At the Alderwood mall, Santa is now socially distanced.
At the Nordstrom flagship store downtown, shoppers are offered free masks and hand sanitizer while staff surreptitiously tally the number of people in the massive building (not that it appears to be a problem).
At Clover Toys in Ballard, owner Brittney Geleynse is filling the shop’s windows with dozens of popular store items, each with a QR code that lets customers scan, purchase and pick up a gift without entering the store.
Across Seattle and the state, brick-and-mortar retailers are preparing for a holiday shopping season unlike any in living memory.
With new coronavirus cases at record numbers, many shops can expect not only smaller crowds due to new restrictions that limit stores to just 25% of capacity, down from 30% — they also face customers who may be increasingly fearful of shopping in person.
Yet even more than in ordinary years, many retailers desperately need a solid holiday shopping season to help cover months of anemic sales and provide enough cash to survive until a vaccine is widely available.
“This is a make-or-break season for a lot of businesses,” says Chris Maykut, business member coordinator with the Phinney Neighborhood Association.
“It’s been a rough year,” echoes Jerry Irwin, senior general manager at Alderwood mall and Westlake Center.
Retailers have known for months that this holiday season was going to be complicated. Experts had long predicted that colder weather would bring a surge in coronavirus cases, new public health restrictions and new consumer anxieties about visiting brick-and-mortar stores.
That’s left customers asking, “‘How susceptible am I going out shopping? How safe is the shopping environment?'” says Renée Sunde, president and CEO of the Washington Retail Association.
Retailers have also suffered from restrictions applied to other sectors. Because restaurants, for example, can’t offer indoor dining under Gov. Jay Inslee’s recently imposed four-week restrictions, retailers will see fewer visits by consumers who like to shop after a restaurant meal, Sunde says.
Similarly, the near-total shutdown of the tourist industry along with widespread work-from-home policies have deprived many downtown shopping areas of two key customer groups.
On a recent rainy evening in downtown Seattle, stores that last November would have been buzzing with holiday shoppers were relatively quiet. At Nordstrom, a staff member’s digital counter showed just 80 customers inside a building that, even under the new occupancy restrictions, could hold at least 16 times as many, according to door staff. (Nordstrom did not respond to a request to confirm those numbers.)
It was the same story a few blocks away at Pike Place Market, where a smaller-than-normal collection of vendors have been ringing up lower-than-usual sales.
“I’ve been through ups and downs, but never down like this,” says artisan jeweler Jose Luis Amesquita, owner of Moon Valley Designs, who has sold at the market since 1984. He says sales these days are perhaps 30% of their pre-pandemic levels.
Many other vendors Amesquita knows are also hurting. Without a good Christmas this year, he says, “we can’t recover.”
To bring shoppers back into the stores at this hypercritical time, retailers, trade associations, governments and others have rolled out a series of strategies.
Hygiene and social distancing are now standard operating procedure. Traditional seasonal attractions, such as tree lightings or Santas, have been re-engineered for safety.
At Alderwood, for example, children now visit Santa from a distance of 6 feet, or virtually via a digital system that lets kids and other family members dial in and interact with a Santa they’ve chosen from among several ethnic and language groups. “The cool thing about that is that you get to pick your Santa,” says mall manager Irwin.
Individual retailers, most of which have already made significant changes to survive lower sales during the pandemic, have added new measures to safely manage a hoped-for holiday rush. In addition to constant cleaning, and monitoring of store capacity and mask-wearing, many retailers hope to make shoppers feel safer by minimizing the time they have to spend in the store.
For many retailers, that means encouraging customers to order online instead of coming in. At Blue Highway Games in Seattle, owner Scott Cooper is offering a 20% discount for Black Friday and Small Business Saturday — but only for customers who order online. They can still do an in-store or curbside pickup, Cooper says, but by shifting more browsing online, “we can manage it without being too busy in the store.”
It’s a similar story at Zara in Westlake Center, where the staff avoids customer bottlenecks by operating cashiers at several points around the store, says Joshua Rykken, women’s department manager. “Those kinds of things are helping us [be] more efficient, but also staying safe.”
Some retailers even see a bright side to the new occupancy restrictions, which may actually produce a more sedate, less frenzied experience for shoppers. “On past Black Fridays, people would come in and be like, ‘Oh, it’s way too busy in here’ and leave immediately,” says Alex Thal, assistant manager at Earthbound Trading Co., near Pike Place Market. “So it might benefit us in that way.”
Not all retailers have been able to adapt so readily to the pandemic or to recalibrate for a pandemic holiday rush. While many bigger retailers already had robust online platforms, smaller players often lack the resources to build an online presence, or the kind of products that can easily be sold through a screen.
Many smaller retailers are “not fully digitally enabled and they rely more on foot traffic to their stores to trade well,” says Neil Saunders, a retail analyst and managing director at GlobalData.
Experts also worry many smaller retailers that don’t have an online backup also lack the financial reserves to weather a disappointing holiday season, especially given the continued uncertainty over government aid for small businesses.
Although the city of Seattle and the state of Washington are both offering help for small businesses, Congress has yet to extend the massive federal relief program offered in the spring. As a result, many smaller firms “are just being left to fend for themselves,” Saunders says. “Some will not survive this season.”
Still, where big government dollars may be in short supply, many retailers are seeing other forms of essential support.
Organizations like the Downtown Seattle Association and other business groups are heavily promoting local retailers to local shoppers. The city of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development offers a Shop Your Block website where residents can quickly see retailers in their area.
Many shoppers, after nearly nine months of pandemic-related news stories and social media posts, are acutely aware of the role they can play in local retailers’ survival.
“People get that small businesses are really squarely in the bull’s-eye right now,” says Maykut of the Phinney Neighborhood Association. “They understood it before the pandemic, [but] they really get it now. They’re really going all out to support local businesses.”
Geleynse, at Clover Toys, agrees emphatically. Although she has managed to build up an online business during the pandemic, she says, “our local customers are what is keeping us afloat.”