Every holiday season, smaller retailers face increasing competition from online marketing giants. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to impel even more holiday shoppers to order online.
Retailers and organizations that support them are preparing to meet the challenges of this unique holiday shopping season with both in-store and community events, and improved online shopping experiences.
And as they have done since March, they are relying on their loyal customers to carry them through.
“I think that our best asset is our own people, our own customer base,” said Carrie Hibbard Baker, co-owner of Terra Verde.
Baker and Leah Fitzgerald Riehl, both longtime Terra Verde employees, bought the venerable Downtown boutique in January, when founder Chris Sondermann retired.
Two months later, the pandemic hit.
“January and February were starting off to be really great,” Baker said. “Then things changed.”
But the seven-week closure in March and April turned out to have a silver lining.
“We had an opportunity to look at the store differently and do some things that might have otherwise taken us a year or two to get done,” Baker said.
One of those tasks was creating an online store.
“When we first closed in March, customers were calling in, and we would do FaceTime with them,” Baker said. “We would just talk to them and explain products that we had, and we had some sales during that time. Then, once we got everything online, we really saw an uptick in sales. Every day was a new adventure, and we kind of set up the store like a warehouse, where we had everything lined up and we knew where to find it.”
Store employees helped set up the point-of-sale system, served as models for clothing and photographed items for the website.
“That was one of the ways that we could continue to pay our employees while we were closed,” Baker said.
The team set up the site so that customers could buy online and pick up their purchases in person or have them shipped. They promoted the website, as well as the brick-and-mortar store, on social media and by texting and emailing customers.
Having the website well established turned out to be a benefit as the store heads into the holiday season.
Nonetheless, “the success of Terra Verde continues to be brick and mortar,” Baker said.
“Small Business Saturday [the day after Black Friday] is a great day for us,” Baker said. Terra Verde will try to continue that momentum on Saturdays throughout November.
“We’re playing with different ideas of spreading out our business throughout the holiday season,” she said, including offering rotating specials every two hours on Saturdays.
The store will continue a longstanding tradition of offering a different special each day during the 12 days before Christmas.
The store offers free gift wrapping and recruits a special team of gift wrappers during the holidays. They will augment the store’s year-round staff of about 20 people.
“We’ve already talked to the people that have been coming back year after year that are going to come back and help gift wrap for us,” Baker said. “And we’ve already started hiring some temporary employees to help us on the sales floor.”
Because the store is large — about 6,000 square feet, “we have the ability to kind of spread things out,” she said. “We have an opportunity to create spaces where social distancing is accessible, but that requires a little bit of direction from our staff. So we do plan on having the same amount of staff that we have always had.”
The store also held its traditional anniversary sale in September.
“We did a great push for online sales as well as in-store sales,” Baker said. “So September was really great for online sales, and we’re hoping that we’ll be able to produce the same results in November and December.”
ENHANCED ONLINE SALES
Mountain Chalet, another venerable Downtown retail business, had a robust website before the pandemic but has enhanced it so it’s easier for customers to use, co-owner Elaine Smith said.
“We’re encouraging people to do that as much as they like, but we also have a lot of folks that like to come into the shop,” Smith said. “So we’re trying to make it very safe and comfortable for people to shop.”
The store offers curbside pickup and free delivery for online orders.
Smith said she expects to see an increase in online sales during the holiday season but, like Terra Verde and other Downtown retailers, wanted to offer choices for customers to shop as they prefer.
Smith said she is “cautiously optimistic” about holiday sales.
“We’re seeing lots of new folks looking to the outdoors to spend time and enhance their lifestyles,” she said. “We expect there will be folks that are wanting also to try a sport they haven’t done before, like backcountry skiing or snowshoeing.”
In the past, the store has offered numerous classes to help customers learn a new sport or teach them how to use new equipment. It provided Zoom programs this summer — for example, a class about hiking fourteeners.
But overall, “we’ve shifted the education piece to more one-on-one,” Smith said. “So we’re working with individuals to answer their questions and get them up to speed about the sport they’re interested in.”
