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Will COVID be the Grinch that Steals Christmas?

Published Monday Dec 7, 2020

Author Judi Currie

Every Christmas, people look forward to watching the Grinch slither into Whoville to stop Christmas from coming only to be redeemed. But retailers worry if this holiday season will end as happily as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to steal critical holiday sales.

As retailers enter an uncertain holiday shopping season, a greater desire to shop local and forgo the big box and big metro areas is tempered by the cancellation of parades, craft fairs, winter festivals and even visits from Santa, which would normally drive  holiday traffic.

The effects of the pandemic on retail have been uneven. “It’s the strangest thing,” says Nancy Kyle, president and CEO of the NH Retail Association. “Some retail is doing incredibly well. Some were deemed essential and stayed open, such as the lawn and garden suppliers, but others are really struggling.” She says clothing stores and boutiques are hurting as they are still limited to 50% capacity.

Kyle is on the state’s Reopening Task Force and says members working with the governor’s office asked that more restrictive state rules for retail be lifted, and instead adhere to the general guidance for other businesses. But Gov. Chris Sununu wasn’t comfortable lifting the 50% capacity rule, concerned that people would be “shoulder to shoulder at a candy counter,” she says. “That’s really hard for retailers. The ones that are adapting are doing online events and sales to try to drive traffic to capture that business they are losing because they can’t function at full capacity.” Kyle says clothing sales plummeted 80% in March and April from the previous year, and August sales were down 23.5% from 2019.

Valerie Rochon, chief collaborator at the Chamber Collaborative of Greater Portsmouth, says retailers used their down time wisely, increasing their online presence and redesigning brick and mortar spaces.

She says Kilwins Chocolates, Fudge, & Ice Cream Shoppe in Portsmouth changed the flow of its store and placed a staff member outside to ensure people wear masks and limit shoppers inside, rather than having to tell them to go back out. “This person becomes an ambassador who can talk about the products inside. They’re using a proactive strategy rather than reactive,” Rochon says.

Fewer Events to Draw Shoppers
Holiday events are reconfigured or canceled, such as the annual Portsmouth Halloween Parade, which, if not for COVID-19, may have drawn a huge crowd this year as Halloween falls on a Saturday and there will be a full moon.

One successful summer venture developed in response to the COVID-19 crisis will continue to Nov. 1. Pop Up NH, which is underwritten by Service Credit Union, is a miniature festival with food, music and craft brews at the Bridge Street parking lot in Portsmouth. As a member of the citizen’s response taskforce trying to support businesses in the pandemic, Rochon says she was amazed at the collaboration and grateful for “how incredibly supportive” the City of Portsmouth has been, which gave permission for the Pop Up without hesitation.

Portsmouth is reinventing its Vintage Christmas, which is themed, “Let the Magic Shine Through,” and holding related events when possible. “There will still be a holiday tree in Market Square, the storefronts will be filled with white lights, gifts and treasures,” says Stephanie Seacord, director of marketing and communications at Strawbery Banke. And there will be the 30th annual Discover Portsmouth Gingerbread House contest.

The ice skating rink at Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth.

She adds The Music Hall will present live holiday shows, though with reduced audiences per state guidelines, and the 41st Candlelight Stroll at Strawbery Banke will surround the outdoor skating rink. Lights, handcrafted wreaths on all the doors of the historic houses and more costumed role-players than usual will greet visitors as they stroll the site along lantern-lit lanes.

Rochon says downtown businesses are being encouraged to use strings of white lights to brighten outdoor dining spaces—even as dining moves inside—to create a sense of continuity and carry the Vintage Christmas theme through the entire downtown.

Kathy Lemerise, who co-owns Trends Gift Gallery & Invitation Studio in Exeter with her husband Keith (pictured), is concerned about the lack of holiday events in her town and what that will mean for holiday shopping. “The town-wide holiday open house, including a festival of trees, Santa and a gingerbread competition, is the night everybody comes to be with families to enjoy our Norman Rockwell downtown, and this year, it is not happening,” she says. “The parade is not happening either, and that’s a little scary as it kicks off our whole season. So, we are holding our own open house and still working on the details.

