Independent Stores Fight Back Against Pandemic

Independent Stores Fight Back Against Pandemic

Don’t count the little guy out.

Independent specialty stores, many of whom have been in business for decades, are using every weapon in their arsenals to fight this invisible enemy that has upended their businesses and their everyday lives. They’re leaning on peer groups such as Forum Group, Common Threads and others for advice, applying for small business financial assistance from the government and working closely with vendors to navigate future orders.

They’re also using the most valuable tool they have and the one that has helped them survive up until this point: Staying in close contact with their loyal customers. While e-commerce only represents a tiny percentage of sales for most of these independents, they’re still fulfilling orders, doing curbside pickups and even allowing unofficial private store visits when they can.

With more states reopening, and many others setting plans to do so, these retailers are also preparing for the new normal when they’ll have to provide customers with masks at the door, deeply sanitize their locations and make sure to maintain distance between employees and shoppers for the foreseeable future.

And on Monday, some of these small merchants will be given a financial boost by a few of their vendors, which have joined together in a week-long initiative called Shop For a Shop. The brainstorm of Stantt, a custom men’s shirt and pant resource, the program has rallied a number of vendors including Faherty, Trafalgar, Alan Payne and others to offer consumers a discount on merchandise they sell on their web sites during the week and then donate a percentage of those sales back to their retail partners.

“Our goal for Shop For a Shop is to rally together like-minded brands to directly provide financial and marketing support to our specialty store friends and partners,” said Kirk Keel, cofounder of Stantt. “The reality is that Stantt — and many other brands — wouldn’t exist without the partnership of specialty stores. They are the lifeblood of their communities, and it is our mission with this initiative to help ensure their longevity for years to come.”

Stantt’s sales manager Katie McCarthy said the brand will donate 20 percent of revenues raised during the week to around 300 of its specialty store partners. “I’ve had some very concerning conversations over the past couple of weeks,” she said. “And these retailers have become our friends, so we wanted to help support them.”

Sara Hutchinson Brown of David Wood Clothiers in Portland, Me., is one of the retailers that will be a beneficiary of the program. The store has been doing a very small business online, but that’s more of a way to “stay connected with our customer” than a true revenue producer, she said. Right now, the plan is to reopen on May 15 and the store is putting procedures in place to welcome customers back. “We’re adding a front door lock and a doorbell,” she said, to ensure that only a small number of people can be in the store at the same time. And its tailors are making masks.

The store is also working closely with vendors to not cancel fall orders, but instead edit what is in the books and prepare for late deliveries for the season. “We don’t want them to go out of business either,” she said.

Other retailers around the country are also doing everything they can to keep their heads above water until they can reopen. Most are confident that they’ll survive long term and while they’re not expecting business to be robust until holiday or even next year, they are anticipating an uptick when they can open their doors to fulfill pent-up demand.

Gary Flynn of M. Dumas in Charleston, S.C., can be a case study for the other specialty stores preparing to open: He reopened his stores earlier this week. Although he waited a few days after the governor gave his blessing, Flynn said he quietly unlocked the doors last weekend. “We did very little business, but customers were happy,” he said. But because the store is located on the main thoroughfare, King Street, and most of the other stores on the street are still closed, foot traffic was way off.

Flynn said he made a commitment to pay his employees despite the closure and was able to attain a Payroll Protection Plan loan to cover that cost as well as his rent and utilities. He also was approved for a loan that he will use to cover the cost of his inventory. “That’s our biggest expense,” he said.

Because he’s located in the South and was able to open before May 1, Flynn is hopeful that he’ll be able to sell the spring receipts through the summer and delay fall deliveries until September rather than July. “I’m navigating what to bring in and what to cancel,” he said, adding, “I’m trying not to break price, but that will be challenging because the big-box guys are going to be discounting, so it could potentially be a blood bath.”

At Boyds in Philadelphia, the company has not laid off or furloughed any of its 125 employees — only top management has taken significant salary reductions.

Kent Gushner, president and third-generation owner of the business in Center City, said: “We are a local family business of merchants, tailors, stylists, sales and service folks — many of whom have been with us for decades. Our employees are woven into the very fabric of all that Boyds represents and we hope that this policy will help avoid financial hardships. They are part of the Boyds family and now more than ever, we stand together.”

The store is also working with other local merchants to raise $100,000 for the Jefferson COVID-19 Better Together Fund through April 30 by donating 10 percent of all online orders and gift cards purchased to the charity.

