Independent retailers in Connecticut navigate a resurgence of COVID-19 in fight for survival

West Hartford clothing store owner Kimberly Mattson Moster usually looks forward to the hustle and bustle of the holiday shopping season — the biggest time of the year for sales — but as Thanksgiving weekend gets underway, she wonders just how many people will actually turn out this year as the pandemic surges again through Connecticut.



a person sitting at a table: Hartford, CT - 10/28/20 - Khamani Harrison has launched The Key Bookstore, a Black-owned, Afrocentric bookseller in Hartford


© Photo by Brad Horrigan | [email protected]/Hartford Courant/TNS
Hartford, CT – 10/28/20 – Khamani Harrison has launched The Key Bookstore, a Black-owned, Afrocentric bookseller in Hartford

“Normally right now, I have my emails planned out and my events planned for December, but I really feel stuck: I don’t want to encourage a bunch of people to come into the store because we can only have five or six people in at the most,” said Moster, the owner of Kimberly Boutique on Farmington Avenue, which combines clothing and a gift shop.

“So to make a big Black Friday thing and say, come in and get 20% off — first of all, I can barely afford to give 20% off, but it also feels weird to drive large amounts of traffic,” Moster said.

Worries about holiday purchasing caps a year of plunging sales for many retailers hit hard by COVID-19. Sales in December are critical to the survival of independent stores and shops that have struggled after being closed down for nearly two months in the spring.



a group of people standing around a table: Morneault's Stackpole Moore Tryon co-owner Ron Morneault, left, helps a customer with a jacket Tuesday in downtown Hartford.


© Brad Horrigan/The Hartford Courant/Hartford Courant/TNS
Morneault’s Stackpole Moore Tryon co-owner Ron Morneault, left, helps a customer with a jacket Tuesday in downtown Hartford.

According to National Retail Federation, an average of 19% of a store’s annual sales come during the holiday shopping season, but for some it can be much more.

This year, social distancing has restricted the number of shoppers coming to stores, and customers have been reluctant to resume their old buying patterns. While experts say online sales will likely give retailers an edge this holiday season, it may not be easy to invest in an internet presence after a deep decline in sales.

Gov. Ned Lamont says he supports the state’s merchants in the all-important month of December. The public health crisis, however, must be the priority, with hospitalizations and deaths continuing to climb to levels similar to last spring. Lamont is urging retailers to carefully monitor customer traffic and adhere to wearing masks and other measures.



a woman sitting at a table with a laptop: Kimberly Mattson Moster, owner of Kimberly Boutique in West Hartford, hopes shoppers will come out this holiday season to boost sales in the pandemic.nnnn


© Brad Horrigan/The Hartford Courant/Hartford Courant/TNS
Kimberly Mattson Moster, owner of Kimberly Boutique in West Hartford, hopes shoppers will come out this holiday season to boost sales in the pandemic.nnnn

For all its setbacks, though, the pandemic also has sparked innovation and a quick response among independent stores determined to outlive the coronavirus.

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In downtown Hartford, emptied of corporate and government office employees sent home to work, the 110-year-old Morneault’s Stackpole Moore Tryon clothiers turned to online sales for the first time, combined with a personal shopping service.

“We pivoted into more casual clothing that you can wear into a Zoom meeting,” said Jody Morneault, who has co-owned the store with her husband, Ron, for the last 14 years.

At Kimberly Boutique, Moster had carved out a niche in “dressy” clothing for work and events such as weddings and graduations. But with so many of her customers working from home and big events sidelined, Moster said she almost couldn’t give away a pair of black pants, long a staple. So, she brought in new, casual merchandise and beefed up her online and Instagram postings.

Even with trying to pivot at a dizzying pace, Morneault and other retailers say the holiday shopping season will be crucial to making it through to the spring, with widespread COVID-19 vaccinations in sight. Morneault said Stackpole’s traditionally has rung up 25% of annual sales during the holidays.

“I have a situation where I am in a retail location where there is no one coming to work,” said Morneault, whose store depends heavily on customers who work at local corporations. “Pretty much, the downtown is devoid of people.”

Morneault said she already has cut expenses at the store by recruiting volunteers to work as store clerks, while she and her husband forego being paid. She estimates sales are off 60% this year. Morneault also is still smarting that larger stores that sold groceries and clothing were deemed “essential” and allowed to remain open early on in the pandemic, while Stackpole’s was forced to close.



a close up of a hat: Blanket scarves for sale at Morneault's Stackpole Moore Tryon clothiers. nnnnnn


© Brad Horrigan/The Hartford Courant/Hartford Courant/TNS
Blanket scarves for sale at Morneault’s Stackpole Moore Tryon clothiers. nnnnnn

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“We really need people to come back and support the downtown,” Morneault said. “If they can come to my store and do a curbside pick-up, they can call me and ask me to do an online shopping experience. We really, really need people to support our businesses.”

“We really need people to come back and support the downtown,” Morneault said. “If they can come to my store and do a curbside pick-up, they can call me and ask me to do an online shopping experience. We really, really need people to support our businesses.”

High powered push

There is a stronger push than usual this year to encourage holiday shoppers to patronize local retailers. Elected officials such as U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy stopped in Middletown this week to spread the message on Main Street.

