“Nothing is so painful to the human mind…as a great and sudden change.”  It would be hard to find a less likely source of retailing inspiration than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But there is no doubt that shopkeepers everywhere have found their personal and business lives subject to a painful, seismic shift due to COVID-19. We could not have anticipated the great and sudden changes that 2020 would bring, and can’t help but feel overwhelmed by them at times.

It was only a few months ago that we worried that the health crisis in China would prevent us from getting timely shipments of Christmas merchandise.  I even remember remarking that I was glad that 2020 was a Leap Year, because the extra day would help make up for being closed on a Saturday for the 4th of July.  We’ll still be closed for that holiday, but we will have only been reopened for three days by then after 3 ½ months of closure.

The changes we’ve been asked to cope with this year amplify the challenges that independent retailers were already facing thanks to Amazon.  Now even those of us who adamantly resisted being a “bricks and clicks” store have scrambled to add online shopping, encouraging the very behavior we felt threatened by before the pandemic.  I just vetoed a window display saying “Welcome,” because we’d rather have customers make purchases online for curbside pickup than come in.

Cash was becoming obsolete in some places as society moved towards contactless pay options.  Now credit card purchases rarely require a signature, and some stores are hesitant to handle money. As a result, NPR reports that there is a national shortage of coins. 

There had already been indications of shifts in how we place wholesale orders. Trade shows have been consolidating, sales agencies have started making more use of virtual showrooms, sales reps are keeping in touch via email rather than coming into the store as often, and websites are sometimes taking the place of printed catalogues.  The current situation has hastened these changes, some of which are not welcome, and it’s hard to know what will change back when the danger is lessened.

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley goes on to say that “the dead calmness of inaction” which follows great and sudden change “deprives the soul both of hope and fear.”   It’s certainly easy to feel paralyzed by the challenges facing us today.  Even as we try to take action, such as reopening, we face confusing information and recommendations – and criticism of our decisions.  But there are really only two choices before us: go forward with the business, or close it. 

If you are determined to keep your shop, have courage.  We’re all in this together, facing the same challenges.  You are not the only one laying awake at night worrying about how to keep everyone safe, and how to pay your bills.  Your fellow business owners, especially  restauranteurs, share your pain. 

Have you been in touch with your local Chamber of Commerce, Buy Local organization, SBCD office or city/town government to see what help they can offer? In addition to giving you information about grant opportunities – some of which you may not know about – they should be able to share best practices and encouragement.  Contact elected officials to ask what they are doing to support small businesses during this time, and tell them what you need.  It is in the interest of every community to have its locally owned shops and restaurants survive.

 Is there a way you can connect with businesses to share strategies? We’re about to do our second Zoom “town hall” meeting sponsored by the Monroe Street Merchants Association, and I look forward to hearing from my colleagues.  The advantage of Zoom or FaceTime is that you can even check in with retailers, and others in your industry, around the country. 

What ways can you find to take care of yourself? The CDC has an article with the great title “Pandemics Can Be Stressful” that may be helpful.  Make sure that you regularly take time away from your business, perhaps getting out in nature. Get some exercise.  Eat chocolate or drink wine. Listen to music or watch TV.  Meditate or pray. Talk to a friend, or a professional. Remember that you are coping with a great and sudden change, and be kind to yourself.   

Happy Retailing, 

Carol “Orange” Schroeder

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