“We’re a solid company from a financial standpoint,” Gushner said. He said he was able to obtain a government loan, which will take him through the middle of June. He also said that although he has seen a small uptick in sales, the store’s online business is “still very underdeveloped” and can’t make a dent in the company’s brick-and-mortar volume.

He’s looking at spring as a lost season and believes that the summer will also be “very difficult. I don’t think people will come rushing back in when we open,” Gushner said. “I think they’ll still feel hesitant, and shopping for luxury items won’t be top on their list.”

Even so, he’ll be giving out masks at the door, deep cleaning the store and offering hand sanitizer to those customers who do venture in — whether that’s to refresh their tailored clothing wardrobe or to pick up some high-end sportswear for them to continue to work from home.

And he’s hopeful about fall. “We won’t prosper in the short term, but we will eventually,” he believes. Gushner said he has only canceled a “negligible amount” of fall orders at this point and is keeping a positive attitude that sales will rebound by then.

“We’re not giving up on fall,” he said. “We believe in our buy and we’re still planning some new initiatives that will help our sell-throughs. I’m still very concerned, but I’m also very energized. Specialty stores that can figure out how to survive until next year will find a lot of opportunities.”

Hill Stockton of Norman Stockton in Winston-Salem, N.C., expects to be one of those survivors.

Since being forced to close, he said the store has been reaching out to customers on social media and fulfilling a few orders through a drive-by program or by mailing merchandise to customers. “We don’t have any e-commerce business,” he said. And everything being sold through social media channels is being discounted. “The winner at the end of this will be the consumer,” he said. “Nothing will be sold at full price until fall.”

Stockton estimated his sales in April will be down 85 percent from last year. He just got approved for PPE, so that will offer some financial relief as he did not furlough any employees.

The plan in his state, as of now, is to reopen on May 8, and Stockton will be ready. “The few people that I’ve seen can’t wait until they can shop again,” he said.

He admits to being a little resentful that the large stores such as Walmart and Target — which are considered “essential retailers” because they sell food — have been able to stay open this entire time while he was forced to close. “They sell all the same stuff we do, just not as high end, and they can have hundreds of people in their stores at one time. The most we ever have is four or five.”

Looking ahead to fall, Stockton said he’s reaching out to vendors to see what they deliver before making decisions about cancellations. “I don’t want to cancel because that number may be just want I need,” he said. Beyond that, he’s prepared to take “a paring knife, not an axe” to the remainder of the orders for the season.

Atlanta-based Miller Brothers Ltd., opted to wait a few days even though the state allowed a variety of businesses to reopen on Monday including tattoo parlors and nail salons. Cofounder Greg Miller’s plan is to reopen on Monday, May 4, by appointment only for a week and assess the situation at that time.

Miller said the store has been available for customers to actually stop by and shop since it was forced to close, but visitors have been “few and far between. We didn’t lock the door but no one was really coming.”

After Monday, the staff will wear masks and the store will have masks available for customers made by its tailors, and will clean, sanitize and follow social distancing guidelines.

But for those customers still leery about walking into stores, Miller Brothers will offer curbside pickups, and make home deliveries. The company also jumpstarted a new e-commerce site it recently launched and is offering that as an alternative. “It’s pretty primitive and the selection is limited,” he said. “It’s not what shopping at Miller Brothers is about, but we’re giving it a go and at least we have some platform.”

Miller estimated that the company’s revenues are down 90 percent at the main store and a Peter Millar store it operates in the suburbs is bringing in “zero business.” Even so, he kept his entire staff on the payroll and received the PPP funding to cover those costs. He also applied for a small business loan and was approved, but hasn’t seen the money yet. All the stores in his peer group applied and the ones in smaller cities received theirs quickly, he said.

For spring, he said, “We canceled some orders that were outstanding but we were 85 percent shipped already.” And for fall, he’s being asked by vendors to accept delayed delivery windows and is also expecting “natural attrition” on a lot of what he ordered.

Miller predicted: “This will affect the business for a year. When we come out of this, everybody is going to be on discount. But we were sound before this and we’ll make it.”

Craig DeLongy of John Craig in Winter Park, Fla., said this would have been his busy time and he’s hoping to salvage the season by reopening his two stores this weekend. “We lost a ton of business,” but he’s communicating with customers via social media and selling online.

