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.”