an online platform that features products from Oregon makers. Last week, the City of Portland also launched ShopSmallPDX.com, which enables customers to search for local small businesses and highlights virtual markets. Businesses can sign up to add themselves to the website.
“When you shop small and local, you’re buying from your neighbors and friends,” said Wheeler in a statement. “You’re keeping nearby coffeehouses and retailers open. Hundreds of options are available to shop safely in-store or virtually, both downtown and in neighborhoods throughout the city.”
A new way to shop
Many local holiday markets that would usually welcome hundreds of customers in person are going virtual this year as well. Among those is the Northwest Made Holiday Market, hosted by Mercy Corps Northwest, which will highlight more than 60 businesses owned by women and people of color.
One of the business owners who is selling her products at the market is Kilaa Scott, the founder and owner of Portland x Rosé, a lifestyle brand that celebrates women.
Scott spent over a year preparing to launch her business and decided she had invested too much of her savings into the company to scrap her plans when the pandemic hit in March. She ended up launching her online store in May.
Getting the business off the ground during a pandemic has been a challenge. The in-person markets where Scott had hoped to sell her clothing have mostly been cancelled and she has had to rely on social media to generate support.
But she is hopeful that customers will embrace virtual markets this holiday season and that she can get the word out about her business at the Northwest Made Holiday Market, which opened on Nov. 15. She plans to offer Black Friday promotions, including free locally-made holiday cards with the purchase of apparel.
“I’m in the negative and getting hit pretty hard,” Scott said. “I was definitely looking forward to getting my products out to customers in-person, so they could get a feel for how great the products are. I’m worried, but I have faith that our great community here in Portland and the Northwest is going to figure out a way to show up and support small business owners.”
Jake France, owner of men’s boutique Boys Fort, had already begun to see sales slip at his downtown store before March, but business plummeted after the start of the pandemic as foot traffic in downtown Portland disappeared. After nearly a decade downtown, France decided to shut down his store at the beginning of August.
He has since reopened the business as two pop-ups at Urbanite and the Art Design Xchange in Southeast Portland as he considers his long-term plans. He has seen other businesses take similar steps to survive this year and is hopeful that Portlanders will rally around those retailers by shopping local this holiday season.
“I think it’s really up to the consumer to make that decision that they are going to keep their dollars in their community and that they are going to shop local or locally on the web,” France said. “If we don’t as a community go out consciously and visit our local shops and local retailers and buy from our local artists during this season, that part of the neighborhood won’t survive.”
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