She said the store is already seeing interest from downhill skiers who want to learn more about backcountry skiing.
“This is happening a little bit earlier than it typically happens,” she said. “I think people are eager to celebrate and be a little festive this year.”
CHOICES FOR SHOPPERS
Several Manitou Springs retailers have been boosting their online stores, but not all Manitou vendors are able to sustain robust e-commerce sites on their own.
As part of its Manitou Made campaign, the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Manitou Springs Creative District are developing a digital marketplace that will showcase and sell locally crafted products. The site will also offer gift cards from restaurants and retailers.
Manitou Springs Chamber Executive Director Leslie Lewis expects ManitouMade.com to launch on Black Friday.
“We’re shooting to launch with a minimum of 30 vendors,” Lewis said. “We’re hoping eventually to have at least 70.”
The site will link to vendors that have their own e-commerce sites but will allow customers to purchase other items directly for shipping or pickup. Participating merchants will be able to upload photos and descriptions of their merchandise.
Later in the season, “hopefully you’ll be able to purchase a whole Manitou experience,” Lewis said. “So you’ll be able to purchase tickets to the zip line and a night’s stay at one of the lodging properties.”
Manitou is looking for creative ways to present traditional events like the annual Christmas tree lighting and Santa at the Town Clock on Black Friday.
“We could certainly still do the tree lighting, but probably not the cider and cookie giveaways,” Lewis said. “The Santa piece is what we’re struggling to figure out. We usually have him in the Historic Spa Building, and people can come in with their kids and take photos. But how do you explain to a 5-year-old that you can’t touch Santa?”
The Old Colorado City shopping district seems to have solved the Santa dilemma.
“We will still have photos with Santa at Santa’s cabin from Thanksgiving through Christmas,” said Jen Gesick, marketing and PR manager for Old Colorado City. But kids won’t be sitting on Santa’s lap.
Instead, they’ll be choosing one of several layouts that have been created to capture the holiday charm people are looking for but still maintain social distancing.
“In some of the layouts, you get to sit in the sleigh while Santa is in front of the sleigh with his bag of gifts,” Gesick said.
Santa will be stationed in the 1859 Garvin cabin in Bancroft Park, which will sport holiday decorations and lighting.
Although shoppers can’t make purchases directly through the ShopOldColoradoCity.com website, it has been upgraded to feature and highlight merchants and link shoppers to their websites.
The annual Christmas stroll will be a bit different this year as well, Gesick said. The event kicks off Nov. 28 with the Dickens Carolers singing in Bancroft Park. The carolers won’t stroll up and down Colorado Avenue as they usually do but will instead perform a series of mini concerts in the park.
The Downtown Partnership is upgrading the shopping directory at DowntownCS.com to highlight shopping options, President and CEO Susan Edmondson said.
“We know everyone prefers a different way to shop right now,” she said. “Many people still, of course, enjoy shopping in the stores, and the stores are ready for them. Some folks like to first look online, and then maybe go in the store and see something for real. And then also, some people are still choosing to shop online at their favorite local store.
“We want to make sure that there’s as many possible ways for people to engage with our Downtown shops.”
The city has designated about a dozen curbside pickup areas throughout Downtown so people can stop long enough to pick up orders from restaurants and retailers.
“We’re in the midst of remapping them,” Edmondson said. “So we will ensure that any block with a good retail presence, we’ll have a place in that block to pull up and be able to pick up food or a gift they’ve purchased at a store. We’ll probably redesign them to make them holiday-festive as well.”
Events like ice skating in Acacia Park and holiday décor and lighting are designed to capture “that old-fashioned feeling that people really crave during the holidays,” Edmondson said.
“We’re also bringing back our popular holiday popup shop program,” she said. An opportunity for retailers to test the option of a Downtown location, the program will feature participants chosen by the Downtown Partnership.
“It brings people Downtown to check out something new and then go to all their favorites,” she said. “It’s important to get people thinking about small businesses during the holidays. What’s most important is that our small businesses survive during this time.”