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For small retailers, COVID-19 is changing business, but to what extent?

Sean McHenry Dec 16, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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Shoppers carry bags from Macy's department store in New York on Black Friday, Nov. 27. Kna Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

For small retailers, COVID-19 is changing business, but to what extent?

Sean McHenry Dec 16, 2020
Shoppers carry bags from Macy's department store in New York on Black Friday, Nov. 27. Kna Betancur/AFP via Getty Images
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The latest retail sales figures from the Commerce Department show a slowdown in November, when many people were trying to finish holiday shopping early. So what does that mean for retailers, particularly small businesses?

Marketplace is following three small businesses through the holiday season this year. We checked in with them ahead of the Commerce Department report to see how things are going, firsthand.

Annie Lang Hartman, Compass Paper Co., Leelanau County, Michigan

Annie Lang Hartman, owner of Compass Paper Co. (Courtesy Hartman)

“Things have been going pretty well. Our Q4 is up 350% compared to last year. Our deadline for holiday orders have come and gone, so things are starting to slow down a little bit. So the name of the game right now is just helping people track down their orders in the postal service system right now. Sometimes I feel really guilty about it, but this kind of business was built for a pandemic. I mean, since you can’t see your people in person and you’re getting hundreds of text messages every day, if you want to stand out, stationery is an easy, inexpensive way for people to do that. So I think that’s why we’ve been doing OK this year.”

Irene Kesselman, Ali Cat Toys and Books, Carrboro, North Carolina

An interior of Ali Cat Toys and Books. (Courtesy Kesselman)

“The last three weeks have been extremely busy. In years past, my shop, my shopping would have been done pretty much by October, and this year, because not knowing what to expect, I really, really was looking at sales and just, you know, ordering some things last minute, seeing how quickly I could get it. We are still doing deliveries. We are spending time with people on the phone. Just this morning, I spoke with an 80-year-old woman whose only way of feeling comfortable in purchasing for her grandchildren and other kids was just to talk to me on the phone for one hour. And she was chatting away saying I hope you’re having as much fun as I am, Irene, and I was, but I also have another person who can’t get to the store, and I’m sending him pictures. So we’re kind of just going through the motions to do what we need to do.”

Rue Newby from Label by Three in Phoenix, Arizona

Rue Newby started sustainable clothing company Label by Three with her sisters two years ago. (Courtesy Newby)

“The last two weeks have been very busy, which has been nice. We weren’t sure what to expect. Not this past weekend, but the weekend before was our busy weekend. We’d like to keep that momentum going that we’ve had from the beginning, but it did drop off a little bit this last weekend, so we don’t really know. We’re hoping for the best and planning for that, but we’re not sure what to expect. It has been strange because my family is really holiday-oriented. Every holiday we spend together, and none of that’s happening this year. Both my parents and my sisters, the other owners, are in Prescott, [Arizona] together, so they see each other all the time. But it’s fine. Since we are able to keep in touch so much through the business, then it feels like we’re closer than we are.”

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