For many independent retailers, holiday gift-giving season is make or break – a time when merchants hope to generate enough revenue to even out slower periods to start the calendar year.
With public health orders relating to COVID-19 changing the landscape of the shopping experience, this year is shaping up to be a very different scenario. With shopping comfort zones varying between people, operators providing clear safety protocols for customers stand the best chance of staying connected to customers, say local retailers.
Teri Hustins, co-owner of the Oscar & Libby’s novelty gift stores and Kaboodles toy shop downtown, is also a downtown resident.
“For me as a shopper, I pretty much spend all my money downtown, and I only shop at places that I feel safe,” she says. “Our approach has always been, if we keep our staff as safe as we can, we will keep the customer safe.”
All three shops limit in-store customers to allow for distancing and a sign reminds visitors to wear a mask and hand sanitize upon entry. The store limit renders it virtually impossible to achieve the 25 per cent of annual sales that December typically brings, Hustin says.
That said, the emergence of their online store – set up by a local tech sector volunteer early in the pandemic – has not only helped sales, it gives her customers an alternative to in-person shopping.
At Munro’s Books, customer reviews have indicated appreciation for the safe shopping environment, says managing partner Jessica Walker.
“I think the big challenge for any bricks and mortar retailer is being able to manage physical customers,” she says.
Munro’s, which has high ceilings and good ventilation, allows 20 customers in the store at one time and has a suggested browsing time of 15 to 20 minutes to allow for regular turnover. Masks have not been required, but are now mandatory under the Nov. 19 public health order.
Customers are encouraged to have an idea what they’re shopping for ahead of time, or use online ordering. “Plus, we just got our permit from the city to do curbside pickup. We’re just trying to make life easier for people,” Walker said.
Both retailers voiced gratefulness for residents’ commitment to keeping business at home through the pandemic.
“People are so supportive about shopping local, or shopping downtown this year,” Walker says, “It makes sense, you’re just supporting independent businesses whose staff are local, too.”
Hustins, who is also president of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, sees around her a great willingness to do whatever it takes to provide a valuable service to customers during challenging times.
“In our business community we are entrepreneurs, we are resilient, incredibly hard working and we’re problem solvers,” she says. “And we have everything on the line. People’s credit cards are maxed in many cases, and we have no option but to show up and put our best foot forward every day.”
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