Treasure Coast merchants adjusting to business the new normal way
BY KERRY FIRTH
After closing their doors for nearly two months during Florida’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order, retailers are rolling out the red carpet with CDC safety precautions for returning customers. While the general public appears to be eager to get out and shop, some are still hesitant to spend too much time lingering and browsing inside the stores.
New and creative ways are being devised to assist retailers who need the business more than ever. The City of Fort Pierce teamed up with Main Street Fort Pierce to help small downtown businesses expand their storefronts onto the street by blocking off parking spaces with barricades. Shop owners have enhanced the curbside areas with pop-up tents, flower boxes, comfortable seating and display tables and racks.
“Many people are still cautious about being in enclosed spaces, so by creating parklets in front of the storefronts, customers can shop in the fresh air where social distancing is more easily practiced,” said Doris Tillman, executive director of Main Street Fort Pierce.
“Business owners applied to the city to have the parking spaces in front of their store partitioned off,” she said. “This expansion was done at the city’s expense with no cost to the merchant. There’s still plenty of street vehicle parking since not all businesses chose to block off the parking spots.”
“The parklet concept has generated new customers for me,” said Beryl Muise, owner of Notions & Potions, a local artisan boutique. “Customers purchased products from the parklet who had never previously visited the store.”
Muise used her ingenuity and creativity to generate revenue during the shutdown by making face masks.
“I started making masks for friends and put them on Facebook and within three days I had requests for 400,” Muise said. “The mask-making business evolved and we made and sold over 1,200 of them online and with curbside pickup. It’s still a big part of my business even after the reopening.”
The downtown merchants hope to attract even more clientele during their Christmas in July event on July 25. Businesses and parklets will be decked out in holiday décor and the city will create a couple of selfie stations. Guests can stroll down Second Street while safely social distancing and taking selfies at each business and photo station. Every photo will be worth an entry ticket for the grand prize drawing of a basket filled with nearly $1,000 in gift certificates.
VERO MERCHANTS COPING
Vero Beach Outlets manager Beth Hager reported that the reopening of about 40 retailers in the mall has gone as well as can be expected.
“Since all of the stores are under corporate directives, they opened at different times but we now have all but three fully operational,” Hager explained. “The first week customers lined up outside the stores because they were limited to 25 percent capacity. We marked the sidewalks with 6-foot social distancing lines for everyone’s safety. We still encourage all visitors to wear masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines but we no longer have to limit the capacity.”
So far, shopping traffic has been brisk on the weekends and steady during the week. Extra precautions have been taken by the mall to ensure safety while shopping. The trolley is operating, sanitized regularly and having no problems with passenger social distancing.
“Overall our transition back into business has gone smoothly,” Hager said. “The businesses are thrilled to be open again and the customers are happy to be here.”
Across town, mom and pop retailers are having a tougher time. Denise Driscoll, owner of All Thru the House Gifts and Home Décor, has decided to close her business after 40 years.
“I had already decided to retire before COVID-19 and had literally just run an advertising campaign a few days before the stay-at-home order was enacted,” she said. “All that advertising money was wasted because we had to close our doors for two months. When we reopened in June, business was good the first week but has slowed down considerably since then. People are still afraid to go out.”
Driscoll was able to secure a Paycheck Protection Program loan to pay her employees during the down time and stayed busy preparing her store to reopen with all CDC guidelines in place.
“We sanitize regularly, supply hand sanitizer and request that everyone wear masks and social distance,” she said. “We’ll be running a 60 percent off retirement sale in July on all merchandise and fixtures. COVID-19 is just making it more difficult to retire.”
STUART BUSINESSES NEED SUPPORT
Historical downtown Main Street in Stuart features small local retailers and restaurants. The quaint stretch of Osceola Street has always been a favorite place for locals and visitors to stroll, shop, dine and relax by the waterfront. COVID-19 turned the bustling shopping district into a ghost town overnight.
“We’ve explored so many options to bring customers back to the district,” Patty O’Connell, vice president of the Downtown Business Association and owner of two main street businesses, said.
“The city gave up some parking spaces to allow restaurants to have street dining, but it wasn’t really feasible to shut down parking and traffic on the entire stretch because many of the shops are only accessible from their frontage on Osceola,” she explained. “Plus, we’re in the dead heat of summer and in the middle of the rainy season. It didn’t make sense for retailers to move merchandise outside.”
Instead, the DBA is running a shop local campaign inviting customers to shop in air-conditioned comfort with all stores adhering to CDC safety guidelines.
“Each store implements their own masks policy, but most shopkeepers and employees are wearing them and encouraging customers to wear them as well,” O’Connell said. “Some stores, like Gumbo Limbo Coastal Chic and Coastal Kidz stores, are offering online shopping and shipping, as well as curbside pickup for locals who don’t want to venture inside. We want to encourage everyone to come down and shop. Our small businesses need your support more than ever.”
Essential businesses were allowed to stay open when all others were closed. Who would have known that ice cream and candy were essential? Fortunately for Bill Moore, owner of Kilwins Stuart on Osceola, they are.
“Ice cream and candy are food items, so we were allowed to remain open, and the sweet treats bring temporary comfort and joy during trying times,” Moore said. “Even though we were open we still took a major hit because very few people were out and about, and the lost months of March and April account for nearly a third of our yearly income. We stayed open with the goal of keeping our employees off unemployment and providing a place for the public to come and enjoy an ice cream treat.”
Like everyone else, Moore had to remove seating and rely on takeout and curbside service for the first few months.
“It was difficult because ice cream melts so quickly in this heat,” Moore said. “Things are better now that we’ve replaced the benches, spaced far apart for social distancing, so customers can relax as they indulge.”
The message that retailers want to deliver to the public is that they need support more now, than ever. Now that restrictions have been lifted they implore you to stop ordering from the internet giants and to come out and shop with local merchants.
The friendly shopkeepers miss their local customers and they’ve done everything imaginable to ensure their safety. Customers should do their part to stay safe by wearing a mask, washing their hands frequently, and social distancing. It’s all about community support and banding together to weather this latest storm.
Be smart… stay safe… shop local.
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