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Retailers may dodge COVID bullet this holiday season

Coronavirus is surging in Alabama just ahead of the holiday shopping season, but the state’s biggest retailers’ group predicts sales this year could be about as strong as in 2019.

“Consumers want to shop,” said Nancy Dennis, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Retail Association.

Dennis spoke to Anniston area business owners Thursday in a Zoom meeting on the state of retail going into the holiday season. The meeting came as businesses sail into uncharted territory yet again, thanks to the pandemic.

Those raucous crowds of shoppers who emerge on the day after Thanksgiving are the lifeblood of some retailers. The day is called Black Friday on the theory that only in the holiday season do some store owners move from the red ink to the black and start turning a profit for the year.

But this year, crowds mean outbreaks, and COVID-19 seems to be spreading fast without any holiday help. As of Saturday, 113 people were dead of the virus in Calhoun County, with more than 5,900 people infected and new cases emerging faster than they did in the summer virus surge.

Even so, Dennis said, the numbers so far are surprisingly good. According to a Retailers Association survey, she said, 42 percent of people in the state said they’d started their holiday shopping early. By the end of September, those shoppers had spent 8 percent more than the year before.

Bill Wakefield, owner of the Anniston-based Wakefield’s clothing store chain, said he’s seen business come back, some of it online but much of it in person. He’s even managed to open a new store in Gadsden during the pandemic.

The biggest problem right now, Wakefield said, was the one he predicted in spring. Manufacturers cut back on production earlier in the year, expecting less demand.

“The suppliers place their bets early on, and now they don’t have enough product,” he said.

State officials earlier this month lifted restrictions that required stores to keep crowds at their stores down to half of their normally allowed occupancy. Wakefield said he’s keeping occupancy limits at his store.

Some consumers shopped early to avoid crowds, Dennis said. And some businesses, even small ones, learned to step up their efforts to sell online.

“Many retailers have moved ahead with changes they’d been putting off for years,” Dennis said.

Tom Moore, of Lucy’s Toys on Alabama Highway 9 east of Anniston, has lived through some of those changes.

A family business, the store has sold handmade puppets, blankets and plush toys since the 1960s. Walk-in customers were rare, but the Moores made sales through word of mouth, and traveled to arts and crafts fairs nearly every weekend — until 2020.

“All of our shows have been canceled,” Moore said. At first, he said, it wasn’t a problem, since most of the store’s sales took place in fall and winter. Moore said he’d hoped the virus would clear up by fall. But just last week he got a call announcing that one of the few remaining events on the schedule, a show in Virginia, was being canceled.

Moore said younger members of the family have been pushing their products on social media instead.

“We had always planned on doing more online,” he said. “But you get stuck on this treadmill, saying ‘I’ll get to that, I’ll get to it.’”

Reilly Johnson, director of Main Street Anniston, said many downtown businesses have taken to online sales, too, hosting online auctions to attract attention and allowing people to schedule shopping times to avoid crowds.

Main Street this year is again promoting Small Business Saturday, a yearly event intended to remind shoppers to support local businesses during their holiday shopping. She said she has high hopes for the event despite the pandemic, because people are aware of the toll COVID has taken on small businesses.

“I think people will rally around them the way they rallied around our restaurants earlier this year,” she said.

Anniston this week canceled its downtown Christmas parade due to COVID concerns. Johnson said that may not hurt downtown businesses as much as one might think, because many of those businesses close before the late-evening parade typically begins.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week urged people to rethink their Thanksgiving travel plans in light of the pandemic. Johnson said it’s hard to tell what effect that could have on shopping.

“A lot of people travel out of town on Thanksgiving,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, if they stay, they’ll shop at local businesses.”

A near-total shutdown of shopping, of the sort the state saw in April, could change the picture entirely. Still, there are indications that a shutdown isn’t likely, even if the spread of the virus continues to accelerate.

Gov. Kay Ivey earlier this month lifted restrictions that required businesses to operate at no more than 50 percent of their maximum occupancy — a move that drew criticism from some who said it could contribute to spread of the virus. On Wednesday, Ivey tweeted that she “will not shut down businesses.”

Some local business owners are betting that a brighter future will come soon. Robbie Whitman opened a small gift shop called Moon near the Jacksonville Public Square in October.

She said social distancing hasn’t been a challenge, because there’s rarely more than one customer at a time. Finding suppliers who can deliver merchandise has been more difficult, she said.

As for how the pandemic will affect holiday business, she said, it’s hard to say.

“I don’t really know what to expect,” she said. 

 

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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