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VOL. 44 | NO. 49 | Friday, December 4, 2020

Santa’s got a brand new bag

Holiday shopping transforms for unique 2020

By Hollie Deese

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David Levy’s family’s clothing business goes back generations, so he has plenty of history from which to draw and family experience to guide him.

That history includes the 1918 flu pandemic, which swept through the country about 30 years after Levy’s opened and killed 7,721 Tennesseans, Tennessee Historical Society records show, though he has no records for how it affected business.

“But apparently, we survived, so that’s a good sign,” Levy says.

And, business survival is at the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. For most retailers, restaurants and other small businesses, 2020 has been a year to do whatever it takes to stay afloat – be it in-store, online, curbside or virtual – to navigate a strange shopping season.

Founded in 1855, the Nashville landmark clothing retailer is enduring despite a shopping season that is dramatically different from last year. Customer-appreciation cocktail hours have been replaced with hand sanitizer stations, and special event eveningwear inventory has been reduced to make way for new lines of upscale “athleisure” wear.

Deemed nonessential like so many businesses, Levy’s was closed from the mid-March to mid-May, and the store has been operating under slightly modified hours since, closing a little earlier as the shopping and business traffic, a Green Hills cliché, has still not returned.

So the store is constantly adjusting and making changes to meet customers where they are. Unfortunately, they are all over the place, and changes are made seemingly daily. Marks on the floor, reminders to socially distance and temp checks are part of the new shopping normal this holiday season, but for small businesses it is a small price to pay for being open and ringing the cash register.

“If anybody is here and wants to stay late, that is never a problem,” Ellen Levy says. “We’re happy to do that. We take safe shopping very seriously, and everyone wears a mask and we ask our clients to wear a mask. When they come in, we take their temperature. We have a pulse monitor to check oxygen levels as well, if necessary.”

‘Innovate or die’

Levy’s, in business for 165 years, have adapted inventory and marketing to meet customer needs.

-- Photograph Provided

The Levys have history and legacy behind them, but even that isn’t enough to save a retailer in 2020. Like many other small businesses they are whatever is necessary to retain old customers, attract new ones and keep their staff employed.

“When we first reopened, no one needed anything for weddings,” Ellen points out.

In fact, David and Ellen’s own daughter’s wedding had been scheduled for the end of May, postponed, then ultimately celebrated at the end of August with 25 people. That’s when their wedding business began to return just as they had pivoted into much more casual clothing.

“We have adapted to the changes that we have needed to adapt to,” David says. He anticipates a return to a more normal shopping experience when a vaccine is readily available.

For now, they have updated their website, are offering curbside pickup, hosting FaceTime client appointments when new merchandise comes in and even doing local delivery, most likely from one of the Levys themselves.

“We still feel like we have a personal relationship with our people and we wanted to keep it personal, even when we were closed for those two months,” Ellen says. “We were just driving around the city, delivering and doing what needed to be done. We will do whatever needs to be done.”

And as shoppers look for a more personal experience, the Levys are ready for it. Even if business wear and evening clothes are not in high demand, when people do need that special piece they will expect even more from the experience.

“And we have, we have noticed that, that the shoppers are spending a little more extra time with us because it is a little bit of therapy,” Ellen adds. “And when you are shopping in the local stores, you’re supporting members of your community. We are keeping them employed, keeping all the resources here, and it’s not being sent out of town anywhere.

“And it’s not easy. I will tell you it’s not easy, but we’ll do whatever it takes.”

Gallatin Chamber of Commerce CEO Kim Baker says the organization has worked with member businesses even more and more closely this year than ever before, providing support in a whole new way.

The pandemic has forced the Levy’s staff to adjust how it does business. Some in-store consultations, for example, are being replaced by FaceTime.

-- Photograph Provided

“The chamber provides support and promotion all year along, but this year it has been a really unique type of promotion and a really interesting type of support,” Baker explains. “Some of our businesses are operating business as usual. Some of them have experienced little impact and are having great years.

“Some of our businesses are having their worst year ever.”

In some ways Baker says that has been the most challenging part – trying to meet their members where they are, but what each one needs is so individual and different right now.

“In the chamber industry, and I think in any industry, you really have to innovate or die,” she says. “You have to be continuously reinventing yourself and stretching yourself and growing in different ways and trying new things.

“This year was a really good opportunity for us to do that – we tried things we’ve never tried before - some that we probably won’t ever do again. But it has been an opportunity to reinvent the services we provide.”

Driven by community

The Gallatin Chamber has always hosted small-business shopping events to boost sales for members before the holidays, including the annual Tinsel and Treasures shopping event, which this year had 28 different participating retailers, and Shop Small Saturday, in an effort to get people to spend holiday shopping dollars at home.

“I think all across our country, chambers and small businesses are really rallying together more than ever to promote local,” Baker acknowledges.

The resulting community spirit surrounding supporting small business has been a silver lining, Baker says, and she has been fielding more calls than ever about where people can find certain items locally and not through a chain, as well as lists of women-owned businesses and Black-owned businesses to support.

