Tease_Downtown retail2|Heidi Beedle.jpg

Downtown retailers like Terra Verde are preparing for an unpredictable holiday season.

Since March, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the business community. The springtime lockdown led to significant losses for retailers. On Nov. 13, El Paso County moved to Safer at Home Level Orange, which limits restaurants, retail businesses and others to 25 percent capacity. As a result of the ongoing battle with COVID-19, business owners have been forced to adapt to the changing environment by pivoting to online sales and offering new services like curbside pickup and delivery. The Downtown Partnership has been helping Downtown retailers navigate these uncertain times with a combination of direct financial assistance, marketing help and advice.

Alex Armani-Munn is the Downtown Partnership’s economic development specialist, and he has seen firsthand the economic impact of the pandemic. “From the Downtown perspective, specifically, our street-level business — our retailers, our restaurants — have felt this at a six-times-greater scale than businesses citywide,” he said during a phone interview. “Sales tax revenue, through August, for the city was down about 5 percent. Sales tax revenue Downtown, however, was down about 35 percent. We know that our businesses Downtown have really felt the impact of this. Having folks go remote has had a huge impact. There’s just not really any business during the weekdays. At least in the past there was a lunch rush, and some activity Downtown, even on a Tuesday. That employment base would give you some business throughout the week, and that’s just not there right now. In terms of gross sales and sales tax revenue, we saw double-digit losses month over month, really from April to now. Our restaurants are still seeing double-digit losses in gross sales.”

Despite the grim figures, most business owners have been able to weather the storm. “The positive impact — the silver lining — is that we’ve actually retained pretty much all of our businesses,” said Armani-Munn. “We’ve actually seen more street-level businesses open this year than close. We’ve seen really positive leasing activity over the last couple of months. We know there’s still interest in Downtown and that, big picture, people are still bullish on Downtown and positive of the direction we’re going. That being said, this is such a volatile and unpredictable crisis that we’re in. Over the last two weeks I’ve been speaking optimistically about the fact that we’re still welcoming new businesses Downtown, that so many businesses have stayed open through this. Now, of course, with El Paso County going to Safer at Home Level 3, it almost brings us back to square one.”

One of the new businesses Downtown is The Living Room, which opened in December 2019 and sells a variety of houseplants. Owner Rachel Young started her business as the in-home horticulture industry was set to boom. “I think because so many people are stuck at home that they have decided that plants are the way to go,” she said. “I don’t want to say COVID has been positive on my business, but I don’t have any comparison. I don’t know how it would have gone, because the houseplant trend was kind of on the rise anyway, and the people who got stuck at home kind of decided to go for it.”

Despite having a seemingly COVID-proof product, Young still had to make adjustments. “I definitely had to figure it out as it was happening,” she said. “I use Square for my point of sale, and about two weeks into the lockdown they sent me an email and said, ‘Would you like to turn your business into an online store?’ I was like, ‘Yes!’ It basically took my inventory off my point of sale and turned it into a website. I did have to go and actually count my inventory and take pictures of everything and get way more organized than I had anticipated being, but overall it was a really great thing. It was an overwhelmingly positive response to the online store with curbside. My daughter helped me with deliveries, and we did deliveries for about six weeks. It was really hard.”

Some businesses had to make a bigger pivot than others. Crafted Colorado Handmade Market and Studio made some dramatic changes to its business to weather the COVID crisis. “Of course we took a hit,” said Risa Goodwin, one of three partners at Crafted Colorado. “A great majority of our sales are workshops or in-person events, so when this first started we had to cancel and reschedule 465 people and workshops. We definitely had to learn how to pivot. We started offering workshops online and we started offering kits, and now we’re doing small-batch classes within the social distancing guidelines. We started delivering, we started an online market. We call it the ‘year of pivoting.’ Because we have a commercial kitchen space we started selling flour and butter and sugar and yeast  — all of those things that the stores weren’t readily getting. We just kept finding another lane. We need masks? We started selling masks. We need yeast? We found yeast sources and started selling yeast. We’re staying afloat because we found new avenues to pursue to stay afloat.”

