Small businesses prepare for late Christmas shopping push amid pandemic

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The holiday season is the most important stretch for most retailers who are looking to close their year out strong. This year has taken on greater importance following pandemic-related difficulties.

"We were closed for two months and rent was still due. You know, commercial rent in Raleigh is very high and we were closed for two months. So, we haven't even begun to recoup the income that we lost during that two months," said Debbie Cain, the owner of Inspirations Home Decor & More on Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh.

Due to rising COVID-19 metrics, many customers have felt more comfortable shopping online.

"As far as social media we've been trying, I've had to pour a lot more money into advertising because we just haven't had quite the foot traffic. But we've been very blessed because our sales are actually up this fourth quarter over last fourth quarter," said Cain.

Over at The Flourish Market in downtown Raleigh, Emily Grey is reporting a spike in digital sales.

"We had to make a lot of pivots when the pandemic hit. Prior to the pandemic, about five percent of our total sales came in from our online shop, and now about 70% of our total sales are coming from our online store. And that's anywhere from shipping to Raleigh to all over the nation to also curbside pickups that people are purchasing online. We get it ready in an hour and they pull up into our spot right outside our store," said Grey.

Both stores have also reported a change in what customers are looking for.

"When the pandemic hit, we had just gotten in a whole slew of boxes of Easter dresses which then no one needed so we were sitting on all this inventory, but we took a step out in faith, and purchased a lot of loungewear, and that was a really big hit initially, especially as people were working from home and trying to settle in. And then another big pivot we've made is that we have expanded our gift collection," said Grey.

"We are finding that people are really redoing their homes, redecorating because they've stared at the same four walls for so long and they just want to see something different. So we've sold a lot more home decor fourth quarter than we normally do. Our clothing sales are down because people just are not going to Christmas parties, they're not going to church," added Cain.

While online sales have helped small businesses stay afloat over the past several months, they do come with an extra expense.

"I highly recommend curbside pickup as a business is offering that because shipping is so expensive for small business. It's really hard to compete when you don't have mass orders going out. So on average it cost us a little over $9 to send out every package," said Grey.

"Yes, it's been an interesting year. Shipping fees have gone up dramatically. Some of the shippers are actually charging COVID fees like when we order a rug there's a $30 COVID fee tacked on to it. A lot of things are not in stock," said Cain, who said she believed more people got their shopping done earlier this season due to the preference of online sales.

Both store owners are grateful for the strong local support they received, and are hopeful it continues through the early part of 2021, a typically slow time in retail.

Grey credits her transparency with her clientele as a driving force behind a strong push to the end of the year.

"I sent out an email in early September, letting our customers know that we were down 41% in sales, compared to last year it's always scary to press in on an email to 17,000 people giving them, giving them the numbers of your business," Grey said.

She anticipates her sales will end up down 15% compared to last year, a figure she calls a "Christmas miracle." A portion of proceeds from sales of certain items at The Flourish Market are donated to charitable organizations.

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