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Adapt or risk closure, North Bay businesses navigate a troubled shopping season

North Bay small business owners are banking on creativity to lure local shoppers in the closing days of this pandemic-shrouded holiday season.

One chamber hosted a couch shopping event that in just two hours brought more than $8,000 into the coffers of 10 businesses.

Another for the first time paid for the Christmas trees and wreaths to bring cheer to its downtown, along with the hope of luring people to the business district to see the lights and to do a little shopping. Free delivery to locals is a concept several businesses are embracing, as well as having beefed up their e-commerce options. Partnerships and cross promotion has helped others.

Collaboration, staying positive and not being afraid to try new things are what businesses say will keep them afloat into the new year.

Since the pandemic took hold in March, nearly 20% of small businesses have closed, according to data firm Womply. In August, the North Bay Business Journal reported that in the first four months of the pandemic 488 businesses in Sonoma and Napa counties had closed temporarily or permanently.

Adding to the burden is that Sonoma, Napa, Marin and Solano counties are now all on a three-week stay at home order issued by the state because hospital ICU beds fell below the 15% threshold. This will last through the holidays. It means restaurants are take-out or delivery only, with retail outlets at 20% capacity.

Local stores still operating don’t want to be part of those statistics or be counted in the U.S. poverty numbers, which have escalated dramatically this year to 7.8 million people. According to information released Dec. 16 by researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame, the poverty rate in November jumped 11.7 percent. This is 2.4 percentage points higher than what it was in June.

With tourists staying home because of the pandemic, combined with the state’s shutdown orders, drawing locals is key for businesses in this, their money-making season.

“Shop local” is the message being shouted by North Bay chambers of commerce as well as shop owners. Even if shoppers don’t enter the store, the ability to shop online or pick up the product curbside are keeping it local.

“The idea is to have local people realize the fabulous indie stores that are here for them,” Neena Hanchett with the Cloverdale chamber said this month during a Zoom webinar hosted by Sonoma West Publishers. “A lot of comments have been made online that they didn't even know these stores were here.”

Erin Morris, who owns the dog specialty shops Fideaux in Healdsburg and St. Helena, doesn’t formally track where customers are from, but asks them casually. With the Napa County store being in operation for a couple decades, it has a huge local following. Morris was worried the Sonoma County site would be hit hard with the county implementing more rigid closure rules.

“It has been more locals as the shutdown gets deeper,” Morris said. “Typically in both of these towns we rely on tourism. Often we get a lot of international customers. Now it’s mostly Californians and some from neighboring states on a road trip.”

Karin Moss, head of the Russian River Chamber of Commerce, said she recently read something that said, “’Because you shop local, a family can pay their bills.’ That is 100% true; it’s not just an advertising slogan.”

Moss added, “People who are inflexible are falling by the wayside, while people with off-the-wall ideas are succeeding.”

She singled out Michael Volpatt, owner of Big Bottom Market in Guerneville, as one of those people who is reimagining his business model. The market has a mix of traditional and unexpected sundries, artisanal food, and serves breakfast and lunch. Plus, it makes what Oprah Winfrey considers one of the best biscuits in the world.

“This whole year has been one big pivot for us. One thing we did was up our catering game. That is up 500%,” Volpatt said.

The store has partnered with Lambert Bridge and McRostie wineries to supply their lunch boxes for guests.

“In addition, we really upped our e-commerce game. We’ve done this with Instagram Reels, Facebook Live cooking shows, and talking about products. People gravitate to that. In the past we would have three or four orders a month. Since yesterday I have 15 orders that need to be filled,” he said in mid-December, noting how busy things can get in a 24-hour period.

Volpatt is realistic, though, saying, “Our traffic is way down. This is not the best year for us. We are not making nearly as much money with foot traffic as we have in the past. That is why we are augmenting with e-commerce and catering. That is keeping the lights on.”

Government assistance

The city of San Rafael is helping its retailers by providing three hours of free parking at the downtown garages.

Marin County’s supervisors didn’t put any taxpayer money into the shop local program but the county is using its Twitter and Instagram accounts to tout what individual businesses are doing through a partnership with Marin Council of Chambers, which represents the 11 chambers in the county. The collaboration is a first for the county. This is also the first year the civic center sign in San Rafael has pushed shopping locally.

The Solano Small Business Development Center has seen demand double this year. Pre-COVID it had about 200 clients; now it is actively working with nearly 400 businesses. SSBDC is a nonprofit that supports small businesses with less than 500 employees. Funding comes from federal, state and local governments.

Through the CARES Act the Solano SBDC has been able to offer 110 training classes this year to more than 1,110 people. This is twice the number of classes it usually hosts. A public relations class in December sold out. E-commerce, social media, and setting up a website to sell products online are the most popular topics.

“Anything that has anything to do with increasing revenue people are hungry for,” Tim Murrill, executive director of Solano SBDC, said.

The business development center also works with the cities in its jurisdiction. Benicia has put up $10,000 for an e-gift card program. It’s free to businesses to participate. Shoppers can get up to 10 bonus cards based on how much they spend on e-cards in the city.

Vacaville has been touting small business weekends as a way to entice people to shop in town, and not just at the outlet stores.

