By JEFF CLEMETSON | La Mesa Courier
When the COVID crisis first began, retail businesses were some of the hardest to be hit. Deemed unessential, gift shops, clothing stores and the like were ordered closed. Then on May 8, shops could again reopen in California, but under strict guidelines that only allowed for customers to utilize online purchases with curbside pickups or by-appointment-only shopping. And on May 20, the state announced that San Diego County businesses and restaurants could open for in-person shopping and dining with a new set of guidelines.
For retail shops in La Mesa, the last few months have been a struggle to adapt to a different set of rules, develop new safety protocols, navigate government assistance programs and — most of all — attract customers in what is already one of the worst economic downturns in all of history.
“Saying that business is down is way an understatement for a lot of us retail people. It’s just pretty nonexistent,” said Evangelina Gomez who owns Blackbird, a retail shop on the corner of La Mesa Boulevard and Date Avenue.
Like a lot of shop owners caught off guard by the mandatory closure following the virus outbreak, Gomez used the time away from running her store to work on building up her online presence. She started a Shopify page and updated her website to allow customers access to her shop during quarantine. However, she said the results were “very, very small.”
“I did just start that so I’m being patient to see the growth for it, but the reality is that most of us are doing [business] at like 10% [of normal],” she said. “We are still in that place of concern.”
Unsurprisingly, paying rent on a storefront in the Village is one of the most difficult expenses to manage for Gomez.
“That is very, very hard for me. I’ve only been in here for two years and I’ve always paid my rent and to be in that hole … it takes a hit to the gut. It’s also very scary,” she said.
For Teri Favro, owner of Amethyst Moon, rent and employee costs were too much for her to keep the doors open at a second business she was in the process of building up.
“That store was just going to focus on classes and seminars and we had a lot of people lined up to do everything from belly dancing, yoga, meditation, Reiki classes, painting classes you name it — it was such a great spot for that — but with all this happening, I couldn’t carry both rents and wait for someday when we could have a class again,” she said, adding that she also had to lay off all her employees at both businesses.
For Act II owner Deanne Ross, rent was more of an issue before the crisis began. Just before the mandatory shutdown, her landlord at one of her Downtown locations tripled her rent, so she decided to consolidate her two stores into one. She spent the last couple months remodeling.
“I think [business] is slower than normal but I also think that we’re fortunate because it’s not too slow. We’ve been doing pretty darn good,” she said. “We’ve been around for 38 years so we have a really good product that’s super cheap so people realize during this quarantine that ‘Wow, this is what’s missing in my closet.” Or, ‘I’ve gained weight’ or ‘I’ve lost weight’ and we changed seasons during the quarantine so people need to ramp up their summer wardrobe.”
For businesses that haven’t been around for almost 40 years, ramping up online sales was key to staying afloat during the quarantine.
That is what Small Batch owner Brittany Pena did. She worked on her online stores and posted her products to Instagram and Facebook to make sales and then delivered them to customers before stores could open for curbside pickup. She credits the La Mesa community for stepping up to support hers and other businesses during the crisis.
“Everyone’s been really supportive. It seems like everyone’s been really conscience of ordering food from local and then we’ve done pretty well with the online sales,” she said. “It’s not necessarily that people needed a candle, it’s just making sure they support us and they don’t want us to go anywhere.”
When Pena was allowed to reopen her storefront for curbside pickup and no longer had to deliver her products to customers who orders online, she had to decide on safety protocols for her business. For Small Batch, that means all customers must still purchase through her online stores so that Pena doesn’t have to handle any cards or cash. She also decided to not let anyone in her store.
Gomez enacted a similar policy at Blackbird, although she does allow customers to purchase items at her door where she set up a no-touch card reader. Still, most of her business right now is from an online purchase that is then picked up at her door.
“That’s usually how people are making their purchases,” she said. “People can also come to my windows. I have a lot of my products window-facing — so old school window shopping. I also have menus on the doors with my essential oils and my different apothecary products that I have.”
Not every business banned customers from entry into their shops. James Simpson, owner of Time and Treasures instead installed a doorbell for customers to ring for entry. He only allows a couple of customers in at a time and requires masks.
“Because if they don’t have a mask on, they’re not coming in,” he said. “It’s common sense. If you wear a mask and you keep a distance, you’ll be okay. That’s pretty much plain and simple.”
