Small-business owners add curbside pickup, FaceTime virtual shopping, online sales to compete this holiday season

National retailers are offering promotions this holiday season, but small stores may benefit because of their size and ability to personalize the shopping experience.

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Your holiday shopping guide produced by the Sun-Times advertising department.

Watty Brooks Hall, owner of the Brooks Collection, plans to keep her iPhone charged and ready for more FaceTime calls this holiday season.

Her gift shop in Collierville, Tennessee, introduced virtual shopping for consumers who don’t feel comfortable coming inside but want to see the pottery, gifts and home goods up close. Hall plans to post more photos on Instagram and Facebook where engagement has been up since the pandemic.

Texas-based Stag Provisions is engaging more with shoppers on social media. It will stock more comfortable clothes such as T-shirts and sweatpants this holiday season as people spend a lot of time at home.

And Gibson’s Bookstore, New Hampshire’s oldest independent book shop, established in 1898, hopes to drive online sales with its new curbside pickup option.

Small retailers have had to get creative to keep the lights on after dealing with temporary closures and restrictions amid coronavirus. They’re preparing for a holiday shopping season unlike any they have ever experienced.

National retailers are amping up the pressure with earlier promotions to spread through the season, but small stores may benefit because of their size and ability to personalize the shopping experience.

“We deliver. We ship. We do curbside,” Hall said, adding her shop near Memphis doesn’t sell merchandise on its website. “It’s just trying to keep a small business alive is what it boils down to.”

Given concerns about social distancing, supply chain disruptions and other obstacles, getting ready for the crucial season poses new challenges — and perhaps opportunities — for business owners.

Michael Herrmann, who purchased Gibson’s 25 years ago, plans for lower in-store sales this season but higher online sales. In addition to curbside pickup, the store will hold events online.

Starting the holiday season early

Retailers — big and small — are kicking off holiday promotions earlier than ever, enticing shoppers to beat the rush and pushing more sales online. Federal health officials encourage more online shopping and discourage traditional holiday shopping known for crowds and long lines.

The conditions retailers have to deal with this season could lead more people to shop small, giving some of the businesses hit hardest in the pandemic a competitive edge. Many shoppers say they want to shop locally this holiday season. According to a Google survey, 66% of shoppers say they plan to shop more at small businesses.

It’s a sentiment Hall has heard multiple times at her 21-year-old store in a historic town square. Customers told her they wanted to show they care.

“It almost made me cry the first time I heard it,” Hall said, noting sales are almost stronger than last year’s.

Though some stores concentrate on people shopping early, Stag Provisions co-owner Don Weir said it’s possible some shoppers will come out closer to Christmas.

“I feel like it may be a late run on holiday if the COVID ... restrictions continue to lift,” he said.

Ways small businesses prepare

Early in the pandemic, many small businesses made a bigger push to digital sales, some adding curbside pickup while stores were closed under state or local orders, said Matthew Wagner, vice president of revitalization programs at the nonprofit National Main Street Center, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

A survey by the center found more than 40% of businesses added curbside because of the pandemic and more than 20% added touch-free payment systems.

Harley Finkelstein, president of e-commerce platform Shopify, told USA TODAY he expects it to be a challenging season.

“The 2020 holiday season will shine a spotlight on resilient retailers and create a blueprint for the commerce landscape of the future,” Finkelstein said.

Here are tips for businesses making preparations:

Special hours: Since March, major retailers started dedicating time for consumers most vulnerable to COVID-19 to shop when fewer people are in stores, and many have continued the “senior hours” and operate under reduced hours. Wagner said lengthening hours can help disperse crowds and make shoppers feel more comfortable.

Outdoor shopping: Wagner suggested businesses consider setting up tables or tents in front of stores.

Multiple fulfillment options: Finkelstein said businesses can prepare for the season by selling and managing inventory across multiple platforms. “Entrepreneurs who offer flexible fulfillment options, like curbside pickup and local delivery, will be the ones to get their products into the hands of happy customers,” he said.

Shift inventory mix: Though most retailers plan their holiday inventory early in the year, look at trends and ask suppliers about making changes where there are opportunities.

Private shopping: Similar to special hours, private holiday shopping events could bring “exclusivity to the season” if stores offer appointments for loyal customers, Wagner suggested.

Prepare for shipping delays: More online shopping is likely in 2020, so consumers should shop early — and businesses should encourage the earlier shopping — so gifts arrive in plenty of time. Several items from big and small stores are likely to sell out earlier and might not be restocked in time for delivery by Christmas.

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