Kim Lindquist, events and marketing director for the Exeter Area Chamber of Commerce, says with so many events canceled, the chamber decided to focus on encouraging people to shop and dine local. “Very early on in the pandemic, we launched a shop local rewards program. It was cool to hear feedback from people who participated. They treated it like a scavenger hunt to see how many places they could hit,” says Lindquist. “It was really nice to see the community band together like that.”

People who spent $250 or more at businesses served by the chamber received $20 in Exeter Area gift certificates. She says they plan to launch the initiative again in January during the lull after the holidays.

The Lake Sunapee Region Chamber of Commerce also employed a shopping rewards program over the summer, says Ashlee Rowley, director, and is revamping the rewards program for the holiday season. “Community members can shop at a local member business and then submit their receipts to be entered to win Local Loot gift certificates,” she says. “Essentially winning money for spending money.”

Meanwhile, the fall Pumpkin People contest sponsored by the New London Recreation Department is underway and is something that is helping to keep spirits high, she says.

The Greater Merrimack-Souhegan Valley Chamber of Commerce, based in Amherst, is encouraging shoppers to shop local with its Holly Chamber promotion. “It is really an Elf on the Shelf doll that we dress up as Holly Chamber,” says Wendy Hunt, president and CEO. “Holly visits businesses for a day or two then moves to another Chamber member business. We give hints where she is, contest participants then go to the shop and post a picture of themselves and Holly on our Facebook page.” Each location is worth a raffle ticket, so the more places players visit the more chances to win a large gift basket full of goodies from participating businesses.

The Greater Merrimack-Souhegan Valley Chamber of Commerce encourages local holiday shopping with its Holly Chamber promotion where participants can enter to win a gift basket. Courtesy photos.

For the past decade, the Mount Washington Valley has run a shopping promotion, Harvest to Holidays, in November, says Marti Mayne, public relations manager for the Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, which will run it again this year.  

One of the highlights of the promotion is Settlers Green’s Bring A Friend Shopping promotion, which Mayne says attracts shoppers from throughout the East Coast and Canada. “This year will have to be a little different,” she says. “Social distancing and limits on the number of people who can be in the stores will create a slightly different scene. We do expect, however, that people will still come to Mount Washington Valley for their annual shopping trip tradition.”

Settlers Green’s Bring A Friend Shopping promotion will be a little different this year in light of social distancing. Courtesy photo.

Mayne says the chamber promotes the region’s tax-free shopping at more than 200 national outlets and independently owned stores. Along with White Mountain Independents, there’s a strong effort in the region to encourage people to shop local.

On Nov. 1, the American Independent Business Alliance will launch its Shop Indie Local holiday campaign, urging individuals and businesses to shift their holiday spending to locally owned and independent businesses.

Stores Adapt
This holiday season will be crucial for Trends Gift Gallery & Invitation Studio, which was sidelined for some of the most important events of the year when customers would typically buy gifts, cards and invitations. “We were closed for two months,” says Lemerise. “We missed Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, weddings and graduations. When we reopened on May 11, we scrambled to find ways to get people in the door.”

But if a customer isn’t comfortable in a store, they will do whatever it takes, she says, including walking through the store, allowing for video shopping and then delivering the purchases. They also started offering a $10 gift card to use on a future purchase when a customer spends at least $50.

“We would ask: What else do you need? How about a mask, antibacterial items or a bottle of wine?” says Lemerise. “We had a sidewalk sale. People really liked shopping outside and liked the deals. Items like Easter napkins that we didn’t get to sell, we dropped to 75% off, almost giving it away, but it helped clear out those items.”

Celebrating their 46th year in business, Lemerise says she is nervous but excited for the holiday season. “I feel like local people want to support us,” she says, adding while it’s easy to buy from the online giants, she hopes shoppers keep in mind this season is “make or break” for a lot of small businesses. “This is why they choose to live in places like Exeter…small shops are so important to the feel of a downtown.”

Keith Lemerise says they have brought back Friday night wine tastings, which highlight wines from among the more than 100 bottles in stock.  “It is socially distanced,” he says. “The wine rep is at a table in our wine loft. We use disposable cups, and there are squares six feet apart. People go to the table, get their sample and go back to their square.”

Trends Gift Gallery & Invitation Studio in Exeter. Courtesy photo.

