Down times for downtowns: Retailers challenged to draw customers in pandemic

That Ish Boutique owner James Owens stands in front of his downtown store in Dover. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — The lack of steady foot traffic on the downtown sidewalks off Loockerman Street in Dover, Main Street in Smyrna and Walnut Street in Milford, speaks volumes about the difficulties that small businesses continue to face in the facemask wearing, social distancing world of COVID-19.

While there are a few business owners who say they have been seeing consistent sales, such as Brian Brown, owner of Smyrna Sporting Goods, there are a slew of others who have had to cut back their operating hours and reimagine their business model — such as offering their products via the internet.

Judy Diogo, president of the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce, said there are many factors that continue to hinder local businesses around the state during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“(Businesses) are having a difficult time getting employees to come back to work. They are and have been making too much on unemployment,” Ms. Diogo said. “There’s no incentive to go to work. They are having a difficult time getting customers to come back. Not being able to open-open (like pre-COVID) is just so difficult. They are stuck in this not-knowing limbo of what is going to happen from day to day.

“They need to have consistency. They need to know what the real rules are and what the government is really measuring — the number in the hospital, the number positive. They just have no clear message as to what is happening. They are also being forced to operate in a failed business model. You cannot operate at 30, 50 or 60 percent and have 100 percent of your costs for an extended period of time. Businesses cannot survive like that.”

Yossy Azhar, owner of Zuha Trend, a men’s formal clothing store at 207 W. Loockerman St. in Dover, said the coronavirus hit her business during what is usually her busiest time of the year — spring, with weddings, proms and several others social events taking place.

Ms. Azhar said she recently decided to close her store on Mondays because it’s always the slowest day of the week.

“We’re treading waters waiting to see if this decision is going to work for us,” she said. “Actually our busiest season was hurt by the pandemic. It was proms, weddings and there weren’t many weddings because a lot of people moved their weddings to the fall, so hopefully we’re not going to get another round of COVID-19.”

Ms. Azhar is in the process of developing a website but also does a little bit of her business on Facebook and Instagram. It’s been a process, she said.

“We’ve been trying to recover very slowly,” said Ms. Azhar. “We haven’t made much improvement. People are still hesitant to go out and spend their money on non-essential things.”

Meanwhile, just a couple of doors down at 235 W. Loockerman St. at That Ish Boutique, business is starting to pick up again according to James Owens, who owns the store that sells Islamic garb and unique fashions.

Mr. Owens said his store is professionally sanitized seven days a week and he offers facemasks and hand sanitizer to the customers who enter there.

“My business is starting to pick up,” Mr. Owens said. “Ever since they started letting us come back, business has been good, and people are not really scared to come out. People are more annoyed than anything. A lot of people come in and seem more annoyed that they have to do all the extra stuff than anything else.”

He said he hasn’t had to worry about reducing the hours at his store, since it is only open from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. anyway.
However, he said he has had to get a little more tech savvy during the pandemic.

That Ish Boutique owner James Owens inside his store in downtown Dover.

“Doing an online service was kind of hard for me because I had no online presence at all,” said Mr. Owens. “I had to pay somebody to come in and set my things up and all that. Now you can buy my clothes online, you can look at my Facebook page … every time I get something, I post it on my Instagram.”

Despite a couple of positive stories from downtown Dover, many storefronts remain vacant and Angelo’s Pizza has closed its doors — hopefully temporarily.

Diane Laird, executive director of the Downtown Dover Partnership, said that the businesses that remain are doing their best to fight it out.

“While there has been a slow return with some businesses, others have returned full-scale,” Ms. Laird said. “While there is quite a mix of ‘by appointment only,’ those that are open daily are really doing quite well. Several businesses have redecorated and refreshed their stores, and others have beefed up or begun to integrate online sales platforms to supplement sales.

“One thing is certain — we are all looking forward to having Angelo’s return. The Downtown Dover Merchants committee has launched a promotional ‘Capital Key’ for customers to unlock value shopping downtown and they are also considering special training in online marketing and sales,” she said.

Signs of recovery in Milford

Trish Gerkin, director of Downtown Milford Inc. declared last week: “Milford is open for business.”

Like Dover’s merchants group, Ms. Gerkin’s organization is offering activities such as Friday night sidewalk sales designed to bring people downtown.

“Although some are operating on modified hours, nearly all of our businesses are in fact open,” she said.

Things aren’t back to where they were before the pandemic hit in mid March, but many see the town re-emerging from its slumber.
“It’s starting to get back to normal a little bit more than it was a few weeks ago,” said Bobby Bergez, a resident of nearby Harrington who spends a lot of time in downtown Milford. “There’s definitely more foot traffic, people coming out and society getting back to somewhat of a sense of normalcy.”