Daisy-A-Day Vintage in Gallatin survived without physical space by Facebook live sales, delivery.

-- Photograph Provided

“We’ve had a really bad year in so many ways, but I think a big silver lining is that people are realizing the importance of community and their neighbors, and people are really being there for each other,” Baker adds. “It shows that there is an understanding of the unique fabric small businesses weave into our community.”

And, she hopes to see that kind of grace in stores from shoppers toward each other and store employees as things get busier and virus numbers remain high.

“If you’re shopping, I think you need to be mindful of those around you,” Baker says. “Maybe it’s the first or only trip they’ve made out of their house this year, just to get something special for somebody on their list.”

And for anyone uncomfortable going out, Baker suggest finding a local retailer you want to shop with, follow their social media pages, find a product or service, then contact them to see if you can order online or even pay over the phone. Most small businesses are offering services they might not have before.

“They’re really trying hard to meet their customers where they are,” Baker says.

In fact, the chamber itself is having one of its busiest years, not only learning about and offering services that range from assisting in Small Business Association loan applications to boosting members in newsletter promotions.

The chamber has also been busy taking on new members. Baker says chamber member renewals happen every January, so by mid-March when the pandemic was really getting started most of their members had renewed for 2020. But since then, they have signed up nearly another 100 new members as new businesses were still opening in addition to longer-established business that had never struggled before suddenly in need of support.

“Hands down I think chambers have the best pulse on resources that are available for businesses during these times,” Baker says. “We get things directly from our congressman, directly from the White House Task Force, directly from the State Economic Development Office, from the SBA. I think while people have realized the value of small businesses this year, a lot of people have realized the value of a chamber too.”

One of those businesses who leaned on the chamber is Daisy-A-Day Vintage, which had a brick-and-mortar rental space on the Gallatin Square that owner Tiffany Brown had to vacate at the beginning of 2020 when her landlord put the building on the market.

“This year’s great day is not last year’s great day,” says Daisy-A-Day owner Tiffany Brown.

-- Photograph Provided

Brown put money down on a new space that was undergoing renovation, prepared to be closed for 30 days. That space is still not ready for a retailer, so she opened on a different storefront on the Square a block from her original location just in time for Tinsel and Treasures and Shop Small Saturday.

Usually one of her busiest sales days of the year, it wasn’t close to what it had been in the past, but Brown says it is all about perspective in 2020.

“This year’s great day is not last year’s great day,” Brown points out.

Brown was able to make it to the holiday shopping season without a storefront for months by hosting Facebook live sales and delivering all over Sumner County combined with applying for every possible grant she could find and being awarded enough to survive.

“I think it is important for people to realize that it’s not just business for small business owners, it’s their life,” Brown says. “It’s how they put food on their table. It’s how their kids get to continue going to dance class, which then supports another small business. It’s keeping that money in your local economy.”

‘Amazed I’m still in business’

But depending on the community is a lot harder when nearly 80% of your customers are tourists, like longtime East Nashville clothing store The Hip Zipper, which has been in three locations in the same neighborhood since owner Trisha Brantley opened in 1999.

Brantley got what she calls the tornado punch with a coronavirus chaser like many other East Nashville businesses. Shut down because of the mandates in March and April, she revamped her website and boosted online sales, but sales were not even close to what they had been because of lost foot traffic.

“When we’re not in the middle of a pandemic, I’d say 80% of my demographic is tourism,” she says. “I want to know where people are from. I want to know how they heard about the store. I want to know if an Airbnb recommended us or if they were referred by another store. And the majority of our traffic is tourism, people that don’t live in Nashville.”

She didn’t intend for the ratio to be so lopsided, but that has just been the nature of what it has meant to be a business in East Nashville these days.

“I mean, East Nashville became a destination place,” she explains.

She admits this has been one of the harder years she has had to navigate as a business owner, in large part because every decision is being made under the assumption a vaccine will help, or some other permanent choice is being made under temporary conditions that could change the day after you pull the trigger. It’s exhausting mentally and emotionally.

“I never expected to have to come up for a plan for this. And I think all of us who are in this generation are inventing our own wheel right now, and whether or not it’s going to roll us into a solution is up to the person who’s inventing it,” Brantley says.

“Everybody’s situation is different. Everybody’s debt to income ratio is different. Everybody’s employee situation is different. There are so many variables, and I’m amazed that I’m still in business. But it’s just today and tomorrow may be different.”

She and many other business owners are going to have trauma surrounding this year that won’t go away with a vaccine or renewed consumer confidence. It’s because they have made every effort to save their businesses and help their employees and follow state and local guidelines, and it still might not be enough.

“There’s an imprint on every one of us as business owners from the impact of the tornado and the pandemic,” she says. “We might recover financially and have traffic and make sales and we might be plugging along. But the smallest thing might set me into a trauma emotionally where I feel like it’s happening all over again.”

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