WICHITA, Kan. (The Wichita Eagle) – What should be the most wonderful time of the year is shaping up to be the scariest time of the year — in what’s already a frustrating and unpredictable pandemic year — for most Wichita store owners.
“It hasn’t been our year, but this is our season,” said Pattie Durham, owner of Moxie A Sass & Class Boutique in Regency Lakes at 21st and Greenwich.
“We’re up against big box (retailers) right now, and they tend to win,” Durham said. “We’re just trying to pick up some traction here.”
To do that, she and other retailers locally and nationally keep pivoting — much like they’ve done since the pandemic began.
“I just want to murder the word,” said Kelsey Metzinger, who owns Bungalow 26 in Delano.
“That’s all we can think to say because it feels like that all day long.”
She said it’s like she puts her right foot in one spot and her left foot is wondering where to go.
There seem to be two keys for most retailers who are at least surviving the pandemic: flexibility and innovation.
“I have just been trying to do anything and everything,” said Natalie Greenlee, who owns the Health Connection, “an alternative medicine and holistic healing store” with locations in Delano, Rose Hill and on North Rock Road.
This is her third holiday season in business. Greenlee has offered gift baskets in the past, “but I just made them bigger and more personalized this year so people could just do a one-stop shop.”
The $30 baskets have a $50 value, and shoppers can mix and match what goes in them either by visiting a store or calling one. Greenlee offers curbside pickup or free delivery, which is new. She said it’s to help customers feel safe and “take the hassle out of it for them.”
Metzinger, like Greenlee and so many others, also has added delivery, curbside pickup and private shopping by appointment, but she’s also been forced to go a step further with her online presence.
“I really have had to be drug into the 21st century,” she said. “I really like the old-fashioned interaction, and I really have just gone kind of kicking and screaming into this.”
Metzinger pointed out that small retailers have to do it all themselves, meaning they’re their own product photographers and handle their own social media accounts in addition to running their stores.
“Some people that aren’t as savvy to that really have been struggling.”
“In times like this, we must show great strength,” the Burnell’s post reads. “Stop in to pick up your very own special Strength bracelet!”
Robin Lies, general manager and gemologist, said some items are selling themselves, such as engagement rings and anniversary presents from couples who figure out if they can get through a pandemic, they can get through anything.
“This is my personal theory.”
She said the store, which is near Central and Rock Road, has set up a lot of private appointments and done some shopping for customers as well.
In particular these days, Lies said jewelry “has a lot of meaning to it.”
“People need happiness.”
As coronavirus cases continue to surge, what some small shops fear the most is another shutdown.
“We’re trying to find ways to get people shopping . . . a little bit early because who knows if there’s another looming lockdown,” Durham said.
During the last one, Durham said Target and Walmart got to remain open and had incredible clothing sales during that time.
“And I couldn’t even have my doors open.”
She’s been having new specials each week as a draw for customers, and Durham said it seems to be working. She’s also participating in Pink Friday, a version of Black Friday shopping specials but a week earlier. It’s something the Boutique Hub, a professional boutique organization, is promoting nationally.
“This Christmas season just looks very different for independent retailers, so we’re just trying to find cute and innovative ways to get people in the door and shopping online,” Durham said.
Rodney Horton, who opened his new Standard Issue Co. men’s shop near Douglas and Washington during the pandemic, has been doing customer appreciation events as “something kind of fun” to bring people in.
“Just almost a networking event with our favorite customers, and some of them brought friends.”
At one event, Horton offered stogies and whiskey, and at another, he featured several of the makers of the local products he sells in the store.
“We’re trying to stimulate these local guys because it’s kind of their way to get Christmas sales as well.”
Horton opens the back door of the shop so customers can spill out and visit safely, and he said the events “have been warmly received.”
Though it’s been a difficult year, Horton said he doesn’t regret opening in a pandemic.
“Has it been profitable? Not really. But does Wichita still need it? Absolutely.”
He said having a store with a lot of Standard Issue-branded items “is kind of a cool Wichita hometown thing.”
Some businesses are having to promote themselves through the holidays for the first time.
Jenna Armagost is director of the Platinum Dance Co., which is the competitive dance program at Kelcy’s Dance Studio in Carriage Parkway. She’s offering holiday packages that include gift certificates for dance instruction and items such as tutus and water bottles.
“We haven’t done this in the past, but we’ve never had a problem with enrollment until this year,” Armagost said.
“People don’t necessarily think about giving kids lessons for Christmas,” she said. “We decided there’s no better thing than to give the gift of dance.”
Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple said the city doesn’t have much it can do to help businesses except through promotion, which it’s doing with the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“Economists will tell you we’re in a spending recession,” he said.
That means people are sitting on their money.
“That goes back to having faith in the economy and being employed.”
When shoppers do spend, Whipple said their money now often goes to large retailers online. He said that’s got to change.
Whipple said that nationally, one out of every six small businesses is going out of business due to the pandemic. He said it’s not because of masks or shutdown policies.
“It’s because people aren’t going out and partaking in the economy.“
He said it will take extra effort on the part of Wichitans to help local businesses survive. That could be something as simple as someone like him buying a $50 gift certificate at his favorite coffee shop, Leslie Coffee Co. in Delano, “that I know I’m going to use.”
“One of the things that makes Wichita cool is the uniqueness of our small businesses,” Whipple said. “So what we’ve got to do is make sure we’re smart with how we spend our money.”
He said it’s about looking out for neighbors, including the neighbors who own businesses.
“In the Midwest, that is our value.”
While helping protect businesses, Whipple said, “In exchange, we’re probably going to get a better product shopping locally than we are in an online chain store.”
He said small consumer decisions can have a big lasting impact.
“Wouldn’t it be great that once we’re on the other end of this, our local economy still resembles what it was before COVID really made us all stay home? . . . I think we can do it.”
Carrie Rengers has been a reporter for almost three decades, including 16 years at The Wichita Eagle. Her Have You Heard? column of business scoops runs five days a week in The Eagle. If you have a tip, please e-mail or tweet her or call 316-268-6340.