Hurt by pandemic, local retailers say shopping local this season more important than ever

Small business owners feeling the pain of the pandemic in their bottom lines say it’s never been more important to shop local this holiday season.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday are considered the biggest shopping events of the year for big-box and online retailers, but local entrepreneurs look forward to the day wedged between the two — Small Business Saturday.

The event encourages shopping local and supporting independent operations, and it’s usually one of the busiest days of the year for these retailers.

While the day is important, local business owners said they were counting on strong sales all season to help them survive in a marketplace where everything has changed.

Scott Starbuck, who opened City Soles in Wicker Park in 1995, said sales at his shoe store were down exponentially because of the coronavirus — and he worries they won’t be bouncing back soon.

“We won’t even be able to see recovery until a vaccine [is available] and we can say things like, ‘Socially distancing was so last year,’” said Starbuck, who imports his footwear from Europe and South American and also sells jewelry and other handmade goods from local artists.

Starbuck, a member of the board of retailers for the Wicker Park-Bucktown Chamber of Commerce, said sales at many shops are down 60 or 70%.

“I mean a victory story is being down only 50% right now,” Starbuck said.

Scott Starbuck opened City Soles in Bucktown in 1995.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The fourth quarter is the busiest time of year for most businesses, with many counting on traffic from holiday shopping to keep them afloat.

This year is expected to be different and they’re trying to adapt. Many owners said they are ditching shopping bags for shipping boxes as customers continue to flock to the internet for gifts.

Lindzi Shanks and Kat Connor, co-owners of Nibbles and Nosh and XO Marshmallow in Rogers Park, have converted the closed dining area of their brunch spot to a packaging and shipping center to complete the hundreds of orders of gourmet marshmallows and hot cocoa.

“While the cafe saw a decrease in visitors, online we saw a massive increase, so by making that pivot we’ve been able to not only keep all our employees that worked in the cafe, but [also] hire more people just to keep up with online sales,” Shanks said.

Lindzi Shanks, left, and Kat Connor, right, owners of Nibbles and Nosh and XO Marshmallow, have seen an increase in online sales amid the pandemic.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Renee Matsushima and Michael Trailer, the mother-son duo who own Tee Mart Decorated Apparel in Rogers Park, are also putting an emphasis on shipping their products during the pandemic.

The pair opened their store a week before Gov. J.B. Pritzker imposed the state’s stay-at-home order in March.

“We had to really shift gears almost instantly,” Trailer said. “We switched over to Etsy and we did a lot of sales there.”

The majority of Tee Mart’s sales come from online orders now, but inside their storefront at 1445 W. Morse Ave., Matsushima and Tailer still have customizable holiday gifts on display, with deals going on through the end of this weekend.

Trailer stressed the importance of shopping local, saying consumers get more bang for their buck as opposed to buying products from big-box retailers.

“With us, you get that personal touch where you can be really hands-on with the project from start to finish,” he said. “We also off a few services that some big-boxes services do but they’ll just charge a whole lot more.”

Tee Mart Decorated Apparel owners Michael Trailer and Renee Matsushima pose for a photo inside their Rogers Park shop, which is located at 1445 W. Morse Ave.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

While 2020 has been a challenging year many independent business owners, with some forced to permanently close because of the pandemic, Starbuck is hopeful that those empty storefronts will one day be filled again with eager and creative entrepreneurs.

“I hope there’s a renaissance that comes from this and it really resets the communities in the world back to really trying to support one another,” Starbuck said.

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