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Retail businesses say community has their backs during pandemic struggles

Story by Madeleine Leroux
Photos by Liv Paggiarino

It’s been a tough year for local businesses.

The global pandemic that began to hit Mid-Missouri in early spring has ravaged the normal ways of doing business for so many, forcing people to find new approaches and methods in order to continue serving customers.

“It’s been a learning experience,” said Jill Bednar, owner of Southbank Gift Company.

Grace Salter wears a mask as she paints wooden sticks with the various colors of paint Southbank Gift Company offers.

Non-essential businesses closed to the public by late March, as county and state stay-at-home orders began to take effect. During that time, local businesses had to quickly adapt, incorporating curbside and delivery services, as well as new pushes to online and social media venues that encouraged people to still shop local.

Like so many other retailers, Bednar had to quickly make some changes in how Southbank typically operates, like rolling out a website earlier than planned and helping customers, both new and old, navigate the online shop.

“Every day, we came in here during COVID, and we put out there, ‘call us, go online,’” Bednar said, describing how she and Southbank employees worked to update the website and make customers aware of the online option through social media and phone calls.

Shaun Sappenfield, existing business manager at the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce, said it’s been an extraordinarily rough time to own a small business. The ones that have been successful throughout the pandemic so far, he said, are those that had already built a solid base of customers or clients who would do their best to continue to support the business. These organizations, Sappenfield said, are better equipped to successfully adapt, as they have a better understanding of what their customers want and why they choose to shop at that particular business.

For many local retailers, that emphasis on customer service is nothing new – it just becomes all the more important.

“In a way it all changed, but then it wasn’t any different because we always focused on a high level of customer service,” said Carrie Tergin, owner of Carrie’s Hallmark. “I think that businesses that are able to bring their focus to that will figure out a way. … You will find a way to get creative.”

Tergin has had a unique view of the pandemic, seeing the situation from the perspective of not just a small business owner but as Jefferson City mayor. She said she got many calls from residents asking what they could do to support local businesses.

“That was good to see, that people just wanted to support our local business owners,” Tergin said. “They wanted to shop local.”

A customer peruses items during a sidewalk sale outside Carrie’s Hallmark in downtown Jefferson City. Since the pandemic, the store has implemented curbside pickup and sidewalk sales to keep customers safe while staying in business.

Tergin said it was important to find a way to allow small businesses to continue operating as the pandemic spread, and most were able to find a way to operate under contactless methods, whether it was through online shopping and shipping, front porch deliveries or curbside service. She credits not only the work city officials did but that of Cole County officials in working with the Cole County Health Department to find the best way to allow places to operate at a bare minimum, while keeping in mind public health precautions.

“We learned pretty quickly that we’ve got to adapt,” Tergin said. “We want them to be able to shop local and buy local. We want them to buy here rather than Amazon.”

That means going above and beyond to serve customers, as Bednar noted when she recounted the sheer amount of time she spent at the store, trying to fulfill orders and either ship them or load them all into her vehicle for deliveries wherever possible.

“Basically, we didn’t turn down anything,” Bednar said.

In addition to curbside and delivery service, Tergin said Carrie’s Hallmark provided personal shopping over the phone and by video call services like FaceTime.

“The virtual options were great, where people could just literally be like walking through our store with our employees and they don’t even have to leave their house,” Tergin said.

Susie Schaefer Hinds, owner of The Schaefer House, said the same methods helped keep business going at her shop, too. Schaefer Hinds said the pandemic really forced them to be more creative in coming up with new ways to reach customers, and that brought her right back to her first days as store owner.

“It was really fun because it was challenging,” Schaefer said. “It kind of felt like the good old days of back when we opened. … There was this new energy.”

Lizzie Harlan converses with a customer at her antique store, J Street Vintage. J Street Vintage has thrived during the pandemic through rapid integration of Facebook auctions and curbside pickup.

Social media took center stage, she said, which has worked out well, but it was a learning process to figure out the best times to post and be engaged with the customer base. And there were a few times where the social media response to something was so great, it was almost overwhelming.

During the stay-at-home orders, Schaefer Hinds said, many customers were looking for the exact type of home décor items she sells, partially because of a renewed focus on home projects but also because many of the large chain home décor stores, such as HomeGoods or Hobby Lobby, were closed longer. To serve customers, she said, they adopted any methods that worked, including having customers send pictures of a space in their home that they wanted suggestions for or looking at photos of Schaefer Hinds’ home décor to see what she had done.

“It’s kind of like personal shopping,” Schaefer Hinds said. “People would send us pictures of a problem spot in their home.”

Bednar said it took some adjustment at Southbank as well. After launching and pushing the new website, she said they had to take the time to walk customers through the checkout process and make sure they weren’t accidentally double selling – where someone purchases an item online around the same time it’s sold in-person on the floor. But that issue has been largely fixed with a new backend system for the site, Bednar said.

Nikki Payne, owner of The Snob Shop Exchange, said she had always done Facebook Live shopping events once a week, but she increased that to twice a week when the store was physically closed.

