Pioneer Valley stores scramble to adapt as holiday shopping season begins

  • Downtown Sounds in Northampton, seen here on March 8, 2019. —GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Friends Hannah Moushabeck, left, of Interlink Books and Lexi Walters Wright, owner of High Five Books, have joined with Grow Food Northampton to launch Valley Book Rally, an effort to get books to kids who may have little access to them. Photographed at High Five Books in Florence on Tuesday, May 12 2020. —GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Phoebe Zax, co-owner of Comics N' More, sleeves recent purchases for display at the Easthampton comics shop on Tuesday, July 9, 2019. —GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/27/2020 4:04:54 PM

EASTHAMPTON — In normal times, Comics N’ More would be preparing for a wave of customers after Thanksgiving, mostly on Small Business Saturday.

But this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage, those plans look a lot different. On Black Friday, owner Phoebe Zax was putting together themed gift packages — from children’s comics to something for “your horror-loving uncle” — to help customers reduce the amount of things they have to pick up. The store is open for in-person shopping only on Wednesdays and Saturdays, so she was also steering customers to online sales, promoting curbside pickup and delivery.

“We’re still way down for the year, but our customer base is subscribers,” Zax said. “That’s what’s kept us afloat.”

Zax is one of many business owners across the Pioneer Valley and state grappling with a changed retail landscape, rising coronavirus infections and a recession. So, on one of the busiest days of the year, businesses are getting creative to attract customers while keeping people safe.

“We are currently not open to the public,” said Lexi Walters Wright, owner of the Florence independent kids’ bookstore High Five Books. “We started doing private shopping appointments. This is our second week of doing it and today we have constant appointments starting at 9 a.m. and ending at 6 p.m. tonight. Every half-hour we have has been totally booked today.”

Like Comics N’ More, High Five Books has taken these steps to keep staff and customers safe. Wright said having many people signed up for private shopping is an encouraging sign. And the business has made it through the pandemic because of loyal customers, she said.

“We are extremely fortunate to be well-supported by the families of readers,” she said. “One of the things we pride ourselves on is helping families come up with the right books for their kiddos. I think it’s a lot to put on parents to be the experts in their kids’ reading.”

Business has been slow for many across the Valley, though. Restaurants including Packard’s and GoBerry in Northampton have closed for the winter, leaving workers unemployed and owners struggling to pay bills.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled shopping in crowded stores during the holidays a “higher risk” activity and says people should limit any in-person shopping, including at supermarkets. Instead, the health agency recommends shopping online, visiting outdoor markets or using curbside pickup, where workers bring orders to you in the parking lot.

Nationally, crowds were thin at malls and stores on Black Friday, but a surge in online shopping offered a small beacon of hope for struggling retailers after months of slumping sales and businesses toppling into bankruptcy.

Many retailers closed their doors on Thanksgiving Day but beefed up their safety protocols to reassure wary customers about coming in on Black Friday. Stores have also moved their doorbuster deals online and ramped up curbside pickup options as a last grasp at sales before the year ends and they head into the dark days of winter with the pandemic still raging.

“Black Friday is still critical,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. “No retailer wants it to be tarnished. It’s still vital to get their consumers spending and get consumers into the holiday mood.”

Some businesses have lengthened Black Friday sales to try to cut down on crowds and to entice more to purchase goods curbside or online. At the Hampshire Mall, for example, JCPenny said it has been offering Black Friday prices every weekend in November. And Bath & Body Works has turned Black Friday into a weeklong event, offering in-store exclusives earlier in the week.

In downtown Northampton, the worker-owned music store Downtown Sounds started offering $100 off U.S.-made instruments beginning Friday and running through the end of the year.

“Things have been going OK,” worker-owner Jason Carpenter said on Friday. “I guess we’ve had a number of people in today so far. I wouldn’t say it’s slammed, but we’re not selling flat screen TVs on sale,” he joked.

Carpenter said that with so many people shut inside during the pandemic, business has been good for Downtown Sounds. In particular, he said the store has sold a lot of acoustic guitars.

“We’re managing all right,” he said. “I think a lot of it has to do with people interested in music because they’re holed up.”

Downtown Sounds, like many other local businesses, has stepped up online sales during the pandemic. Black Friday is projected to generate $10 billion in online sales, a 39% bump from the year ago period, according to Adobe Analytics. And Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving, will remain the biggest online shopping day of the year with an expected $12.7 billion in sales, a 35% jump.

The pandemic has already benefited Amazon, which continues to seal its dominance in the online space as jittery shoppers click on their devices instead of venturing into stores. And big box chains that were allowed to stay open during the spring lockdowns, such as Walmart and Target, fared far better than department stores and other non-essential retailers that were forced to close. That disparity helped speed up bankruptcy filings of more than 40 chains, including J.C. Penney and J.Crew, and resulted in hundreds of store closings.

As for small local businesses in the Valley, those who talked to the Gazette on Friday said one thing is keeping them open: the support of their communities.

“We are very very lucky to continue to be well-supported by our patrons,” said Wright, the High Five Books owner.

 

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com. This story includes reporting from The Associated Press.


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