Businesses on the offensive

“I have had so much more support this year with this whole shop small movement in the community. Especially for the holidays I feel people have made shopping small the priority over the past,” said Ashley Gall, owner of Rise & Redemption in Vacaville. The boutique caters to women and children.

Every year she has a holiday party to attract customers. This year she expanded it to include other businesses at multiple locations. Gall said it was highly successful, with some vendors selling out of merchandise.

For Gall, partnerships have also been a savior this season. Sonoma Springs Brewing Co., which opened in downtown Vacaville this year, has been carrying some of her line of clothing.

“Small business owners are talking about feeling the love and the movement about shop small in your community,” Gall said. “I hope it doesn't die down.”

Erika Dawkins, owner of Bon Ton Studio in Healdsburg, knew this season was going to be challenging. Her holiday campaign started Nov. 1 by reaching out to customers to encourage them not to wait until the last minute, and to think about buying gifts prior to Thanksgiving. This would ideally spread out customers in the store as well as keep the cash flow more even throughout the season.

“We were trying to think how to make gift giving easier this year. We offer free gift wrapping, and handwritten notes. We offer free holiday cards with every purchase,” Dawkins said. Bon Ton sells a collection of wovens, soft goods and designs from artisans all over the world.

Bon Ton is also offering personal shopping for the first time. Customers provide a price range and ideas about what they might like to buy, then Dawkins gets back to them with suggestions. For those who want to shop in person, but are weary of being with others, appointments can be made to shop early or late at Bon Ton.

Since the pandemic hit in March, AF Jewelers in St. Helena has seen a 180% percent increase in customers wanting their sparkly goods sent to them. This is not something the jeweler had done before.

Locals are looking for something special this season, too.

“We have had great, great support from all the locals. They are trying hard to support all the local stores in the area,” owner Carlo Antonini said. “Because we introduced other collections at a lower price point it is a little bit easier to buy online when you are talking $100 up to $300. If the customer is already a collector of some brand we are carrying in our store, they already understand the quality and are comfortable with those kinds of prices.”

Morris, owner of the two Fideaux stores, noticed some people were making holiday purchases in November instead of waiting until the last minute. For the Napa County store not only has the pandemic been a curse, but the Glass Fire last summer closed the business. Still, Morris remains optimistic.

“It’s been a challenge, but I feel like the locals are really rallying behind the buy local campaign in Healdsburg and St. Helena,” Morris said. “I’m totally feeling the love.” Curbside pickups and local delivery are popular options for her customers.

Robin Johnson, owner of 5 & 10 in Guerneville, is optimistic the store will weather this holiday season and the pandemic; after all, the business has been operating since 1949.

“Honestly, I decided not to take a look at previous years’ (financials). I’m taking one day at a time,” Johnson said. Customer service is what she is focused on. “I am looking into people’s eyes, saying hello and really seeing each other even at a distant. That fills the heart. I have to say this is the first time that at the river we are not alone, the whole world is in on this.”

Chambers scramble to be innovative

The couch shopping event in November was so popular, that the Sausalito chamber hosted a second one in December, with more planned for January and February.

“When we finished the first one the shoppers were asking for a second. I was going to just do one, especially when people were not used to selling on Zoom,” Juli Vieira, CEO/president, of the chamber said. Ninety shoppers signed up for the November and December events. Participating businesses had 10 minutes to talk to the “audience” about what they were selling. Then shoppers put in orders. The business made contact with the customer afterward to arrange payment and delivery.

The Calistoga Chamber of Commerce had several events planned, but all had to be scrapped because of the shutdown. Still, Santa showed up via Zoom. Businesses are participating in a decorating contest, with the winner being voted on by shoppers.

About 40 businesses belonging to the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce signed up to be part of the seasonal shop small campaign. The chamber ordered 5,000 stickers saying “I shopped small in Sonoma Valley” with the intent of people taking a photo of themselves with the sticker and then posting it on social media. Everyone who does so will be entered in a drawing worth $500.

Sanitizer is being handed out by the Healdsburg chamber as a cheerful way to remind people to stay safe. To encourage people to shop local the chamber created business bingo. Cards have 25 squares, with five in a row being a winning card. Activities include ordering take-out, taking a photo in front of city hall, getting gas locally, writing a note to the firefighters, and visiting an art gallery in town. Prizes will be awarded in January.

“We encourage people to support local and not buy on Amazon even though that seems easier. A lot of stores are offering private shopping and personal pick up,” Tallia Hart, Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce CEO, said. “I talk to friends and business colleagues and they see the struggle, and what could change in town if these businesses were to leave.”

SendSonoma.com was launched in October by the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce as a way to get the message out about area businesses, to share their story about e-commerce, curbside pickup and other methods to shop besides visiting the brick and mortar establishments. Mark Bodenhamer, CEO of the chamber, said he envisioned this holiday season being different than ones past and that the need to create a COVID-safe atmosphere beyond masks and 6-feet of distance was going to be necessary.

“I hope next year we are not thinking about what is COVID safe or not at Christmastime. The concept of shopping small and supporting local businesses is going to take more than one year to unwind the economic damage COVID has done,” Bodenhamer said.

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