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5 Tips for Surviving a Holiday Season Like No Other

Even in a pandemic, gift givers still want to shop in person. For small retailers, that means getting creative.

By Kerby Meyers | November 9, 2020

For 15 years, The Music Store in southeast Tulsa has hosted a blowout anniversary sale to kick off the holiday shopping season on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Hundreds of customers, including many who queue up before the store opens for a shot at an early bird gift, shop discounts up to 40%. Owner Larry York makes it festive with giveaways, live bands, free food and wacky games, such as guitar-throwing contests.

For more than three decades, Charde Jewelers has built its holiday offerings around heavy foot traffic in the West University neighborhood just southwest of Houston’s downtown. From lunch hour to happy hour, holiday gift givers shop the retailer’s blend of styles from a wide variety of artists and designers, including those created by owner Cliff Hybarger.

Not surprisingly, this holiday season promises to be very different for both The Music Store and Charde Jewelers, as well as thousands of small businesses across the U.S.

“Hurricanes usually pass in a couple of days, floods disrupt for a week or two and even (Hurricane) Harvey got better after some months,” Hybarger said. “But this is not passing. Everybody is still pretty much shut down, there’s no milling around at lunchtime and it’s just been slow going since March.”

“This” is COVID-19, the root cause of the pandemic that has rendered many consumers home-bound and cast an uncertain air over the 2020 holiday season for many small, independent retailers.

Still, holiday shoppers are resilient, said Glenn Sedam, BOK Financial business banking segment leader.

“The American consumer will always embrace the holiday season,” he said. “The pandemic might create economic challenges and shift shopping preferences, but the demand is there.”

Small business owners need to tap into that sentiment by creating unique and personalized experiences that entice shoppers to seek them out, Sedam added.

To that end, York is stretching The Music Store’s 48th anniversary celebration out over 10 days and bolstering his staff’s commitment to comprehensive service after the sale.

“We know we serve a real small niche of things that people want, so our mission is to provide the best possible hometown service as we can,” York said. “We know we’re kind of a dying breed, but we like dealing with people in person.”

Hybarger and his wife, Aleshia Hybarger, are bulking up the store’s website and leaning on their college-aged daughters to keep its Instagram feed fresh.

Taking on the big boys

As stay-at-home orders and other restrictions on public gatherings piled up during the early months of the pandemic, American consumers turned to online buying.

A study by Adobe found that e-commerce purchases in April and May of 2020 totaled more than online sales in November and December of 2019.

The primary beneficiary of this surge? Amazon, which accounts for 39% of all online transactions, according to eMarketer, as it sells its own products and those of many small enterprises.

The next best online seller? Walmart, with a market share of just under 6%.

“Wrestling that share away during the holiday season is going to be a tough challenge for small business owners,” Sedam said.

Local stores can differentiate themselves with service, flexibility and personality. He offered five ways small retailers can stand out during this holiday season.

  1. Remove any confusion.
    Make it clear you’re open and would love to see your customers. A Main Street America survey found that nearly 80% of business owners had closed for at least some period during 2020. Make sure customers aren’t confused about your store’s status.

  2. Adjust expectations.
    Skew your inventory toward smaller ticket items. Given the lingering economic uncertainties resulting from the pandemic, it’s not likely a year of big-ticket extravagances.

  3. Revive the joy.
    Distinguish yourself from online shopping, nondescript malls and soulless big box outlets by offering a personalized and enjoyable experience. “Online shopping is practical, but emotionless,” Sedam said.

  4. Start now.
    Pivot marketing efforts and inventories to initiate holiday season selling beyond the usual parameters. “Don’t tentpole sales between Black Friday and Christmas,” Sedam suggested.

  5. Maximize marketing efforts.
    Spread the word about your business early and often. Send out emails to existing customers and post regularly on social media. Sedam added that local Chambers of Commerce might be able to help on the marketing front, too, as they often have events and online resources that feature local businesses.

More than a dedicated Saturday

Since 2010, small businesses have received a boost from Small Business Saturday, a creation of credit card company American Express to counter the over-hyped sales by national retailers on Black Friday and, increasingly, Thanksgiving Day.

This year, many independent retailers are viewing holiday sales as the linchpin to their survival, and they’re relying on broader promotional pushes than a single day of awareness.

“I think we’ll see a very high percentage use this holiday season to determine whether it’s practical to maintain their business,” Sedam said. “Especially given the seasonal slow period that occurs for many independent retailers in January and February.”

A recent study by Visa found that 48% of consumers are intending to do most of their shopping in person, so there is market share worth battling for.

“There’s always going to be a challenge,” York said. “For example, when 9/11 hit, I knew my life was changed forever, I just didn’t know to what extent.

“You just need to keep afloat, keep going and keep viable.”