Kathy Lemerise adds that both Exeter and Trends require a mask, which people seem to appreciate. She says they have more than 500 different masks for sale. “With everything from sloths to unicorns and camo to hand-sewn sequins,” she adds. “If you’re going to wear it, embrace it and feel good about yourself.”

The couple are optimistic about the upcoming holiday season. “We think, more than ever, people want the closeness of family….I think it is going to be more of a heartfelt kind of holiday.”

At Hempire, with two locations in Massachusetts and stores in Exeter and Portsmouth, owner Kirby Mastrangelo says, like many retailers, her family-owned business didn’t have a strong online presence when the pandemic hit, and she continues to struggle getting foot traffic back.

However, she found that demand for CBD products has increased. “With a lot of our products, especially those that improve sleep or help people keep calm, people found them helpful during this crisis,” she says. “We have a lot of healthcare products and gift items, so people are also buying a lot for others.”

With fewer events to draw people in, she says it’s all about pulling together. “We are really trying to build up relationships with our neighboring businesses. It’s like referrals; someone comes into our shop and we send them for lunch or coffee. We’re working together and, hopefully, we will survive together,” says Mastrangelo.

At Clarke’s Hardware in New London, owner Read Clarke says the supply and demand model is changing dramatically and is so shaken up it will take time to settle down. He expects there could be several shortages of different products. The surge in home cooking in March and gardening in the spring led to a run on mason jars, he says, with stores running out as early as June, well ahead of the traditional canning season. “The big change will be that people will realize what they really do and really don’t need in life. And we, as purveyors, will adjust,” Clarke says.

In the meantime, he says he has no plans for special sales or promotions and wants to focus on safety. “I will do the very best I can to maintain a safe environment for our staff and our customers, and we are going to do the very best we can to make sure we have desired products on our shelves.”

For Monadnock Oil & Vinegar Co. (pictured), a retailer with locations in Peterborough and Amherst that sells olive oils, balsamic vinegars, spices and herb blends, owner Korey Snow says he had to cut way back on staff as soon as the pandemic hit as many of his employees were at high risk. At first the closure of the restaurants meant a big loss in orders for his wholesale spice blends.

But in one of those unexpected turns that have come to symbolize the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, his business has grown. With a resurgence in home cooking, he says sales of gourmet oils at farm stands exploded. “We closed for four days, then switched to curbside and delivery,” he says, which meant driving across NH and into Vermont. “I was in the van for 10 to 12 hours a day.”

When stores reopened, Snow had to cancel a signature holiday event and rework his retail model. “Our holiday round-robin, which would typically pack our store for four days, has been suspended,” he says. “We are also not doing any cooking or tasting demos.”

He says they also got rid of all open tasting, which had been self-serve. If a customer wants to try a product, an employee pours it out and steps away so the customer can step forward and briefly take off their mask to try it.

Increased demand for his products and the inability to refill bottles has led to supply chain issues. He says there are no issues with the spices, oils and vinegars as they are agricultural, but glass is a big challenge. “I used to get glass bottles in three to four weeks,” he says. “I did a small order and two and a half months later they still couldn’t tell me when we’d get it.” Instead, he ordered a year’s supply, about 17 pallets, which moved him up in his supplier’s production cycle.

Snow says spice jars won’t be in until March 2021 and one factory isn’t taking any more orders until January, so he has stocked up on food grade plastic bags as a backup. “The crinkle cut for gift boxes isn’t available until Dec. 20, but five days before Christmas doesn’t help us.”

The Amherst store, originally scheduled to open in April, was delayed two months. Snow says he adapted the design of the tasting bar and will incorporate the changes at the Peterborough location. He is pushing free delivery and plans to hire a shipping manager as online orders have gone up four to five times what they were pre-pandemic.

At M&C Consignment in Amherst, Owner Karen Goddard says while she doesn’t have holiday-specific plans, she is more confident about making plans. “You didn’t know if you would get shut back down,” she says. “Our strategy since we reopened and moving forward is to offer more ways people can shop, putting more merchandise online and even running out to their cars to show them items.”

