Colorado small businesses hoping for a brighter 2021 holiday shopping season

Area businesses that have survived the pandemic are banking on the increase in activity and travel to make this year’s holiday shopping season a bit brighter.

Department and big-box stores offered deals on Black Friday while local stores looked forward to Small Business Saturday. The day geared toward independent retailers and other businesses was founded in 2010 by American Express and is cosponsored by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Wheelhouse Gifts on Denver’s South Pearl Street opened in 2020. The store, owned by Jody Fidler, was open for Black Friday and Small Business Saturday last holiday season.

“But because of the pandemic, it wasn’t probably as impactful as it could have been for us,” said Molly Casey, an employee who’s in charge of the store’s social media. “This year, knowing we can be fully open despite the mask mandate, is really important to us.”

Retail analysts and trade organizations say there’s reason for optimism this year. The National Retail Federation said sales rose in October by 1.7% from September despite ongoing labor shortages, supply chain disruptions and rising inflation.

Denver-area shopping centers experienced “a very significant and positive visit trend” in October, according to a statement by Placer.ai, which provides analysis of foot traffic based on data from devices enabled to share the information. Data from Placer.ai showed visits in October to three metro-area shopping centers — Cherry Creek in Denver, Southlands in Aurora and Park Meadows in Lone Tree — were at or slightly above levels for the same period in 2019.

October’s sales numbers indicate people are responding to factors affecting retailers heading into the holidays, said Dave Bruno, director of retail market insights at Aptos, a retail technology company.

“People are shopping early to minimize the risk of supply chain disruptions and inventory outages impacting their holiday gift-giving,” Bruno said in a statement. “The big question, obviously, is whether much of the planned holiday buying is being done early and December sales will suffer, or if this confidence and buying power will sustain strong growth throughout the entire season.”

Charlotte Elich is among Denver-area business owners who hope people turn out in force to support local retailers this holiday season.

“I’m always optimistic. My goal is always to surpass the year before and I’ll say we always seem to have done it, except for 2020,” Elich said. “Now my goal is to at least match 2019 this year.”

To meet that goal, Elich will have to deal with working shorthanded, something businesses from the country’s largest corporations to small mom-and-pop shops are facing as people have quit jobs or not returned after furloughs and layoffs. Elich, who owns 5 Green Boxes gift shop and another store on South Pearl Street in Denver, was struggling to cover shifts when two employees recently quit.

Now, Elich is working in the office during the week and working the counter on weekends. She also has to worry about staffing her store in Union Station in Lower Downtown and an outlet site on the weekends.

“It seems like I had a lot more applicants” in past years, Elich said. “I don’t have a whole lot of people applying these days.”

Elich, who has weathered the ups and downs of the pandemic, has been in business for 44 years.

Shauna Sankey of Colorado Springs started BlackGirlSalsa in August 2020 and hopes to grow it into a full-time venture. She is encouraged by the support she sees for small businesses in campaigns like Google’s Black Owned Friday and Small Business Saturday.

“It wasn’t like a master plan. It just kinda fell into that situation,” Sankey said of her pandemic-born pursuit.

Sankey works for the Colorado Department of Corrections and had stretches with a lot of days off. After painting walls in her house and redoing furniture, Sankey decided to turn her passion for making salsa into a business.

“I’m a native of Pueblo. I grew up eating Mexican food and making Mexican food, learning how to cook it,” Sankey said.

She made her own salsa to fit her family’s taste and started serving it at parties and gatherings. “It was just something everyone asked for when coming over to our house,” Sankey said.

Her children came up with the brand name. “It was probably on a Thanksgiving weekend like this, sitting at my mother’s house,” Sankey said, “and all the kids were in the back room at the computer just looking up YouTube beats. All of a sudden I hear, “Gotta get your Black girl salsa, hey, gotta get your Black girl salsa.”

Sankey sells her salsa at area farmers markets, two restaurants and a grocery store in Colorado Springs. She gets her ingredients from local producers.

And that is the strength of small businesses, said Casey at Wheelhouse Gifts.

“We love being a small business in Denver and knowing that we get to offer the things that we love,” Casey said. “And that many of them are from other small businesses and other small artists is really, really great.”

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