Goodwin credits the Downtown Partnership for helping them through the worst of the crisis. “Early on, [Downtown Partnership] offered grant opportunities for downtown vendors if you met certain criteria,” she said. “We were thrilled to get a small grant from them. They’re also great about marketing, marketing all of our events. They market our First Friday. Their marketing people are very good. They always have a new idea or a new way of looking at things.”

Armani-Munn explained how the Downtown Partnership has ratcheted up their marketing efforts. “Every year we pour a ton of money into marketing Downtown holiday shopping, and this year we just doubled down on those efforts,” he said. “This year we’ll be doing a lot of aggressive marketing to try to pull people in locally. Instead of marketing to the whole Front Range we’ll be looking at pulling in folks in the drive time that is Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region, and encouraging people, if restrictions remain in place, to shop online, and reminding them that even though you might not be able to go in and physically shop in a brick-and-mortar, you can still support these businesses through online sales, buying gift cards as holiday presents, whatever it is. We’ll be doing a lot of that.”

Many local businesses are focusing on the upcoming holiday shopping months. “It’s absolutely huge,” said Armani-Munn. “Not to use dramatic language, but in terms of small business, the December month, and even now in November, will be, for a lot of folks, life-or-death, really make-or-break. December is always one of our highest-grossing months for street-level businesses Downtown, so there is always that reliance.”

Goodwin has noted a change in holiday shopping habits this year. “I think it’s the earliest year that I have had people coming in saying they’re finishing up shopping,” she said. “I think because people have been home they’ve been shopping more the past six months in anticipation of the holidays, versus maybe starting now for Christmas and Hanukkah and stuff. They’re buying earlier, but they’re buying more intentionally, more thoughtful gifts.”

Young is optimistic, despite recently announced COVID restrictions. “I’m hoping that even with our 25 percent capacity — we’ve never reached capacity, it’s not like a store you hang out in for hours on end — I’m hoping that things stay steady,” she said. “I think plants are a wonderful gift because they’re long-lasting and it makes your home a more beautiful place to have something alive in it. I’m hoping people give plants as gifts. I hope we can continue to be steady throughout the holidays, with these new restrictions.”

Even established businesses, like Downtown boutique Terra Verde, are making changes this year and planning around the new restrictions. “We anticipate starting a little line outside,” said co-owner Leah Riehl. “We’ll do the best we can. One big thing we’ve done is we have an online store. We’ve put our entire store online, so we’re pushing customers to get on there and order their Christmas gifts. We’ll [wrap and] ship them.”

Riehl thinks that this year’s holiday shoppers will take advantage of their new online services. “We’re offering curbside pickup, and things like that make it easy for customers, but we do anticipate, with the holiday season, online becoming even bigger,” she said. “A lot of people who want to stay home can jump on there and buy what they want and we’ll gift-wrap it and ship it, or they can do curbside pickup.”

One of the COVID casualties this year was the Holiday Pop-Up Shops program, which is where Goodwin and Colorado Crafted got their start. “For the Holiday Pop-Up Shops this year, there was really limited space available to host shops,” explained Armani-Munn. “That was a disappointment, but we’re in a better position now than we would have thought we would have been in earlier in the year given the pandemic. It’s unfortunate that we won’t have any this year, but the good news is we still have a lot of great retailers who will be operating through the holidays and we still have a lot of great programs, things like Skate in the Park [in Acacia Park], that we’re still confident will get a lot of folks Downtown. Safely distanced.”

News Reporter

Heidi Beedle is a former soldier, educator, activist, and animal welfare worker. She received a Bachelor’s in English from UCCS. She has worked as a freelance writer covering LGBTQ issues, nuclear disasters, cattle mutilations, and social movements.