In downtown Hartford, the chamber of commerce has organized a two-day “pop up” event Friday and Saturday on Pratt Street. Christened “Home for the Holidays,” the event will add more than a dozen individual vendors to Pratt Street, with the aim of attracting more shoppers downtown. The event, which will have an accompanying website listing retailers throughout the city during the holiday shopping season, taps into both “Black Friday” and the decade-old “Small Business Saturday.”



Morneault's Stackpole Moore Tryon co-owner Ron Morneault takes a phone call Tuesday. Like many other Connecticut small businesses, Morneault's Stackpole Moore Tryon clothiers in downtown Hartford hope that holiday shopping will help offset losses during the COVID-19 pandemic.nnnnnn


© Brad Horrigan/The Hartford Courant/Hartford Courant/TNS
Morneault’s Stackpole Moore Tryon co-owner Ron Morneault takes a phone call Tuesday. Like many other Connecticut small businesses, Morneault’s Stackpole Moore Tryon clothiers in downtown Hartford hope that holiday shopping will help offset losses during the COVID-19 pandemic.nnnnnn

“When we have a shutdown like we’ve had and a remote work audience and the XL Center not being open, the theaters, the Yard Goats, this all adds to the lack of foot traffic that’s hard to replicate,” Julio Concepcion, executive director of the Hartford Chamber of Commerce, said. “It’s hard to replicate 100,000 people coming into your city on a daily basis.”

In Avon, Sartorius Sports took a hit this year with the curtailing of team sports, in particular, lacrosse, a big sport for the family-run business. Recently, it closed down its Glastonbury store — at least temporarily as its lease expired — but it hopes an upgrade to its website to allow purchases and not just browsing will help.

“We think the biggest challenge for holiday retail is people coming into the store,” Chris Stephan, an owner of the store, said. “We know there will be people who won’t. With the web presence which we didn’t have, you can order online but still buy from a local person.”



a group of people standing in a room: Morneault's Stackpole Moore Tryon clothiers co-owner Jody Morneault, right, speaks with longtime customer Bruce Murray Tuesday. The Hartford clothing institution has felt the squeeze of the COVID-10 pandemic. nnnnn


© Brad Horrigan/The Hartford Courant/Hartford Courant/TNS
Morneault’s Stackpole Moore Tryon clothiers co-owner Jody Morneault, right, speaks with longtime customer Bruce Murray Tuesday. The Hartford clothing institution has felt the squeeze of the COVID-10 pandemic. nnnnn

Changing habits

Over the past decade or so, shopping habits for the holidays have changed and consumers are spending more throughout the year, but the holidays are still “really, really critical for retailers, said Tim Phelan, president of Connecticut Retail Merchants Association.

If consumers have the income and hasn’t spent on a vacation this year, eating out as much or even car repairs because they are working at home, that could translate into more holiday shopping, either for others or themselves, Phelan said.



Kimberly Boutique buyer Beth Abbatemarco organizes necklaces for display. nnnnnnn


© Brad Horrigan/The Hartford Courant/Hartford Courant/TNS
Kimberly Boutique buyer Beth Abbatemarco organizes necklaces for display. nnnnnnn

“I do think there is pent-up demand,” Phelan said. “The challenge for the independent retailer is that they need to be ready to meet the customer where they are,” whether that is online or in the store.

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Coresight Research, which tracks the retail and technology industries, expects a 5% increase in holiday sales compared with last year, which saw just under a 5% gain from the previous year.

Coresight Research, which tracks the retail and technology industries, expects a 5% increase in holiday sales compared with last year, which saw just under a 5% gain from the previous year.

Marie Driscoll, managing director, luxury and fashion, at Coresight, said standalone locations outside of large cities and enclosed malls could benefit during holidays because customers can walk into the retailers and then back outdoors.

“But with social distancing consumers will only wait in line so long to get into a shop,” Driscoll said. “There is less discovery in just walking into a shop and discovering something. People are more doing the discovery online and then saying, ‘I will pick it up at the store,’ or ‘I want to see it in the store before I commit.’ “

“If you are not online, you may not be part of the consideration set,” Driscoll said.

A strong online presence could benefit shops like The Key Bookstore in Hartford. Key, a Black-owned, Afrocentric-focused bookstore, that began first online two years ago. This summer, owner Khamani Harrison, opened a store and distribution center on Park Street in the Parkville neighborhood. Book sales soared this summer amid widespread protests over racial injustice in wake of the George Floyd killing.

Harrison said she would sometimes be shipping 200-300 orders a day. Harrison couldn’t keep titles like “How to be an Antiracist,” “Stamped” or “White Fragility” in stock. The Key sold 2,000 copies of “White Fragility” alone.

“I’m hoping for another peak like the summertime,” Harrison said. “People are starting to be anti-Amazon — one of the main things they look for on Amazon is books — and so changing their book perspective to the local storefront and then finding us, that’s the kind of oasis we kind of what to be to capture that.”

In West Hartford, Moster says she will probably stretch out her holiday promotions over the entire month of December. She hopes to encourage her customers to consider each day as shop small business day, and by coming to the store, her customers can avoid waiting for packages being delayed in the mail.

Moster said she has been encouraged by posts on local community Facebook pages by people committing to shop locally this year. And some of her steady customers have said they want to buy something even if they don’t need anything, just to help Kimberly Boutique get through the pandemic, she said.

“If I could do 60% of last year’s sales — I’m never going to be happy with that — but I think even that may be a reach,” Moster said.

Contact Kenneth R. Gosselin at [email protected]

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