“It was very stressful,” Payne said.

After the store was able to reopen to customers, Payne said she found people were eager to shop in person and thankful for the opportunity.

“May and June was really busy,” Payne said. “I mean we’re still busy.”

Payne said she didn’t really see any new issues or concerns from customers about shopping resale, as a large portion of her store is dedicated to resale clothing, shoes and accessories. They always cleaned the items that came into the shop, but the level of cleaning has increased for everything in the store, Payne said, as it has for almost every business.

“I want my customers to feel safe,” Payne said.

Jill Bednar and employee Ashten Lorts look for a box to ship an online order at Southbank Gift Company. Business owner Bednar said the online presence of her customers has been strong during the pandemic, with people from out of state ordering items from the shop.

Bednar, Tergin, Schaefer Hinds and Payne found they all began to ship more products to customers out of state. Some were first-time customers who had found the small business by searching online for a specific item, while others were repeat customers who typically visited when in the area but now wanted to find a way to support a favorite business while shopping for a gift or home item. Schaefer Hinds said her store’s site saw a 300 percent increase in visits.

For most retailers, it’s a happy story as long as they can maintain average sales enough to keep existing employees and cover expenses like bills and new products. (Several also received assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program loan through the Small Business Administration.) But for a lucky few, the adaptations made during the pandemic managed to not only sustain, but increase business.

That’s the case for Lizzie Harlan, owner of J Street Vintage. The shop offers a variety of antiques, with individual vendors renting space to display their items. Harlan was quick to close her doors, concerned for the health of her young son who has a medical condition that makes him particularly susceptible to viruses. But she knew that she could keep things going through Facebook, where the shop is very active, and private messages with customers.

Harlan said she took photos of the big items in the shop, the ones that she knew could cover the mortgage payment on the building if they all sold. The items were posted on Facebook and discounted.

Within the hour, everything had sold. At that moment, Harlan said, she knew the shop would be OK.

And so she began regular Facebook auctions with items from the shop, something that’s continued even as her doors are open to customers again. The auctions have more than simply sustained the business, Harlan said, they’ve helped it grow.

“I would say our average sales have almost doubled,” Harlan said.

Harlan said staying open has been important not just for her business but for the sake of her customers, a sentiment echoed by other local retailers as well.

Regular customers become so much more, she said, as they share their lives with each visit.

“I am their therapist, I am their their friend,” Harlan explained, adding that they show the same care to her and seek to help however they can. Harlan said there is one frequent auction customer who always bids about $10 higher than the asking price. When Harlan asked her if this was a mistake, the customer said she simply wanted to show her support.

Payne said her customers have been unbelievably supportive, recounting how one customer in Rolla who lost her job has continued to purchase at least a couple of items from every Facebook Live event to show her support for the shop and for Payne personally.

“I couldn’t have done it without the customers,” Payne said, noting that many of them would call to check on her and the business. “It’s our close little shop family.”

Schaefer Hinds said that’s the benefit of operating in a small community – everyone looks out for each other.

“People genuinely want to help,” Schaefer Hinds said. “That’s where this town is better than anybody, hands down. … That’s the beauty of a small town.”

Tergin said many people are realizing that the local businesses are the same ones that sponsor local sports teams and help area nonprofits. They’re invested in the health of the community and want to see it flourish.

“It has really shined a new light on how much we value local businesses,” Tergin said. “We don’t want to lose any of them.”

As grateful as local business owners are for the support they’ve received, Bednar said there’s still more hurdles to overcome. For her, as for Payne and many others, there still work to do to get back to where the store normally is this time of year.

Lizzie Harlan converses with a customer at her antique store, J Street Vintage. J Street Vintage has thrived during the pandemic through rapid integration of Facebook auctions and curbside pickup.

“We’re part of the community and we want to continue to be here for whatever they need, but we have to work together,” Bednar said.

Payne said none of the bills stopped during the shutdown in spring, and they won’t stop if there’s a second one. And while programs like the Paycheck Protection Program can help ensure they can pay employees, most of these retail operations have only a small handful of people, if that. It’s the merchandise, shop bills and living expenses that continue to bring stress for so many.

“We are digging our way out,” Payne said. “Remember us, please.”

Tergin echoed the sentiment, noting that they’ve already ordered for Christmas at Carrie’s Hallmark, an investment she can only hope pays off. But at the same time, she said, it shows their own commitment to the customers and the community.

“It can be scary, but at the same time, I also feel that it’s important that we continue moving on and moving forward because we know that birthdays are still going to be celebrated. There’s still going to be anniversaries. There’s still going to be weddings. There’s still going to be new babies, all of these things … that we still do together and we need to be there for our customers,” Tergin said. “No matter what happens, we’re going to figure it out.”

Tergin said as long as local businesses continue the customer-focused practices, they will fare better, no matter what lies ahead.

“If you’re focused on the customer, you will survive,” Tergin said. “We are very resilient.”

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