Big in-person sales and events for Black Friday and Small Business Saturday are made more difficult during the pandemic. Meanwhile, more customers are heading online.
At Jackson’s Lemuria Books, author events — such as this 2017 John Grisham signing — helped create excitement and drive sales, especially around the holidays. They aren’t possible this year due to the pandemic. (Photo: Justin Sellers/The Clarion-Ledger)
Black Friday and Small Business Saturday typically kick off a surge in holiday sales for many Mississippi small businesses, allowing them to make up for revenue rough patches earlier in the year.
But some business owners are wondering if that surge will ever come this year given realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lemuria Books in Jackson, for instance, would usually hold several in-person events with authors in the days after Thanksgiving. Locals and family members visiting for the holidays check them out and do some holiday shopping while they’re at it, explained owner John Evans. But he said such events are simply “not a smart thing to do” this year.
Offbeat, a Jackson culture store that sells records, comics and other goods, will keep a similarly low profile. The Midtown shop is small and dense with merchandise, owner Phillip Rollins said, so it doesn’t make sense to hold a big sale and pack the store just as COVID-19 cases are surging.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty in the air,” said Rollins, who runs the shop by himself.
Small businesses in Mississippi and around the country may also be stung by the massive shift toward online sales during the pandemic. Data from IBM’s U.S. Retail Index found the pandemic accelerated the move away from in-person retailers to online shopping by five years.
And a recent survey by Allocadia, a marketing software firm, found just 23% of respondents planned to do their holiday shopping in-person this year, down from 36% last year.
Many local businesses have beefed up their online sales offerings. But it doesn’t necessarily stack up with in-person sales from before the pandemic.
Web-based business and email marketing has helped at Lemuria, Evans said, and the store has hosted several virtual events with authors in place of its usual in-person readings and signings.
“It’s just not the same as coming to meet an author and hearing them read, having that personal touch to it,” Evans said, adding that because customers don’t need to come into the store for the author events, they are less likely to buy a book when its over.
“Some months we’ve really gotten clobbered,” he said. “We got clobbered in August when we didn’t have the book festival. We didn’t have the authors coming into the store, and the excitement.”
Sales ticked up as more people became comfortable coming inside the bookstore to shop, Evans said. But sometimes, he said, it feels like his business is a canoe drifting sideways downstream — not taking on water but nevertheless at some risk of capsizing.
And Evans assumes his store won’t get the typical last-minute surge of in-person gift shoppers just before Christmas.
“It’s a matter of how well we can compensate online the first 20 days of December,” he said. “Because those last four or five days (before Christmas) are going to be tough. I think that’s going to be everywhere.”
Phillip Rollins runs Offbeat, a Jackson music and art store specializing in vinyl. Like many small businesses, Offbeat has struggled during the pandemic, and Rollins said it’s unlikely holiday sales can make up for it. (Photo: File photo/The Clarion-Ledger)
Offbeat is hosting a Black Friday event, Rollins said, allowing a limited number of people who signed up to get first crack at buying some new record releases. Later in the day, he will open up the event to the general public.
Due to the small layout of his store, he said he can only let in fewer than eight people at a time. For months, Rollins has operated via online sales, curbside pickup and appointment only for in-person shopping, and he plans to continue doing that for the holidays.
“It was a tough call but it was necessary, I felt like,” Rollins said of his decision to mostly shut down the shop to in-person shopping.
Rollins said he didn’t want to get customers sick and, as the only one who runs the store, he said he couldn’t afford to risk getting himself or his family sick.
Business did increase over the summer, he said, as people trapped inside due to the pandemic bought record players and wanted to start a vinyl collection. But that small upti in sales ended the past two months, which have been “really, really rough.”
Rollins said he hopes there’s another surge in sales for the holidays, but he’s not holding his breath.
“I don’t know, I try to remain cautiously optimistic,” he said. “I hate asking for help, hate asking for people to support the shop, because that’s their decision.”
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