Wilton Small Businesses Remain Resilient, Optimistic About Opening Despite Economic Situation

Last weekend’s release of Connecticut’s retail guidelines for phase one of reopening (currently set to begin on Wednesday, May 20)provided long-awaited hope to Wilton’s small business owners, who have hustled to adapt to life in shutdown.

The published guidelines reflect an effort to minimize the risk of transmission while safely remobilizing the economy, the guidelines state, making a return to business still far from “normal.” Safeguards in place include:

  • limiting the store to 50% capacity and increasing ventilation
  • adopting aggressive cleaning procedures in all areas and educating employees about cleaning plans
  • making hand sanitizer available at common areas and entrances and requiring masks for both customers and employees
  • implementing signage and social distancing markers
  • preventing employees from sharing equipment, or cleaning after each use if unavoidable, as well as creating workstations to limit employee traffic and contact, and partitions between employees where social distancing is impossible
  • recommending physical barriers (ie. plexiglass), contactless pay and touch-less appliances whenever possible at checkout
  • instituting daily health checks for employees
  • closing fitting rooms

Despite the added effort needed to meet the requirements, for many brick and mortar businesses forced to close in-person operations, re-opening is welcome news.

Ready to Reopen

Clothing and jewelry retailers in particular have taken a severe financial hit with the shutdown. Megan Abrahamsen at Blue Star Bazaar said that despite efforts to promote products on social media and create an e-commerce site, her sales are down 70-80%. For other consignment places like Local Soul, owners Beth Montford and Peter Finnie said they have seen up to a 95% decrease in their sales despite daily posts on social media about products, which has financially hurt both the Local Soul team and the artists they consign.

Abrahamsen said these losses are not due to lack of effort, but because the nature of the pandemic has taken away the need for clothes that drove her inventory. For instance, she said the health emergency suddenly rendered her inventory of spring break clothes, white graduation dresses and night-out attire purposeless because “people just don’t have the occasion to shop for new clothes.”

These shops are not alone in feeling the financial and physical toll of the pandemic. For Susan Schmitt, owner of the Painted Cookie, closing her store’s in-person operations meant instant and time consuming changes, such as instituting an eCommerce site and curbside pickup option.

Due to social distancing I am working 12-13 hour days, six days a week,” she wrote. “It is stressful doing as much as possible to accommodate orders not knowing how long they will last with current layoffs and furloughs of our customers.”

Similarly, Jennifer Fila, who opened Town Center Toys less than a year ago, said her sales this month are down 70% from a normal month. This economic loss forced her to make tough decisions, including furloughing three employees for the time being.

Challenges in Reopening

Despite the hope re-opening provides, the practical enactment of these requirements requires a lot of creativity and commitment.

Abrahamsen said she is “cautiously optimistic” about the future. She plans to reopen “in some capacity” on May 20. Part of her plan to cultivate comfort for her clients is to encourage “personal shopping on the porch” to increase circulation without sacrificing safety. She hopes to keep the majority of shopping outdoors, though she has reconfigured the interior of her store to create more open space as well. 

Similarly, the Local Soul team has been working to install plexiglass at checkout and update daily cleaning procedures. Upon reopening they plan to leave both store doors open to increase ventilation, and close the dressing room too. Fila of Town Center Toys is also installing plexiglass, and plans to limit hours and the number of customers allowed in the store at the same time, leave the door open to increase ventilation and limit contact, and continue online shopping and curbside pickup as well.

Alla Ionescu of Happy Hands Art & Pottery LLC said that upon reopening, providing a “safe, clean and healthy environment for our staff and our clients” is a priority for them.

“We’ll install sanitizers/wipes dispensers by the entrances as well as provide disposable face covers to all our clients if needed during visits at our studios,” she wrote in an email to GMW. “Reservations are strongly recommended to accommodate walk-ins and social distancing requirements. In addition we’re working to implement outdoor sitting.”

Additionally, while adjusting to in-person operations, Happy Hands will continue offering its online “pottery to go” program.

Other stores are waiting to reopen, continuing curbside pickup in the meantime. Nancy Saxe, owner of Sweet Pierre’s, said she is “concerned” about reopening because of the physically small size of her store. However, she has been brainstorming ways to help maximize safety, such as distributing single-use disposal gloves. Catherine Romer of Nod Hill Soap similarly sees the space of her store as a potential issue, and will likely not open until early June.

“My shop is pretty small, so I am taking all aspects related to a safe re-opening into consideration- especially figuring out the best way to safely serve my customers in such a small space,” Romer wrote.

Jennifer Angerame of Southern Yankee said she is “taking it day by day” when it comes to her shop. Angerame has devoted much of her time to creating free masks for the community and frontline workers, and is thankful for all who have purchased gift cards to support her business in the meantime. She said when she opens it will likely be appointment only.

For those stores that have resisted returning to in-person operations, online service has provided a refuge.

Schmitt said that due to the success of the Painted Cookie’s eCommerce website, she doesn’t see herself opening the retail location to the public “anytime soon.”

Similarly, Suzie Vallerie of The Enriched Stitch is “busier than she’s ever been” promoting her needlepoint products and classes online, with positive financial results. Because of her success with her online business, she said she is waiting to see how her employees feel before reopening.

To reopen, she plans to start with by-appointment only. She anticipates that the hardest adjustment is going to be the limited interaction with people, as her customers have a close relationship with the store and staff. 

“We’re used to talking with customers for a while and we’re going to have to move people quickly [now],” she said.

Optimistic despite obstacles  

Wendy Manes of Annabel Greens Flowers, has been taking flower orders successfully via telephone; however, without her doors open, the other products she sells have “been sitting since March 15.” Despite this, Manes remains optimistic about reopening and managing the state requirements because of the nature of her store.

“This is when being small really pays off,” she said.

Similarly, Montford and Finnie feel hopeful after seeing the big effort Wilton residents made to shop local over Mother’s Day, and are excited to welcome the town back.

Although shopping may look different with the team in masks and socially distant, they are “so sincerely excited to see our Wilton shoppers again in person.”

Abrahamsen agreed, and is “certainly glad” to be in Wilton in this time of uncertainty. She wants the community to know retailers are here for it.

“We’re all trying to put systems in place to meet or figure out new ways for people to shop,” she said. “But in the meantime, before it’s all worked out, every shop is willing to get products to local customers… just send a message to those retailers and we’ll get you what you need.”

1 COMMENT

  1. I wish everyone luck and safety. With no real drop in numbers in CT reopening will inevitably lead to spikes and another possible lockdown. Our governor has not adhered to his own rules for reopening but bowed to pressure.
    So sad. How will these businesses survive? How will this work?

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