ANDERSON — Black Friday was a good day for Jerry and Steve Rubenstein, co-owners of Allan’s Jewelry & Loan.
Their pawn shop in downtown Anderson drew a steady stream of shoppers looking for unique gift ideas among the store’s inventory of electronics, firearms, jewelry, coins and other collectibles.
“Being an independent business like we are and having a lot of one-of-a-kind items, people that know us come to us,” Jerry Rubenstein said. “We got a little bit of a surge, but we probably have more business because the pandemic is maybe keeping people from lining up to go into stores.”
For the Rubensteins, however, the forecast for the rest of the holiday shopping season carries some uncertainty. A continued surge in novel coronavirus cases is fueling an ongoing debate over whether local and state health officials should reinstitute lockdown measures that shuttered small businesses like Allan’s for weeks in the spring.
It’s a situation that many local businesses are monitoring closely because in some cases, their livelihood is directly tied to their ability to entice customers through the doors of their brick-and-mortar stores.
“People are concerned about the impact the pandemic has on their personal finances,” said JB Privett, owner of The Sister Exchange, a consignment store in Pendleton. “I believe people are doing their holiday shopping earlier than in previous years due to the uncertainty.”
Further complicating the equation for small businesses like Privett’s is the migration of consumer spending – driven in part by COVID-19 anxiety, analysts say – to online environments, which while offering convenience, deprives customers of a more authentic shopping experience.
“I don’t know that small businesses can mitigate or alleviate those fears,” said Deb Gabor, founder and CEO of Sol Marketing, an Austin, Texas-based brand strategy consulting firm. “Some of those fears are rational and some of those fears are irrational. This is a highly emotionally charged time, and what we’re seeing is a lot of consumers delaying purchases because they just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Still, there are opportunities for small brick-and-mortar shops to thrive this season by strengthening the bonds they have with their customers, Gabor said. She pointed to data from the National Retail Federation, which found last year that 55% of shoppers did at least some buying inside an actual store. Those customers, she said, remain an important group to consider as small retailers make inventory and staffing decisions this month.
“This is still a time when people are going into physical retail stores,” Gabor said. “It is a time for retailers – especially local retailers – to shine in a way and deliver a 360-degree experience that no website ever could.”
For the Rubensteins, the in-person experience of seeing and holding the merchandise, as well as the relationships they’ve built with repeat customers over the years, provides what they see as another cushion against the uncertainty engendered by the pandemic. Much of their merchandise is unique and thus, customers usually want to inspect it before buying.
“With our business, people like to come in here and they like to do business face to face with us,” Steve Rubenstein said. “Most of our people, they’re not online shoppers. They like to come in here. They want to feel the merchandise, they want to see it, touch it, smell it. It’s that kind of a situation. We have a very good rapport with our customers.”
Privett said part of that experience for her customers includes finding value in their purchases. She pays close attention to her pricing points to ensure that shopping local isn’t their only motivation for coming in.
“Our customers are reprioritizing what is essential and they’re looking for their basic needs to be met,” Privett said. “I won’t say that trendy fashion has become less relevant, but our customers are looking more for quality over copycat, fast fashion. We have the ability to select pieces that are of good quality that are going to last.”
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