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Baltimore County’s small retailers urge customers to shop in person amid online competition, pandemic

Phil Grillo and his son, Phil Jr., owners of Grillo Jewelry, in their business on Allegheny Avenue in Towson on Dec. 8.
Phil Grillo and his son, Phil Jr., owners of Grillo Jewelry, in their business on Allegheny Avenue in Towson on Dec. 8. (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media)

Passing by Bead Wear Jewelry Boutique in Towson, pedestrians might be drawn to the collection of colorful accessories displayed in the large window overlooking Allegheny Avenue.

The display, which is used as a way to attract customers, has become one of many strategies the store is using to try draw in customers this holiday season.

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At what is typically the busiest time of the year for most small retail businesses, this holiday season looks much different from those in the past.

As coronavirus cases continue to rise, many consumers have ramped up a trend that has evolved in recent years — online shopping — causing many small retailers to struggle, try out ways to adapt and begin online selling as well.

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“I’m moving things around so that people don’t feel that they have to be in one space,” said Patti Hall, who has owned the 300-square-foot Bead Wear Jewelry for nearly two decades. “Because it’s a small space, I want to make sure that I have enough room for when people come in that they are social distancing.”

To attract customers, she has relied on the display in her front window, social media and word of mouth.

During the lockdown, she started transitioning some of the items in her store online, but is concerned about small retail businesses remaining on the internet after the pandemic.

“People have been relying more on online and I have been kind of fighting that because I really am a person who likes to have contact,” Hall said. “I finally jumped onto that ship, but I have been very nervous about the whole world going virtual and not having a brick-and-mortar business.”

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Still, there are some bright signs this holiday season. Sales are expected to increase generally between 3.6% and 5.2% over last year to total between $755.3 billion and $766.7 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. The numbers compare with a 4% increase to $729.1 billion last year and an average holiday sales increase of 3.5% over the past five years.

The retail federation attributes the increase to reduced spending on gasoline, dining out and vacations, leaving consumers with more money to buy other items at the end of the year.

In Maryland, retail businesses have been most impacted by the pandemic, said Cailey Locklair, president of the Maryland Retailers Association.

“Rewinding back to the summer months when there was a differentiation between essential and nonessential [businesses], you had retailers considered nonessential that were shut down for almost two and a half to three months,” she said. “Fast forward to now, most sectors in retail [see] some of their largest sales for the entire year, even sales that sustain them for the entire year, happening now.”

In some counties across the state, occupancy limits for many retail businesses remain at 25%, making it difficult for retailers to serve multiple customers at a time.

In Baltimore County, occupancy limits at retail businesses remain at 50%, according to County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s most recent executive order in mid-November.

“This has made it difficult for consumers when they think of even wanting to go shop in person, [because] they are afraid of having to go stand in a line,” Locklair said. “Unfortunately, with these very restrictive capacity and occupancy rates that have been implemented, consumers are double thinking even buying their basics in person.”

This holiday season, retail businesses have seen a decline in in-person shopping, but an increase in online shopping, she said.

Bead Wear Jewelry Boutique is one of many small retail businesses in the county that has had to adjust to continue serving customers this holiday season.

A few doors away, Grillo Jewelry, a family-owned store that sells fine jewelry, also has had to adapt.

Phil Grillo, owner of Grillo Jewelry, said he noticed foot traffic along Allegheny Avenue is much lighter nowadays.

To draw traffic, he said he has been calling and mailing customers directly to inform them of in-store specials, which seems to be working.

“A lot of times [customers] will call ahead and say, ‘I’d like to make an appointment, what is a good time for me to come in,’” he said. “We are doing that to accommodate them and give [them] our full attention, and they feel comfortable with that.”

This year, he said holiday sales have been slower, however, in previous years they have picked up closer to Christmas Day, accounting for nearly 30% of his annual revenue.

Although currently he doesn’t sell items on the internet, he is in the process of expanding his business to include online sales.

Similarly, in Arbutus, Finders Keepers Thrift and Consignment has adjusted to accommodate customers.

Sheena Herron, co-owner of the store, said it has started selling items online, which it has never done before.

Additionally, the store has implemented curbside pickup, where customers can collect the items they purchase online.

Since the pandemic, she said she has seen a decrease in the volume of customers who are shopping in person, and online sales have helped bring in revenue during this holiday season.

“We are [selling] about half of what we did last year, and selling online is picking up the slack,” she said.

She said the community can support small retail businesses by shopping with them this season.

“[Customers] can make sure that they are shopping small before they’re going to other places and try to see what’s in their own communities and what small businesses have to offer before they shop online,” she said. “I think it’s really important for the community to continue to shop with small businesses and support them.”

Reggie Sajauskas, owner of Objects Found, a consignment store in Arbutus and Catonsville, said in-person sales have been slower this holiday season.

To attract customers, the store has implemented curbside pickup, delivery, extended and private shopping hours and online purchasing.

As coronavirus cases rise, she said she is concerned customers will be too afraid to shop in person.

Small retailers are willing to accommodate customers to ensure they have a safe shopping experience, she said. Communication is key.

“If people want to help and support small businesses, all they need to do is reach out and tell us how we can better serve them,” she said. “We are ready to serve, we just have to know what will make people comfortable.”

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