Black Friday’s annual made-for-network-news stampede of crazed big-box shoppers was oddly missing last weekend. America’s megastores instead fought for a place on consumers’ computer monitors and smartphone screens while trying to take a piece of the Cyber Monday market.
The Tri-Town was a happier place last weekend. Residents and visitors alike enjoyed Shop Small Saturday, where local entrepreneurs greeted customers and talked about teamwork. Bonded and banded together by the challenge that the coronavirus pandemic has posed, small business owners are creating partnerships with charities and with each other.
Jessica Kelly of Belle’s Boutique and Isabelle’s Gift Shop in Mattapoisett partnered during Shop Small Saturday with Friends of Jack, the 501(c)(3) non-profit foundation created last year by Jilline Fearons, whose son Jack has Chiari Malformation, a rare neurological condition. The foundation focuses on healthcare programs for kids in the SouthCoast.
“We just thought it would be nice to give our customers something back, so it’s shopping local and giving back local, keeping it all in the local area,” said Kelly. “As much as people don’t have time to get out, it’s nice to support any local business because people do need to get out of the house.”
Asked to bring in a toy donation, customers received 15 percent off their total purchases. “We had a great weekend, it was nice, and it brought the fun back into opening a shop, unlike the stress we had through Mother’s Day when we were shut down,” said Kelly.
Sharon Monteiro at Always in Bloom partnered with Erin Zell from Brew Fish Bar & Eatery for the open house held on Saturday at the former’s Marion shop. While Monteiro was greeting customers interested in flowers and gifts, Zell served sandwiches.
“From time to time, we work together. [Monteiro] also does some flower arrangements for us at the restaurant,” said Zell. “It’s been a bit of a challenge. We’ve been fortunate that we had a good summer…. I’m nervous going into the winter. It’s sort of day by day, we’re not sure what’s going to happen.”
The plight of the small business owner has been intensified throughout 2020, especially since the coronavirus pandemic resulted in a March shutdown. The reopening has been gradual and unpredictable. Signs of momentum and traction are not to be trusted.
“It’s been a very challenging year for many reasons, obviously the shutdown,” said Kelly. “Kids are not back in school full time, so [their parents] don’t have time to shop locally. They go online. Plus, people are strapped [for cash].”
“I think everybody’s kind of in the same boat,” said Zell, who owns Brew Fish along with her husband, Todd Zell. “Even when we did reopen from the shutdown, we always planned based on the year before, how much food to order…. That’s it, the unknown, that’s the challenge.
“The other part that’s been challenging for business is we all have staffing that we have to consider,” she continued. “‘Okay, you can reopen.’ We have to call staff back, but we don’t know how busy we’re going to be. We want to keep people working … but the stop and start is very difficult.”
Monteiro said that 2020 has been a mixed bag. Easter was “great,” and Mother’s Day was a success.
“I’m not where I should be at all because a lot of weddings have canceled,” she said. “A lot of private parties – I do Kittansett a lot, Bay Club – all those things came down to a halt, and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, what are we going to do? But can I tell you? It’s been pretty steady.
“I’ve been able to maintain not full staff – I had eight staff members, I’m down to four – so I’ve done a lot of work. It makes it busier, but it hasn’t skipped a beat. I’m able to keep everything going and buy, get through this holiday, pray that [in] January something happens, and then get ready for Valentine’s Day.”
Kelly is likewise focused as her shops will relocate less than a mile down Route 6 to Windswept Villages after the holiday season.
“My kids are teenagers, but if these places dry up, what are we going to do?” she asked, rattling off the names of a few other local restaurants. “It’s important to support those people all the time. I think we all collectively add to the community. I hope we do.”
It doesn’t hurt small businesses in the Tri-Town that residents have been discouraged from going to places where there are large crowds. They’ve been discouraged externally by state regulations and municipal advice but also by results. Many are finding empty shelves in their favorite brand-name stores, so as a result, some of them are rediscovering consumer satisfaction in local shops.
“For sure, for sure, I believe so,” said Monteiro. “Actually, a few of the customers that came in [Saturday], they were like, ‘T.J. Maxx, HomeGoods, nobody has anything.’ What happened was everybody took their stuff early.”
Surviving in such an uncertain economic climate has unearthed all of the creativity, education, experience, savvy, and moxie that local entrepreneurs can summon.
“We’ve put a lot of things in place, online ordering, contact lists, tap to pay, all to make it easier for our customers to order from us. We want to keep compliant and move forward,” said Zell. “One of the main challenges has been the bar.”
A few weeks ago, Brew Fish added plexiglass divides between patrons at the bar, equipment that had been on backorder for a few months. “That could all change,” said Zell, who believes Rhode Island restaurants were on the verge of a shutdown to in-house dining. “I think everything’s changing in the next week or so.”
Monteiro drew from her experience when she opened in 2009.
“Going back, I have to get creative and bring the business in, and it wasn’t always this full, so I’d have local artisans come in, and they would rent a spot. Throughout the store, I’d have six, we’d have the food, I’d have a drawing, I did that for about six, seven years until I built up enough,” she said. “I said, ‘Wow, this is really working out.’ I used to do it actually four times a year and have a Ladies’ Night. It would be 5 to 7 [pm], and that’s when I jumped to the big open house. So, typically, before COVID, this place would be chockablock full. People would come to meet, greet, have a glass of wine, they’d sit on the couch, they knew it would be a great party.”
Monteiro would spice the food, wine, and conversation with a drawing for a $200 gift certificate.
Calling herself “a good shopper,” Monteiro found two particularly hot items to market over the weekend: a mantle-size Christmas tree made of clear glass that lights up inside with sparkles depicting snow, and a similarly illuminated, lantern-shaped snow globe. She said she had sold out the Christmas trees, brought in 75 more, and by 2:30 pm Saturday, was down to eight.
Successful days are not taken for granted, and partnerships are driving the camaraderie among local shop owners who express gratitude with every smile that enters their doors.
“The town and our customers, everyone’s been great,” said Zell, who will not be able to partner this year with Marion Police on its “Pizza with Santa” event, one of many events canceled by COVID-19. “I keep telling people I’m thankful that people are still coming out to eat. We have a wonderful customer base.”
Marion Police will still hold the department’s annual toy drive on Sunday, December 6, at the Sippican School bus loop.
By Mick Colageo