COVID-19 and its shutdowns delivered multiple negative impacts to local retail. But by quickly modifying how they did business – in both minor and major ways—many survived. Now, as the holiday shopping season ramps back up, they’re holding onto the lessons learned and building on the innovations made.
Retailers across the River Region took an unexpectedly hard hit beginning in March of 2020 when the COVID 19 pandemic brought quarantines and shut-downs into area communities. “There were many businesses reporting 75 to 80 percent losses,” said Nancy Dennis, Director of Public Relations at the Alabama Retail Association, of the initial phase that stretched generally into early May.
“They had to pivot how they did business,” Dennis said. “Many of them completely redid their business plans. Restaurants suddenly became grocery stores. Businesses that had never had a website suddenly had to have a website. Businesses that never delivered suddenly had to deliver. Businesses that had never provided curbside suddenly had to provide curbside. It was just a really quick pivot.”
As retailers continued to operate in reduced capacity, Dennis said, “They were having to work three or four times as hard to get anywhere from a half to a third of the business.”
For Mike Henig, president of Henig Furs Inc., the early days of shutdowns were unlike anything he’d experienced during his 45 years in business. “We were very shocked and praying that we would handle this in the way that we needed to survive,” Henig said. “We had no idea how long this pandemic or the shutdown would be.” His company had to make some very tough decisions, he said. “We immediately shut all locations and laid everyone off except for about 10 associates.”
The path to recovery had the added element of dealing with mandates in different states and different restrictions affecting more than 20 locations in the Southeast. “Some locations didn’t open back up until eight or nine months after we had shut down in Montgomery and Alabama,” Henig said.
As a result, a lot of their business shifted online. “What we learned during this is that ecommerce got so much stronger in sales and volume,” Henig said. They used that knowledge as they evaluated where they would reopen stores. “We’re back almost to the volume we were doing in 2019, prior to COVID and parts of 2020,” he added.
This holiday season, Henig Furs is planning to open temporary pop-up shops in several out-of-state locations. “That gives us the opportunity to go into the retail market,” Henig said. They’ll also continue with their freestanding locations, including the store on Carmichael Road that is open to customers. “They get the very best treatment,” Henig said of local shoppers. In addition, he noted, “Anything sold on Amazon or the internet is shipped from Montgomery.”
Notably, this holiday season will be his last as the head of Henig Furs. He’s retiring at the end of 2021 and, as of January 1, is handing over the reins to the fifth generation to run the family business.
For Keiauna White, the community she’s been building as an entrepreneur was there when she needed them as the pandemic began. White operates BeYOUtiful Boutiques in a location at 1 Court Square downtown, as well as a fashion truck that she takes to special events. “The BeYOUtiful family, which is what I call them, is where I think most of my support came from,” White said. Initially, customers made online purchases for pickup, and the store was doing more shipping. She also added a lot of social selling by conducting live sales on Facebook.
Even as her business continues to respond to changing circumstances, she recognizes that this holiday season may look different than the ones prior to COVID-19. White said, “I feel like there will be much more shopping online, shopping from home, shopping from the couch. I don’t think there will be as much foot traffic as we’re used to.” Yet she’s still serving her community. Online buying doesn’t have to mean buying from mega out-of-state retailers, Dennis noted. “You can buy online from your local retailers and maintain that economy locally,” she said.
As retailers move forward during this holiday season and beyond, some changes are likely to stick around. Curbside is likely here to stay. Selling through apps, social media or online—in addition to in store—will continue to be part of the retail channels. “It’s all about serving the customer how they want to be served,” Dennis said.
THRIVING WITH FACEBOOK LIVE
Twice a week—at 11 a.m. on Tuesdays and 7 p.m. on Thursdays—Keiauna White sells clothing items to her BeYOUtiful Boutiques customers through a livestream sale on Facebook. “So many businesses have transitioned into that,” White said of using social media to conduct sales. “It’s been quite beneficial as a way to stay connected to my community.” She began using Facebook Live early in the pandemic when few people were shopping in person, yet she kept it up even after restrictions loosened.
White uses an ecommerce platform called CommentSold for a live sale that connects to her inventory of items and available sizes. Customers register prior to bidding, and when they see something they like, they respond “mine” and add their size in the comment box. The bid then goes into the shopping cart where the customer completes her purchase.
Products are either shipped to the customer or they can choose to pick them up at the store. Customer who are unable to watch the video live can go back and watch it later and bid on any items that haven’t been sold.