Despite being in a high-risk group because of his age of 74 years, Simpson said he feels comfortable with opening his door to customers as long as they follow his mask policy.
“It’s actually worked out very well for me and I intend to keep it that way,” he said. “I don’t want to put my health at risk and I don’t want to put anybody else’s at risk.”
Claudia Sotelo, owner of Modern Market in Grossmont Center, reopened her store in the beginning on May for pickup only.
“But I decided there was no point in doing curbside pickup, especially for my store. Everyone wants to touch and see what I have,” she said. Now she allows a few customers at a time into her spacious store and also requires masks, which she also makes and sells.
Modern Market is one of just a few Grossmont Center shops that are open for business — other than large retailers like Target and Walmart.
Ben Potter, general manager for Grossmont Shopping Center General Manager Ben Potter said tenants are allowed to do curbside, but some of the national chain stores that rent space there are waiting for more direction from officials on how to open for in-store shopping.
“When we do have the directive that we can do in-store shopping, as soon as we get that, we’re ready to do that,” he said. “We’re excited to get everyone open. It’s on the horizon.”
Amethyst Moon owner Favro also chose to forgo curbside pickup, and eventually opened for in-store shopping at the end of May.
“I don’t have an online business, that’s not why I’m in business,” she said. “I’m in business to have the one-on-one, which is what I thrive on. I help people every day. Online you just can’t get that. That’s not what I set out to do when I was little girl wanting my own shop.”
For safety, Favro has ordered Plexiglas for the store’s counter and reading room; she is requiring masks; and is allowing only a few people in at a time. She is confident that those precautions will provide herself and her customers with enough safety.
“People know what to do at this point,” she said “It’s been nine weeks of shutdown. People are ready to go with some guidelines and get out for their shopping and get back to their life.”
Craig Maxwell, owner of Maxwell’s House of Books reopened for curbside at beginning of May when Governor Newsom allowed it.
“We decided to do a slow unfolding of the opening – take it incrementally, stage by stage,” he said, adding that he thought about allowing small groups or individuals in at a time but decided against it. Online purchasing and pickup works for his bookstore because he has a website and his inventory is cataloged on several shopping sites, including Amazon. He added that the varied way shops are reopening in the Village and elsewhere in the region is because of a lack of clarity when new rules or guidelines are presented to businesses.
“[The rollout of guidelines] has been a little haphazard seeming and kind of scattered, certainly at the federal level – what they give with one hand, they take back with the other,” he said “And Newsom’s directives have been vague enough to make people frustrated and I can see why.”
Help on the way?
Guidelines on reopening is just one area businesses owners are finding frustration with state and federal government. A bigger problem has been with aid programs.
Blackbird owner Gomez said she has applied for every kind of assistance she could qualify for. She applied for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan and was notified that her application was received but she hasn’t heard back in over six weeks. She applied for a state grant for women business owners and is in phase two of four-phase process but has no idea when she might get through all the phases — if she even does at all. Similarly, the unemployment office confirmed they received her application but she hasn’t heard anything else from them.
Gomez said she sees that businesses that have between 50 and 500 employees are the ones getting help right away, but small independent shops with few or no employees are stuck in a sort of assistance limbo.
“We are the ones falling through the cracks,” she said.
Gino Serrano, owner of Gino’s Wide Shoes & Repair in Grossmont Center applied for an SBA (Small Business Association) loan two months ago but was denied.
“Two days ago I got an email, said they couldn’t do anything for me. So that’s when I decided to start opening up again.”
One bit of relief for businesses has come from the city of La Mesa. On May 12, the City Council voted to suspend collecting business license fees. Council member Kristine Alessio said the savings to businesses — averaging only $75 depending on number of employees — was a pittance for struggling shop owners, but felt that the gesture was important. She added that the Council is also exploring other ways to help local retailers and restaurants that will be discussed at upcoming meetings.
Although government aid will help struggling businesses, what retailers said they need most are customers to return to shopping — and on May 20, the state gave businesses in San Diego a bit of good news when it decided to allow the region to accelerate phase two reopening which will officially allow for in-person shopping. That is the only aid that some businesses have been hoping for.
“I don’t need any help. I just need to open my front door,” Favro said. “I think that we don’t need any more printing of money. We don’t need any more stimulus. We just need to open our front doors.”
(Photo by Jeff Clemetson)
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.