He’s a frequent customer at Red Bandana, a comic book and tabletop gaming store in Milford, where he was able to get two silver-age comic books restored.

Brandon Coenen, who owns the store with his wife Katie, said, “We are actually doing well. We just aired our first commercial on Monday … It’ll be airing for the next two weeks.”

Mr. Coenen said his business’ roots online left it well-prepared to navigate the COVID-19 landscape.

“We started 10 years ago on more of an online, Ebay-type basis,” he said. When COVID-19 hit, Mr. Coenen said, “any type of online presence we had, we amped up exponentially. We moved to things like appointments and curbside delivery when that was actually available to us.”

That Ish Boutique owner James Owens, sitting, talks with his friend Tyler Watson in front of his downtown store in Dover.

He said the store has been able to maintain its regular hours and even continues to host Dungeons and Dragons sessions — a feature that customer Mr. Bergez said he greatly appreciates.

“People are creatures of habit,” he said. “Brandon and Katie here at the Red Bandana have been really good about trying to keep things as normal as possible.”

But not every shopkeeper has been able to do that.

“The walk-in business isn’t as great for many businesses because despite the low COVID case numbers, people are still afraid to go out,” said Jo Schmeiser of the Greater Milford Chamber of Commerce.

She said that although online retail has been great for tech-savvy store owners, for those who aren’t, “it has not been helpful and they’ve either had to get creative other ways, or they’re at the point that if we don’t get into Phase 3, they feel they may have to close their doors.”

Maggie Mae Stewart, who owns Milford Antiques and Friends, said the vendors she works with aren’t interested in selling their goods online, so she has to make do with in-person traffic. She said business has been slow and she’s cut back her hours of operation.
“I think people are afraid to spend their money because they’re unsure what’s happening,” Ms. Stewart said. For her, it’s “week by week, month by month.”

But she still has many loyal customers, like Milford resident Emily Menden, who stops by Ms. Stewart’s store two to three times a week.

“We need more specialty stores and people that are service-oriented,” Ms. Menden said. “I just wish there were a few more stores down here, and I wish that the stores that are down here would adjust their hours a little bit. Like Blooming Boutique, you never know when they’re going to be open.”

Although the store’s owner Micha Seto said her other locations in Lewes and Long Neck have more regular hours, she said it’s been a struggle to find staff, especially at the Milford location, which is only open on Fridays and Saturdays. It was open seven days a week before the pandemic.

“We don’t have staffing because people are collecting unemployment,” Ms. Seto said. “It’s been an issue for us, because it’s kind of hard to compete with that.”

She said across all of her stores, she’s short about 20 employees.

“We’re barely open,” she said.

Still, Ms. Seto also has taken solace in the internet. She had been developing the online element of her business before the pandemic hit and has stayed in touch with her customer base via Facebook Live.

“We do live shows and we sell just like QVC and HSN,” Ms. Seto said. “We still do them every single day right now, Monday through Friday 12 to 1.”

Smyrna stores in survival mode

Mr. Brown, the owner of Smyrna Sporting Goods at 4 S. Main St., said he’s been fortunate because his top sellers — guns and ammunition — have remained in high demand during the uncertain times of the pandemic.

While there are days when he might not sell a softball glove or a baseball bat, there is usually always someone coming in to acquire about a firearm.

“It’s been steady. Business has been steady,” Mr. Brown said. “Guns and ammunition (are consistent sellers). It’s hard to put a finger on it. People want to feel safe. They’re afraid people are going to take their guns away … there’s so many different people looking at all different aspects.

“I just think it’s like milk and bread before the storm, but I don’t think the storm’s ever going to come.”

Even with the booming gun sales, Mr. Brown said everything does not always go as easily as it may seem.

“It’s been hard to get product,” he said. “It takes longer to get product through shipping because there’s such a volume, but other than that, it’s just been steady.”

Meanwhile, Woody Gill, owner of Royal Treatments at 14 S. Main St. in Smyrna and the adjacent Smyrna Cards and Gifts store, had a much different taste from COVID-19 when the outbreak began in earnest back in March.

“We had to close for 10 weeks,” Mr. Gill said, of his home furnishings store. “The type of business we have here we were able to continue to work, but we couldn’t deliver anything.

“We opened back up June 1st and June is a little soft because people didn’t want to get out just yet. July is off probably 20 percent from where we would expect it and it’s already a slow month for us because of vacation time. Now, with schools not really starting back up, I’m not really sure what August is going to bring.”

He added, “People won’t be necessarily getting out and doing the normal things – because it’s not normal (right now).”

Mr. Gill’s not sure when things will finally get “back to normal,” but he is certainly looking forward to it.

“Eventually I think we’ll get over our hump and people will get back to a somewhat normal, whatever that is — get back shopping and doing the things they would ordinarily do,” he said.


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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