Advertisement
Columnists

Michelle Deal-Zimmerman: Holiday shopping this year comes wrapped in pandemic, inflation worries | COMMENTARY

December 18, 2021 (David Horsey, Tribune Content Agency)

It’s almost November, and you know what that means. It’s time to start your holiday shopping if you haven’t already.

Oh sure, Halloween will sneak in with its candy and cuteness overload. And you may have time to hop a quick crowded flight home for Thanksgiving or pop a frozen turkey into the oven for a few hours, but the main event is coming. There are just about 60 days until Christmas and fewer until Hanukkah, and it’s all downhill from here.

Advertisement

As a small-business owner, the holiday season can be an overwhelming blur of activity and angst. This year will be no different and could be even worse.

Why? Well, many reasons, but I’ll name two big ones: pandemic and inflation.

Advertisement

President Biden said just last month that the pandemic is over, and while many will argue the point, it’s obvious that a lot of Americans agree. Summer travel was brisk and crowded, mask wearing is so quaint that even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention waffles about recommending it, and health officials can’t seem to find many arms for its new boosters.

For most small businesses, an end to the pandemic would be a welcome decree, especially if it came with a pass to go directly back to 2019. Even if the worst is behind us, the economic fallout from over 30 months of pandemic positioning will take years to resolve. And many small businesses will not have the reserves to wait it out.

While inflation has been the buzzword of 2022, and rightfully so, the supply chain shortages of 2021 continue to reverberate for businesses. Toilet paper, tampons, baby formula, and even beer and chocolate.

At Charm City Chocolate, the small shop I own with my husband, we went months without the satin ribbons we use to tie bows on our boxes of chocolates. When they finally became available again earlier this year, the ribbon had nearly doubled in price. As did the cost for the boxes and food-safe plastic trays that hold the chocolates.

These are small problems, to be sure, in the big scheme of things. We’re a tiny, micro business, though, so even the littlest changes can be expensive and ultimately impactful to the bottom line.

Even global conglomerates like Hershey have warned of holiday shortages due to limited raw materials, transportation and production costs. With fewer products to sell, how does Hershey intend to meet its profit goals?

Higher prices.

Advertisement

That’s true for many small businesses, too, who have been trying to navigate not only increased costs and pandemic disruption but a slowing of demand as consumers, bombarded with higher costs for everything, pull back on spending.

Some of my neighbors in our small village of shops in Baltimore have similar concerns. Over the past two years, there has been a steady stream of business closures on a street that was often packed in pre-pandemic times. New ventures continue to open adding to what has always been a vibrant community, but the pace is slower.

At Lovely Yarns, owner Melissa Salzman is used to business easing for the warmer months when people put down their knitting needles and head outside. But as temperatures cool, she’s stocked and ready for the holiday traffic. Whenever it comes.

“The summer was definitely a struggle a large part of that was due to inflation,” says Salzman, surmising that people were spending money on other things since it’s traditionally not the knitting season.

Salzman has had to raise prices throughout the pandemic to keep pace with higher costs from vendors. Nothing major, she notes, enough to stay above water. A busy holiday season of handcrafted gifts will go a long way. “I’m hopeful that even with inflation people will still want to make stuff.”

According to a September survey of more than 1,500 small businesses by Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Voices, 83% said they were concerned customers would turn to larger businesses who might be able to offer lower prices. Some 96% said inflationary pressure is the same as or worse than it was three months ago. More than half said they have raised prices to offset increased costs, and many report fewer customers as a result.

Advertisement

Libby Francis Baxter, owner of the Modest Florist, has managed to avoid much of the supply shortages and even some higher prices through a focus on sustainability and partnership with local growers.

“Flowers are a lagging indicator,” she says, explaining that the plants she has now were planted six months ago so growers are not charging her more. Plus, she recycles the glass vases she uses for floral arrangements.

The booming wedding flower business has been a balm — people are getting married on Thursdays now in case you haven’t heard. But Francis Baxter says the holidays will offer one important clue that will allow her business to end the year on a good note.

“My crystal ball is a little hazy, but I will say one positive thing,” she says. “I’m looking forward to a return to normal in my sales of poinsettias.”

The plants hit a downturn when folks stopped going to religious services during the pandemic so churches reduced their orders. This year could mark a comeback. Or not.

Still, despite inflation woes, analysts expect to see an increase in holiday sales this year, which is good news for struggling merchants everywhere.

Advertisement

As Salzman, the yarn shop owner, puts it: “I’m hoping that it is busy because I’d like to stay in business.”

Michelle Deal-Zimmerman is senior content editor for features and an advisory member of The Sun’s Editorial Board. Her column runs every fourth Wednesday. She can be reached at nzimmerman@baltsun.com.


Advertisement