Neighborhood Retail Businesses Weathering Unprecedented Losses

As retail businesses in the neigh­borhood scramble to adjust their business models in the face of COVID-19, they are weathering unprecedented – and unexpected – revenue losses.

“As a small business that has relied heavily on foot traffic up until now, we have seen our sales dwindle down to about 10 per­cent of what a typical March or April period would be, and we’re now relying on online sales only,” said Jennifer Hill, owner of Blackstone’s of Beacon Hill and its sister establishment, KitchenWares by Blackstones, at 46 Charles St. A lot stores didn’t already have websites –we did – and everyone was enhancing and getting their products up online.”

Both businesses have seen “con­siderable” spikes in online sales within the last two weeks, Hill said, but neither is profitable at the moment, so she was faced with the difficult decision of furloughing the store manager.

“We realize how important our store manager is to our success so we have furloughed her so she has been able to access to the unem­ployment benefits until life returns to a new normal in the coming months,” Hill said.

Now, like many other business owners, Hill is applying for federal government assistance via the $2.2 trillionCARES Act(H.R. 748) – an emergency relief package that would offer financial assistance to small businesses impacted by COVID-19 via emergency grants and a forgivable loan program, as well as relief for existing loans for companies with 500 or fewer employees.

Rebecca Hall, proprietor of Crush Boutique, a women’s cloth­ing store with locations on Charles Street and Newbury Street in Back Bay, and Whitney + Winston, a Charles Street gift shop, said the store closures compelled the businesses to develop more of an online presence.

“At first, the effort was to sell through social media, and then, we then took the time and effort to create an online store to sell our products,” Hall said. “We’ve had an outpouring of support from our local community and loyal customers during this ever-evolv­ing process, but we still struggle to try to remain at the forefront in people’s minds and capture sales virtually.”

Both businesses have instated home drop-off whereby they leave the goods at the customer’s front door and notify them by phone, or instead ship the products to them.

“Even though we’re so grateful for the support we have received, and efforts have proven successful to actively work to facilitate sales to clients without contact, we’ve seen a dramatic drop in [revenue] at both businesses compared to this time last year,” Hall said.

While Hall said the only full-time employee is still on the pay­roll, some part-timers have to fore­go their paychecks.

“Other employees are stu­dents working part time who were forced to go home anyway, but it’s a really unfortunate situation,” Hall said.

In the meantime, Hall has applied for assistance through the CARES Act, as well as through the city’s Small Business Relief Fund, which offers financial assis­tance to businesses impacted by COVID-19 that have fewer than 35 employees and less than $1.5 million in annual revenue.

“We’ve applied for both the city grant and the federal loan,” Hall said, “and we’re remaining hopeful that we get some assis­tance so we can start to rehire and just keep the business afloat.”

Ali Ringenburg, co-presi­dent of the Beacon Hill Business Association, said while many businesses anticipate slow sales in January, they know this is only a temporary seasonal setback, and that things will return to normal soon enough. But unlike that fore­seeable scenario, the future is now uncertain.

“There isn’t an exact trajec­tory now, it’s just unknown,” said Ringenburg, who also owns the Sloane Merrill Gallery at 75 Charles St. “We have no idea how long it’s going to last or how long it’s going to take to get back to normal.”

And with this uncertainty comes difficult decisions for some business owners.

“There are some restaurants and hotels, more than shops, that have had to make tough deci­sions about laying people off or furloughing people, or just telling hourly employees they can’t come in,” Ringenburg said. “Other busi­nesses have made the commitment to staff to allow them to work from home in some capacity to keep them on the payroll.”

Although some business own­ers might see relief from the fed­eral government, the process is arduous, and even if they are deemed eligible to receive financial assistance, the timeline remains unknown.

“A lot of businesses are consid­ering the federal options, but there are challenges there like the actual application process and that hur­dle, and wondering when funds will hit and if they can use them,” Ringenburg said.

The Beacon Hill business com­munity is distinctive in that it is composed largely of small, inde­pendent businesses, Ringenburg said.

“Charles Street and Beacon Hill businesses are unique in all this because many of them are inde­pendent, which is something we’re proud of, but it also means that there are a lot of costs associated for one or two business owners to handle, so that’s a heavy weight,” Ringenburg said. “Business in this day and age is really about rela­tionships and not just the transac­tional, and that’s especially import­ant right now during this crisis.”

Lynne Wolverton, who has served several generations of cus­tomers over 32 years at Linens on the Hill at 52 Charles St., was recently faced with the daunting challenge of bringing online a busi­ness that had typically relied on in-store sales.

“I get some orders over phone or through email, but I don’t have a robust website, so I can’t mar­ket like some other stores can,” Wolverton said.

And unlike other neighborhood businesses, Wolverton also expects hers will receive no federal relief since she only employees part-time help.

“The loans will be forgiven if you keep employees on staff, but I have no employees so it does me no good,” she said.

Still, Wolverton is encouraged – and touched – by the outpouring of support she has received in the past few weeks.

“I have a very supportive clientele. Many just call to say ‘hello,’ and, ‘when it’s safe, we’ll be there,’” she said. “Many have reached out to order things they might not need now but will even­tually need, or to purchase gift certificates. I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness I’ve received from the Beacon Hill community.”

But Wolverton still expects lean times ahead for the business.

“I think it will slow down in the next few weeks, and I don’t know what will happen next,” she said.

One of the neighborhood’s few “essential businesses” according to state guidelines, Gary Drug Co. at 59 Charles St. is allowed to keep its storefront open, but has seen its business “cut in half” since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, said pharmacist Dan Greenfield.

“Delivery and curbside services have picked up, but the pharma­cy still isn’t seeing much business online, and there’s almost no foot traffic,” Greenfield said. “At least we’re open and we provide us a service to people, but it’s going to be a long haul, I think.”

Jack Gurnon, owner of another “essential business – Charles Street Supply, the longstanding hardware store at 54 Charles St. – has also seen his business drop off by about 50 percent.

“In the beginning, we were really busy and then people kind of stopped coming in,” Gurnon said. “Online sales have increased, but I’ve also found it’s not happening in real time, and instead, there’s a day’s lag. What people finally figured out is that it doesn’t do any good to order online, so they’re calling to make sure items are in stock.”

Added Gurnon, “We’ve kind of come up with pandemic list of weird things people buy like mousetraps, ant-traps – they paint anything that doesn’t move –and of course because Starbucks is closed, coffee makers and coffee grinders, and the usual gloves, wipes, etcetera. It’s the side stuff that makes me smirk.”

Gurnon said some of his staff have “volunteered to take them­selves off the schedule” so he hasn’t been forced to lay off or furlough any employees.

“I can run it with a skeleton crew, or I can almost run it by myself,” he said.

Charles Street Supply Co. is now closing at 4 p.m. as opposed to the traditional 7 p.m. time, but Gurnon remains on call for his customers after business hours.

“Because I live over the store, for emergencies, I will come down and get them everything they need,” Gurnon said. “I’m lucky to be open, but I’m not doing it for me, I’m doing it for the neighbor­hood.”

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