She says it was stressful at first trying to follow the ever-changing guidelines and keeping everybody safe. “We are getting a lot of feedback from the customers saying we are doing it right and they feel safe in the store,” Goddard says, adding she developed safety protocols for taking in merchandise.

Goddard created a promotion with a postcard inviting shoppers to define their style, colors and sizes or choose a celebrity look they want to try. “We fill up a dressing room for them with the things we think they will like, and maybe throw in a few curveballs to get them out of their comfort zone,” says Goddard. “Then they come in at their appointed time. It may feel safer than wandering around the store.”

While business hasn’t recovered fully, there are no supply chain issues in the consignment world. “Compared to regular retail, if anything, there’s an increased supply chain because so many people were at home cleaning out their closets.”
The store is almost all consignment, but not all secondhand, she says. She has about two dozen local makers of soap, jewelry, upcycled clothing and more and has had a few new ones join due to the lack of craft fairs.

A Sense of Optimism
Another outlet for NH makers is the Manchester Craft Market at the Mall of NH in Manchester. Owner Jessica Moores (pictured) says she features the work of 200 local makers and also rents space to small businesses to display and sell their items. “It is similar to renting a space at a craft fair, only they don’t have to be here to sell their stuff; I sell it for them,” she says.

As she approaches her fourth holiday season, Moores is optimistic and anticipates hiring extra help. She has purchased new displays to accommodate more sellers as makers look for space amid the cancellation of so many fairs. “I think it will be the normal holiday shopping season,” she says. “Our store is about 4,000 square feet so even with social distancing, we can easily fit 25 customers versus four or five in a small shop.”  

Moores says crafters are able to promote products on a shared site, which drives traffic to the store. “Shoppers are inspired to buy local. We did a lot of social media while we were closed, which definitely helped, but there’s just a big local movement right now.”

The Manchester Craft Market in the Mall of New Hampshire in Manchester.

Farther north, they are also feeling the loss of Canadian tourists, and retailers are definitely counting on locals supporting locals. At Marie’s Boutique in Gorham, owner Ann Marie Demers closed in March because of the pandemic, moved to a much smaller space in August and was just starting to reopen in September. “I am now offering more online options with curbside pickup or shipping and also offering to shop by appointment,” she says.

Demers, who has owned the business for four years and normally sees 50% of her business come from local shoppers and the other 50% from tourists, says, “I guess you always hope for more people from your community to shop small.”

Kortney Throneberry, who with her parents co-owns Probodies Warehouse in Berlin, says because half of the shop is a salon, the closure forced her to move online and offer curbside pickup and delivery. But, she adds, business is picking back up and seems even busier than before. “We do carry a full line of supplements and immune boosters and people seem more interested in that.”

She says Berlin Main Street and the Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce are working on events to encourage people to shop Main Street stores, and it does seem people are shopping local.

“My neighboring businesses are seeing an increase in customers as well,” she says. “There are more first-time customers who are staying within the community. With it being a small town, you often have to travel for a special item, but I think more people are being mindful and staying local and that’s helping.”

Challenges Persist
People want to buy local, says Kyle of the Retail Association, “but if you don’t want to go out and shop and feel it will keep your family safer, online may be easier.” She says online sales have been increasing annually but in just one month of the pandemic grew by an amount equivalent to the past five years, with most of that additional business going to online retailers without physical stores.

“Online retail sales for August alone were up 20.1% from last year. It’s a seismic change,” Kyle says. “Those incredible gains are taking away from brick and mortar.” She says legislators need to make sure they don’t pass laws that hurt retailers.

“These are scary times for retailers. I think you’ll see a lot go out [of business] after the first of the year, if they make it that long.”

Mask ordinances can be particularly problematic, she says. “We are all behind the state’s efforts, but we need to be careful not to make the retailer responsible,” Kyle says, explaining it is unfair to make customer service personnel responsible for enforcing mask ordinances. “The New Hampshire Restaurant and Lodging Association and grocers are vocal about this too as reports come in from all over the country about workers getting injured.”

Industry leaders also worry about the overall effect the loss of Main Street retail will have on the character of communities.

“If retailers go out, it hurts the whole community,” says Kyle, noting there will be a loss of property taxes as well as the ancillary rooms and meals tax “from the people who come to stay, shop and eat in classic New England villages.”

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