Small, locally owned businesses were already struggling against the onslaught of online sites that put the world at a shopper’s fingertips when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and dealt them another body blow.
Businesses that made it through the shelter in place order enacted in Stillwater last spring may have survived, but many say their sales are still lower than usual and they aren’t exactly thriving, which makes shopping local that much more important this holiday season.
Locally owned businesses may not have a global presence but the internet can be an equalizer as much as a threat, and many are making use of technology to reach customers who might not feel safe shopping in person as COVID-19 infection rates spike and hospital ICU beds fill.
Even mom and pop shops can set up websites to showcase their merchandise using online templates, and stores with point of sale systems can create e-commerce sites to handle sales using platforms like Shopify.
Having an online presence and taking advantage of social media is important for small businesses, Stillwater Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Justine Minges said. Retailers who had good strategies to capture online sales from both inside and outside Stillwater have been able to weather the economic storm a little better.
Some stores like Greige Goods in downtown Stillwater basically operate like an online shop in addition to a brick and mortar storefront.
“Almost all the sales we have in-store we also have online, so if a customer is more comfortable shopping from their house and they don’t want to get out to go shopping in public, then they can shop from our (online) store and it’s shipped directly to them,” Lauren Badiyan said. “It’s in sanitary packaging and everything.
“… Also, for local people we can deliver so you don’t have to pay shipping … and you can also do local pick-up where you can just come in the store and grab it and get out, or we can even bring it to your car. They can just call us whenever they get here and we’ll bring it right out to them … They can check out online or over the phone.”
Badiyan said at a least a few customers a week opt for local pick up or delivery.
Leonard Jewelry also has a full online store with options for payment and shipping, but buying jewelry can be a very personal and emotional decision, Kaid Kinzie said. People want to see the merchandise and touch it.
The store offers curbside pick-up, but that has been more popular with people doing things like picking up repairs, he said.
Traffic is fairly low in the fine jewelry store, so customers are usually able to maintain recommended distances, Annette Kinzie said. The store also offers appointments for private shopping.
Wooden Nickel, a boutique located south of Oklahoma State University on The Strip, also offers online sales and payment but doesn’t ship.
Its customers can choose from free local delivery or same-day pick-up in the store.
Although not every business has a website or e-commerce platform, many local stores offer some type of socially-distant shopping, even if it’s just taking payments over the phone and running your package to you at the curb.
Websites and social media help boutiques interact with their customers, with many focusing on Facebook and Instagram to feature their wares. Those social media accounts are great resources for customers to find what they want if they don’t want to walk in. Some even have shopping links on their Facebook and Instagram.
Most customers at Stillwater Summit Company shop in person, owner Cade Blessen said. But he tries to provide a safe environment by requiring masks and following all social distancing recommendations in the store.
He said the store is cleaned several times a day, paying special attention to the areas people tend to touch. His customer flow is pretty moderate so there usually aren’t more than a few in the store at any one time and people have enough space to distance themselves.
He still tries to accommodate the needs of customers who want or need to limit contact even further.
“We don’t have anything on our website like that but everyone is more than welcome to call and ask – if they know there’s a specific product they’re looking for – we can definitely do that,” Blessen said. “We can do sales over the phone and bring it out to your car, for sure.”
Cowboy Bob’s Discount Golf owner Lynn Gann said he considered offering local delivery last spring but there wasn’t a demand for it among his customers. He’s still willing to do curbside delivery if a customer wants that.
Most store owners, especially those operating small businesses are willing to do whatever they can to accommodate customers. Often all it takes is an online search or a phone call.
405 Mercantile owner Lora Frazier said she personally does not believe in wearing masks and does not require them in her store. Many of her customers express relief at not being asked to wear a mask while they shop and being able to use her fitting rooms to try on clothing, she said. A few who wear face shields instead of masks have told her they were asked to leave other stores.
Frazier said in spite of her personal views, she would hate to turn a customer away and is willing to do phone payments and curbside delivery if someone wanted that.
Visit Stillwater maintains a list of Stillwater’s unique shopping options at visitstillwater.org/things-to-do/shopping/unique-to-stillwater/.
Making an effort to support the local economy has a ripple effect across the community, Minges emphasized.
“Shopping local not only supports local jobs and key infrastructure projects, it also supports Stillwater nonprofits because local business owners are the ones supporting your favorite charity,” he wrote.
Frazier echoed that sentiment and said local businesses desperately need the community’s help.
“I’ve heard that online sales are skyrocketing and sales at boutiques and stores and malls are down,” Frazier said. “Let’s just say, as people, they come to a lot of us small businesses asking us to fund their softball, their baseball, their kid’s Girl Scouts … They want us to do all these things but then when push comes to shove, they don’t want to support the local. So then without the local support, these businesses aren’t going to make it … Please support local.”