Treasure Coast business owners improvise during pandemic shutdown
Patty O’Connell, owner of Gumbo Limbo Coastal Chic and Gumbo Limbo Coastal Kidz in Stuart, has adapted the way she runs her shop to cope with the pandemic.
Merchants find innovative ways to combat loss of revenue and customers
BY BERNIE WOODALL
For about a decade, Patty O’Connell has had an informational website for Gumbo Limbo Coastal Chic, her downtown Stuart home accessories shop. But none of the store’s eclectic collection of goods were for sale online. The plan was to eventually gin up the website for e-commerce, but there was no hurry. Most all her customers were loyal locals. All sales were in-store, just as it had been since its opening in 2008.
That was all BC — Before COVID.
O’Connell said she was fortunate to have the website up and running before protective protocols for the virus forced all stores like hers deemed non-essential to shutter from mid-March to early May.
The pandemic came on like a Category 5 hurricane in its ability to shape-shift the landscape for Treasure Coast merchant retailers, just as it has most aspects of life in this memorable year many wish to forget.
The start of e-commerce for Gumbo Limbo was pushed up overnight and sales immediately switched from in-person to order, pay online and then pick up the merchandize outside the store.
“It was a savior,” said O’Connell, a John Carroll High School graduate whose friends knew her as Patty Glascock.
Gumbo Limbo sales were way less than half of what they were in March-April 2019, but it was enough to keep the business afloat, O’Connell said.
The shift to online sales experienced at Gumbo Limbo was duplicated at small retailers, and big ones, to varying degrees of success across Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties.
How stores dealt with the massive shift in behavior by their customers determined how they fared during the shutdowns for the pandemic, agreed several city and county officials on the Treasure Coast.
The pandemic has caused “probably the most changes in habits since World War Two,” said Phil Matson, community development director for Indian River County.
Those changes include how consumers shop, from home on a phone or computer to when they visit a store.
The shutdowns hit Treasure Coast retail shops during the tail end of the selling season when winter residents inflate the area’s population.
“That pretty much killed the season,” O’Connell said. “It took away Easter, which is a great holiday for us, and it took away Mother’s Day, which is our second-biggest selling time. We learned about it six days before [the mandatory shutdowns]. It was a real punch in the gut.”
Moving sales online has been perhaps the biggest adaptation by retailers, who were guided by local and national advocacy groups including the National Retail Federation. For stores that remained open throughout the shutdowns and for those that reopened in May, advice ranged from selling and marketing online, having customers pick up purchases, shipping and delivering purchases, no-contact credit card transactions, as well as realigning store layouts to increase physical distancing. And sanitizing. Sanitizing like your shop’s life depends on it.
Jera Jarvis, owner of Jarvis Treasures in the Arcade Building in downtown Fort Pierce, said she uses sanitizer on dressing rooms, door handles, and anywhere a customer touches at her shop that sells a variety of stuff, mainly apparel.
It’s important for customers to know the place is clean in a virus-protecting way, Jarvis said, particularly when some larger stores closed off their dressing rooms.
Many small retailers enforced mask-wearing even outside of local statutory requirements because it makes customers feel safer, said Bill Moore, president of the Downtown Business Association of Stuart, of which O’Connell is vice president.
Moore said merchants in that organization showed “business starting to come back dramatically” when Martin County instituted a mandatory mask ordinance in July.
“That made the customers feel safe,” Moore said. “More people will venture out if everyone is wearing a mask, from what we’ve seen.”
Moore owns Kilwin’s Chocolates & Ice Cream, also in downtown Stuart.
“You can’t come into my store unless you have on a mask and use the hand sanitizer,” said Patti Descutner, owner of Patti’s Antiques in downtown Stuart. “I’m 75 years old. I’m not taking any chances and I don’t want my customers taking chances. So many of them are afraid to come out of their houses and when they do go out, they want to be sure it’s safe.”
When a customer calls Descutner’s store, the outgoing voicemail message ends, “Don’t forget to wear your masks!”
MASKS SAVED A FORT PIERCE SHOP
For Beryl Muise, owner of Notions & Potions Candles and More in downtown Fort Pierce, masks saved her store.
