Suburban stores pivot to special promotions, personal services for Small Business Saturday
Suburban shops hope new merchandise, personal service help them hold their own in a scaled-back holiday season launch
On the eve of a scaled-back Small Business Saturday, owners of suburban shops are hoping their own ingenuity and customers' loyalty will help keep them afloat in the Year of the Pandemic.
A traditional highlight of the crucial holiday season, Small Business Saturday will by necessity be muted by COVID-19 precautions and state-ordered limits on the number of people in stores. Festivities meant to draw foot traffic to local shopping areas have mostly been canceled.
Shop owners hope their specialized goods and personal services will draw people anyway, and keep them coming for all of December.
"We really, really need local support," said Kristine Knutson, the owner of How Impressive! gift and stationery store in Libertyville. "Small Business Saturday is our biggest day, and it won't be that way" this year.
"It's devastating, to be honest with you," Lisa Collins, owner of Lauren Rae Jewelry Boutique in downtown Naperville, said of her business this year.
But Helen Budzisz, owner of Upstairs Boutique & Gift in Arlington Heights, remains hopeful. "I'm hearing that they (customers) want to shop small. They want to support Arlington Heights," she said.
Collins said foot traffic at her store is down about 80%. "We are a walk-by business, mostly," she said. Many of her buyers are tourists staying at local hotels who come to downtown Naperville to dine and shop. Stay-at-home moms who used to get together with friends for lunch and shopping are busy schooling their children at home, Collins said. She has also lost a lot of business because weddings, proms and fundraising galas, for which people would buy something special to wear, "are basically gone," she said.
Collins' landlord has helped by letting her delay some rent payments, and forgave a month's rent, she said.
She adapted by partnering with nonprofit organizations. They promote her business, and she is giving part of her proceeds from a week's sales to them.
Collins has pursued other ways to keep her business afloat. She's bought 30% less inventory and has not replaced workers as they quit. She added virtual gift cards and hand-delivers online purchases to customers who live in Naperville. During the spring stay-at-home order, sales of items she displayed in her window grew, because people going out for walks to pass the time saw them.
Still, "I don't know if we will still be here after Christmas," Collins said.
Quick and flexible
Small businesses owners say they have one advantage in being able to turn on a dime, without layers of corporate bureaucracy to go through to make a decision.
Take Mike Simon, owner of The Little Traveler store in Geneva. The 36-room store located in what was a Victorian house has had a Web page for years, but it did not do online sales.
Simon's son, who is studying computer science in college, came home in the spring because of the COVID-19 shutdown. "Guess what? You have a job," Simon told him, and had him set up online shopping.
Simon's store has started using FaceTime, Zoom and other social-media apps for personal shopping, and does its own local deliveries.
But on Wednesday, Simon made a shocking announcement: He closed the store's doors temporarily and will offer just online shopping until he sees a sufficient decline in the number of COVID-19 cases being diagnosed locally.
"I do not want to do anything that will contribute to it," he said.
For Marisa Bellizzi, owner of the Charisma boutique in downtown Arlington Heights, personal service and using many avenues to market her items have been key.
"We just want to be super accommodating," Bellizzi said. That includes doing curbside pickup and texting regular customers about new things she thinks they would like. She does live fashion videos that she posts to Instagram.
And people have already made an effort to buy from local stores, she said.
"Everybody seems to be making a dedicated effort to shop local this year," she said. "I'm super proud of our community."
Budzisz said her shop, which she has owned more than 30 years, has always done better on Small Business Saturday than on Black Friday. But this year, she thinks she might see more shoppers on Black Friday, as people want to avoid crowds in large stores.
She changed her annual open house from a one-day event to four, unsure whether customers would support it. "They did. They showed up over the four days," she said.
Downtown Libertyville businesses typically would have a holiday-time "passport" program, where shoppers would get stamps as they visited stores, for a prize giveaway.
It did not seem like a responsible thing to do this year, said Jennifer Johnson, executive director of MainStreet Libertyville. The nonprofit organization also canceled its "Dickens of a Holiday" promotional weekends.
Instead, it has pivoted to promoting businesses' individual promotions and sales.
"Our retailers are bending over backward to meet customers' needs," Johnson said.
One example is the 847 Running Co. store, which opened just before the pandemic. Johnson said it has a "shop the suitcase" program, which includes bringing shoes to customers' homes for them to try on. The store also offers private appointments for fittings.
"We've seen really good, creative options," Johnson said.
How Impressive! has added products, such as a mask with a map of Libertyville on it, Knutson said. She also ramped up her website. People can order custom Christmas cards similar to those at big online sites. Her shop is open for walk-in traffic, but she also meets people by appointment. Curbside pickup is available, and she runs a sanitizing air purifier every night.
"We're just trying to do everything we can to stay afloat," Knutson said.