Although he furloughed his employees, he received his PPP money thanks to his local banks and will be bringing them back when he can reopen.

To prepare for the reopening, he’s having masks made and sewing his stores’ label on them. “We’re not going to sell them, we’re giving them out,” he said. And he’ll break out the spring merchandise that had already been delivered before the shutdown.

“We made sure not to receive any more spring merchandise after mid-March,” he said. Going forward, he expects to reduce size runs or numbers of units for fall. “We reached out to our clothing people to find out what they’re not going to be making and we’ll cancel those orders,” he said.

While he expects his stores will weather the storm, he knows the waters will be rocky for several months. “After July 1, we’re going to have to make a list of how to cut expenses,” he said.

Neil Guffey of Guffey’s in Atlanta offered customers the option to come in privately while he was closed, “but we didn’t have a lot of interest,” he said. So he’s eager to reopen his doors again on Friday.

“We’re going to stagger our staff and may lock the door between clients,” he said. “We’ll take every measure we can to be safe and responsible, but we have to start generating some business.”

He’s spent the last several weeks “navigating the maze of federal funding,” and was able to retain staff and obtain the PPP funding by working closely with a local bank.

Like the other retailers, he communicated closely with his peer group and how to handle upcoming orders. “We wrote our orders in good faith so we’re not doing any blanket cancellations,” he said. “We’re talking to our vendors but we have no idea what’s going to happen. We have a large number of Italian vendors and they’re not able to produce anything and they won’t make their shipping dates anyway, so we’ll have to adjust.”

Despite the challenges, he’s still keeping a positive outlook. “I think we’ll come out of this better than we went in,” he said. “I’m excited for fall — I think there will be pent-up demand.”

Dana Katz, owner of Miltons in suburban Boston, has had his two stores closed since mid-March and furloughed his employees but will bring them back because he received PPP funds.

With no solid reopening date, he is working with his landlords, who have been “very productive,” he said. “Everyone is very empathetic; we’re sharing in the pain. It’s no longer about profit and loss, it’s about cash flow.”

While he prepares to reopen, looking at what other states and retailers are doing, he continues to sell online. “It’s not enough to make up the volume we dropped, but it’s also nice to take care of our customers’ needs.” He’s also been able to continue working with wedding parties, which represent a big portion of his business.

Regarding fall, he continues to work with vendors to see what orders he may have to cancel or suspend. “I don’t know when we’ll reopen and the velocity of sales when we do,” he said. “We’re trying to be as flexible as possible and work together.” He’s hoping that the gentler, calmer demeanor that seems to have permeated society continues when the pandemic is over. “It’s really nice to see, I hope it lasts.”

Craig Andrisen of Andrisen Morton in Denver is hoping to reopen on May 8. And while the store will adhere to all safety precautions, “we’re not sure when people will be comfortable shopping again,” he said. So he’s working closely with vendors to stop spring orders that have not already been shipped, and reduce or cancel orders for fall.

”I expect we’ll be down around 20 percent this fall so we need to work it out,” he said. He also said he will pull full sets of spring inventories off the floor and hang onto them until later in the year.

Like other specialty retailers, Andrisen said he’s concerned about how promotional the big stores will be when they reopen. He hopes not to have to cut price but give offers to the store’s best customers instead as an incentive.

”We’ll get through spring, fall will be tough and next spring, too, but I think by fall ‘21, we’ll be going gangbusters again,” he predicted.

David Rubenstein of Rubenstein Bros. in New Orleans, received the government assistance available and is working through scenarios on what to do when those dollars run out this summer. He hopes to reopen on May 22.

”That’ll take us through June or July with cash flow,” he said. And if the store cuts orders and works with its landlord, he expects to make it through.

“I’m an optimist and I think by January, things will be 75 to 80 percent back to normal,” he said. “Our customers are not broke, they like clothes and I think people want something new. I see a really good future in our business.”

Crawford Brock of Stanley Korshak in Dallas may reopen as soon as Friday, since the Texas governor has permitted all retailers to reopen as of this week. “Texans are ready to get out,” he said. “We’re excited to get things rolling.”

He received a small business loan and has been trying to service customers through shop-and-go and e-commerce for the past couple of weeks.

When he does reopen, he hopes to work through spring receipts before doing a big push in fall.

Brock said he’s navigated through at least five disasters since owning the store, including 9/11 and financial downturns. “I feel confident I can build the business again,” he said.