When her shop had to shut down in mid-March, Muise was feeling blue. St. Patrick’s Day had been in recent years one of her best sales days because of a big downtown party centered around Sailfish Brewing Company. It was canceled due to the virus.
“You’re counting on this big event and then there is no big event. What do I do now,” Muise said.
For about a month she tried several ways to entice business, including live events on Facebook such as sewing tutorials. Her friends had been telling her that they did not like the masks they were wearing for virus protection. She noticed some spa beds with remarkable covers, and she got the idea for making protective masks and selling them from Notions & Potions.
Within three days, she had 400 orders. Soon, she ran out of elastic and fabric, which was nearly impossible to find back in the days before the supply chain for such things was righted. It was also a time when medical mask prices shot up and panic buying set in.
“I was cutting up $60 leggings for ear pieces for the masks,” Muise said.
Her buddy, Christina Gibbons, owner of Varsity Sports Shop, which is just steps away from Notions & Potions, stepped in to help “and saved my ass,” Muise said.
Gibbons has six embroidery machines that smoothed the production. They designed a washable mask that sold at first for $7 but they couldn’t make money at that price so it went up to $10, and they could hardly keep up with demand.
Muise also makes a bandana-type of mask that protects while allowing for easy breathing that sells for $19. Sales have fallen off in the past few months, but they are still being produced.
“The store would have died without those masks,” says Muise, who made at least 2,000 of them.
SALES SLIP IN APRIL, REBOUND IN MAY
Gross sales in March fell 8.7% for retail businesses on the Treasure Coast and 8.5% for all business sectors in the three counties, at $1.82 billion. Activity in April was slower, shown by a drop of 18% for all business sectors and of 24.7% for retail businesses, according to a Treasure Coast Business analysis of gross sales figures reported by the Florida Department of Revenue.
Sales fell again in May for Treasure Coast retailers, by a collective 9.4%, and June showed the first year-over-year increase, up 1.1%, since February.
The Florida Department of Revenue issues county and statewide reports monthly on gross sales and taxable sales. There are more than 80 business categories. For the purposes of calculating retail merchant sales, Treasure Coast Business included the 12 largest retail categories reported by the state, which did not include restaurants, bars, liquor stores, grocery stores, or the sale of automobiles or automotive accessories.
Among the dozen biggest retail segments by sales, the largest by far is termed general merchandise, which includes sales from the big-box stores, but can include some wholesale sales. Still, it is a good guide to the business environment for retail. This segment accounts for two-thirds of sales for the dozen retail categories statewide. Second in terms of sales in the latest month reported, June, in Florida were stores selling consumer electronics, then apparel stores and fourth was home furniture retailers.
The hardest-hit individual retail segment on the Treasure Coast in April was apparel, which fell 94% from the previous year in Martin County, 91% in Indian River County and 33% in St. Lucie County. Furniture sales were down about 50 percent in each county, and electronics store sales fell 56% in Martin, 52% in Indian River and 25% in St. Lucie. Sales declines of general merchandise were not as steep, from 6% down in St. Lucie and a 17% decrease in Indian River, reflecting the relative strength of the big-box stores.
Once May arrived and stores reopened to in-person shopping, those sharp declines were followed by massive gains, not quite to year-ago levels, but impressive. Gains in May over the April nadir for apparel were 740% in Martin at $4.28 million; nearly 400% for Indian River, at $4.82 million; and 25% in St. Lucie at $4.15 million. Furniture sales for May were up from the previous month by 113% in Martin, 89% in St. Lucie, and 49% in Indian River. For consumer electronics, May recorded recoveries from April of 68% in Martin, 48% in St. Lucie, and 33% in Indian River. General merchandise gains were much more modest in all three counties.
ADAPT TO THRIVE
Doris Tillman, executive director of Main Street Fort Pierce, said Jarvis and Muise are poster children for how small retailers adapted and thrived during the peak of the pandemic store shutdowns.
“I was very lucky that I had a lot of these channels set up before this happened,” said Jarvis of Facebook events from private shopping counseling to public group events. “Selling on Facebook is an excellent avenue.”
