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Downtown Stores Navigate an Uncertain Holiday Season

The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are often the busiest time of the year for retailers, with many businesses making a considerable percentage of their yearly sales at that time. COVID-19 has created new challenges for businesses and customers alike as this season rolls around. 

From the temporary closure of all non-essential businesses in March, to the limited store capacities, and surge of big-brand online shopping, the local retail economy looks much different now than it has in previous years. 

According to Dan Groberg, executive director of Montpelier Alive, businesses around town have lost 30 percent to 50 percent of their revenue compared with last year. The next six weeks will play an important role in determining the financial stability of many stores, which is why there has been such a push in the community to shop local. 

“When you shop locally, a lot more of your money is in the community,” he explained. “Almost all of our businesses downtown are locally owned, and when you shop at a Montpelier store, that is going to support a neighbor or even a friend of yours. And downtown businesses pay rent and in turn pay property taxes, and they support local jobs.”

Groberg thinks this will be a “make or break” holiday season for many of the downtown businesses. “It’s been an incredibly difficult year, and while there has been grant opportunities and other funding, it hasn’t even come close to making up some of the losses that businesses have suffered this year.”

Woodbury Mountain Toys, located on State Street, normally makes around 35 percent of its sales during the holidays. But the store’s owner, Karen Williams, said she “can’t physically do that” this year. 

In a regular holiday season, the toy store is typically bustling with excited kids and parents browsing the shelves for presents. But this year, with the store’s eight-person maximum capacity, that kind of foot traffic is not possible. 

The toy store was temporarily closed for 10 weeks at the start of the pandemic, during which Williams offered phone orders and curbside pickup. Although it was a slower revenue flow, Williams was busier than usual, working six days a week by herself to fulfill the orders. Those sales, combined with a Paycheck Protection Program loan, made it possible for Williams to keep all five of her part-time employees on the payroll. 

“Sales have picked up since we opened. They’re still down from last year, but I don’t think it’s too bad.” The toy store even saw an increase in puzzle and LEGO sales during the height of the pandemic.

With stocked-to-the-ceiling walls of puzzles, board games, and toys, and stuffed animals hanging from the ceilings, going to Woodbury Mountain Toys is a magical experience for any kid, and Williams wants to keep that experience in-person. That means the store does not have online ordering, nor plans to anytime soon.

This is partly because Williams does not have the time to do all the ordering and shipping herself, but also because “the fun is coming in and looking around!”

Other retailers around town have been successful in transitioning to online shopping and curbside pickup. Bear Pond Books has a website that allows customers to order online and pick up their order at the store, which minimizes the amount of time they spend inside the building.

The website has over 50 categories of books to browse, from juvenile fiction to cooking, poetry, true crime, and most subjects in between. The store is also posting its list of staff recommendations on the website, since the “Staff Picks” table is the most popular section in the store.

“We’ve been able to shift a lot of business to our website,” said co-owner Claire Benedict. We always had the website, it just wasn’t as big a focus, and most of our customers never used it. But in March, a lot of locals switched to it.” 

More stores around town have adopted an online ordering system. Capital Kitchen has temporarily closed their storefront to focus on their website, which now offers shipping and curbside pickup. The Quirky Pet is selling their signature dry dog chews online, and owner Cindra Conison said she plans to expand the online store to include more unique pet products. 

But most downtown retailers still rely on in-person shopping, and hope that people take the opportunity to support local businesses. Customers are encouraged to shop early for gifts, and try to shop during weekdays and slower business hours. People should also go shopping alone whenever possible, so that stores will have more capacity for more paying customers. 

Just because people should social distance does not mean they need to miss out on the holiday shopping fun.

 Montpelier Alive will host its annual Flannel Friday on Nov. 27, the day after Thanksgiving. Anyone wearing flannel downtown will have the chance to win gift certificates and other prizes. 

Supporting local businesses also means supporting the community. As Groberg emphasized, “It’s really about keeping your money local and living out your values. People really value this community and having a lively downtown, and the way to keep that thriving is to shop downtown.”