Watty Brooks Hall, the owner of the Brooks Collection, plans to keep her iPhone charged and ready for more FaceTime calls this holiday season.

Her Collierville, Tennessee gift shop introduced virtual shopping for consumers who don’t feel comfortable coming inside but want to see the pottery, gifts and home goods up close. Hall also plans to post more photos on Instagram and Facebook where engagement has been up since the pandemic.

Texas-based Stag Provisions also is engaging more with shoppers on social media. It will also stock more comfortable clothes such as t-shirts and sweatpants this holiday season as people continue to spend a lot of time at home. 

And Gibson’s Bookstore, New Hampshire’s oldest independent book shop established in 1898, hopes to drive online sales with its new curbside pickup option.

Small retailers across the country have had to get creative to keep the lights on after dealing with temporary closures and restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic. Now they’re preparing for a holiday shopping season unlike any they have ever experienced.

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National retailers are amping up the pressure with earlier promotions to spread through the season, but small stores may benefit because of their size and ability to personalize the shopping experience.

“We deliver. We ship. We do curbside,” Hall said, adding her shop near Memphis doesn’t sell merchandise on its website. “It’s just trying to keep a small business alive is what it boils down to.”

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The Brooks Collection introduced virtual shopping via FaceTime so consumers can see the pottery, gifts and home goods sold at the Collierville, Tennessee gift shop without going into the store. (Photo: The Brooks Collection)

Given concerns about social distancing, supply chain disruptions and other challenges due to coronavirus, getting ready for the crucial season poses new challenges – and perhaps opportunities – for business owners.

Michael Herrmann, who purchased Gibson’s 25 years ago, is planning for lower in-store sales this season, but higher online sales. In addition to adding curbside pickup, the store is holding events online.

“I think it keeps crowds from being in the store at the same time to mitigate the risk. We’re going to offer every opportunity to accommodate as many people as we can,” he said. “Our main goal is to get to the other side with everybody healthy in the store and still in good shape financially.” 

Starting the holiday season early

Retailers – big and small – are preparing by kicking off holiday promotions earlier than ever before, encouraging shoppers to beat the rush and pushing more sales online. Federal health officials are encouraging more online shopping and are discouraging traditional Black Friday shopping known for crowds and long lines.

In new guidance ahead of the fall holidays, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified “shopping at crowded stores just before, on or after Thanksgiving” on a list of higher-risk activities to avoid preventing the spread of the virus.

Amazon moving its annual Prime Day sale from July to October is expected to drive more sales online including at small businesses. This year, the Seattle-based e-commerce giant launched a small business promotion and said it would invest an additional $100 million to promote third-party sellers for its annual sale and throughout the holiday season.

The conditions retailers have to deal with this season could lead more shoppers to shop small, giving some of the businesses hit hardest in the pandemic a competitive edge.

“I think the malls are in trouble, but people are more comfortable shopping in a smaller environment,” said Dave Facenda, owner of Untucked, a men’s clothing shop on North Carolina’s Outer Banks barrier islands. He’s already pivoting in the pandemic: His store is selling more ties for Zoom calls but renting fewer tuxedos for weddings.

Untucked in Duck, North Carolina, has altered the traffic flow in the store and is seeing a shift in sales. (Photo: Untucked)

Many shoppers say they want to shop locally this holiday season. According to a recent Google survey, 66% of shoppers said they plan to shop more at local small businesses.

It’s a sentiment Hall has heard multiple times at her 21-year-old store located in a historic town square from existing and new customers who have told her they wanted to shop at a small business to show they care.

“It almost made me cry the first time I heard it,” Hall said, noting sales are almost stronger than last year. “I think a lot of it is people wanting to shop small. They’re concerned about how small businesses have been hurt through all of this.”

While some stores are concentrating on people shopping early, Stag Provisions co-owner Don Weir thinks it’s possible some shoppers will come out closer to Christmas.

“I feel like it may be a late run on holiday if the COVID numbers continue to decrease and the restrictions continue to lift,” he said. “Nobody really knows what October, November and December will look like but we don’t anticipate a mad rush in October.”

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Texas-based Stag Provisions had five physical stores and an online before the coronavirus pandemic but had to shutter two locations. (Photo: Stag Provisions)

Ways small businesses prepare

Early in the pandemic, many small businesses made a bigger push to digital sales with some adding curbside pickup while stores were closed due to state or local orders, said Matthew Wagner, vice president of revitalization programs at the nonprofit National Main Street Center, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“Now the push is to try to elongate this season alleviating some of the crowd factor,” Wagner said.

A recent survey by the center found more than 40% of businesses added curbside because of the pandemic and more than 20% had added touch-free payment systems.

Harley Finkelstein, president of e-commerce platform Shopify, told USA TODAY that it’s expected to be a challenging season.

“The 2020 holiday season will shine a spotlight on resilient retailers and create a blueprint for the commerce landscape of the future,” Finkelstein said. “This year we’re going to see role reversals with independent businesses and the entrepreneurs behind them leading the retail industry.”

Here are tips for businesses making preparations:

  • Special hours: Since March, major retailers started dedicating time for consumers most vulnerable to COVID-19 to shop with fewer people in stores and many have continued the “senior hours” and operate under reduced hours. Wagner says lengthening hours can help disperse crowds and make some shoppers feel more comfortable.
  • Outdoor shopping: Wagner suggests businesses consider more outside shopping opportunities like setting up tables or tents in front of stores.
  • Offer multiple fulfillment options: Finkelstein said businesses can prepare for the season by selling and managing inventory across multiple platforms. “Entrepreneurs who offer flexible fulfillment options, like curbside pickup and local delivery, will be the ones to get their products into the hands of happy customers,” he said. 
  • Shift inventory mix: While most retailers plan their holiday inventory early in the year, look at trends and ask suppliers about making changes where you see opportunities.
  • Private shopping: Similar to special hours, Wagner suggests hosting private holiday shopping events to bring “exclusivity to the season” and offering appointments for loyal customers.
  • Prepare for shipping delays: With more online shopping expected in 2020, consumers should shop early – and businesses should encourage the earlier shopping – so gifts arrive with plenty of time. Several items from big and small stores also are expected to sell out earlier and might not be restocked in time for delivery by Christmas.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Kelly Tyko on Twitter: @KellyTyko

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