She had a website before the pandemic hit, but she hired a company to conduct an audit on her site and to help her rebuild it “to make it more friendly for customers to buy.”
“After I implemented free shipping and local pickup, my sales in April increased 50% over January to March,” said Jarvis. Her sales in May and June were up 20% from April after the boutique was able to open three days a week for in-person shopping. After in-store shopping returned, free shipping ended.
Jarvis, Muise, O’Connell and Descutner all say they have a loyal following who have helped them navigate through challenges thrown at them by the pandemic. But to a woman, each said that old-fashioned customer service and attention to a customer’s wants are still the most important path to success, even if shopping is online.
SHIFT TO ONLINE SEEN LASTING
There was no data other than anecdotal for the shift for Treasure Coast retailers. Huge national stores show an increased reliance on e-commerce, a shift that business analysts say is here to stay.
For the second quarter, which included the height of business shutdowns and stay-at-home practices, Walmart showed an increase of 97% in online sales, and its overall sales rose more than 9%, helped along by a federal stimulus package that has since run its course. Big stores like Walmart and Target did not have to shutter in March and April, but hours were limited in our area.
Target’s sales rose 24% in the second quarter, a record for the company. Same-store digital sales were up 195%.
The boffo results for the big-box stores could be worrisome for smaller retailers, national analysts said. The draw to Target and Walmart is their ability to offer customers one-stop shopping for most if not all purchases, presenting a challenge to the smaller retailers that specialize.
Not all retailers made it through the pandemic. Like the national chains that announced cutting stores, other issues contributed to the demise of local retailers, such as not entering the pandemic in a strong financial position. JCPenney, Pier 1 Imports, Stein Mart, Calico Corners, Brooks Brothers, and J. Crew are closing all or some of their stores in the United States.
City and county officials on the Treasure Coast said they did not have a handle on how many businesses including retailers permanently closed during the time of the COVID-19 effect that began in March. They may have a better idea after businesses report sales for tax purposes this fall — until at least after business taxes are tallied this fall — on how many businesses, including retailers, closed for good since March when the COVID-19 effect became significant.
In Port St. Lucie, from March through mid-September, 15 retail businesses shut permanently compared with 11 in the same period in 2019, said Elijah Wooten Jr., business navigator in the PSL city manager’s office. The businesses did not report what caused them to close.
BRING ON THE FOOT TRAFFIC
The shopkeepers all say they need increased foot traffic in their downtown areas to get back to normal sales levels. They are not out of the woods yet, each of them said. The upcoming holiday shopping season will be an odd one, unless people feel more comfortable by November and December in venturing out in numbers, the shopkeepers said. The National Retail Federation forecast that even in pandemic 2020, holiday shopping will rise between 3.5% and 4.1% nationwide.
In Vero Beach, much of the downtown business district is filled with professional offices but it does have about 12 to 14 retail merchants, said Susan Gromis, executive director of Main Street Vero Beach. By September, most of those merchants were not close to matching year-ago sales levels.
“You can walk on the street and you see cars driving by and not stopping,” Gromis said in mid-September. “This [impact of the virus] is lasting a lot longer than we thought. When the federal [small business] loans were offered in the spring, we all thought this would be an eight-week thing.”
“I’ve been here since 11 in the morning,” Descutner said one Friday in mid-August. “Two girlfriends came by to visit. That’s it so far for today.” It was nearly closing time.
Not enough people are shopping downtown yet, she said. “I’ve had a few great days, but they are few and far between.”
There was fresh talk in late September of the polarized Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress getting together to pass a second stimulus package of help for small businesses and stimulus payments to individuals, increased unemployment benefits and more. It was not clear by early October whether this will happen before the Nov. 3 presidential election, after it, or at all.
O’Connell said the primary goal for small stores is simply to hang on, to survive, until sales return.
“When are things going to return? We have no idea,” O’Connell said. “We have no idea when we can have events again. I don’t think any of us are expecting a booming recovery anytime soon ... 2021 will be a pivotal year.”
Treasure Coast Business is a news service and magazine published in print, via e-newsletter and online at tcbusiness.com by Indian River Magazine Inc. For more information or to report news email [email protected]