Over the next six weeks, if all goes well Letty Lees hopes to earn a third of her income with holiday shoppers.
Lees owns Learning Express Toys of Bend. Since the start of the pandemic, she has taken steps to help shoppers feel safe. She’s created an online presence that allows shoppers to browse and shop. She established curbside pickup. She delivers within a 7-mile radius of the store.
And she has extended her own version of Black Friday deals for an entire week.
“We’re doing everything we can to help people shop safely,” Lees said. “People are calling and using the website, which is good. And they’re coming into the store too.
“Usually (the weekend after Thanksgiving) is our busiest weekend of the year.”
Since March, COVID-19 has strained local retail businesses. A recent executive order by Gov. Kate Brown may make it even harder with a two week freeze in place, keeping gatherings small, requiring restaurants and bars to serve take-out only, and limiting retailers to 75 % capacity in their shops.
The retail sector of the Central Oregon economy was down roughly 16% from April 2019, compared to this April, said Damon Runberg, Oregon Employment Department regional economist. Five months later, employment data showed only a 3% lag behind the same time the year before, Runberg said.
“In the absence of a COVID-19 freeze, I imagine retail trade employment would have been nearly recovered by late fall,” Runberg said. “However, retail trade is one of the industry’s most susceptible to losses due to the freeze.”
As downtown Bend stores get gussied up for the holidays, customers like Amy and Oliver Tatom are honing their lists and checking to see how they can spend the money locally.
“I’m trying to be intentional about the rest of the gifts we have to buy,” said Amy Tatom, a southeast Bend resident. “We will buy them locally.”
She also wants to make sure she supports local artists by shopping at online fairs and festivals.
“If we want our community to be intact when this is over, we have to support our local businesses,” Tatom said. “During this closure, we’re planning to get as much takeout as we can and go to local businesses to buy things.”
While Christmas isn’t her favorite time of year, Becky McColl does frequent the abundant fairs and festivals being held in the community. This year she’ll go to fairs and festivals in person and online.
“That’s my main Christmas shopping,” McColl said. “I want to give my money to the local vendors who count on sales over the holidays.”
The National Retail Federal said last week that sales have been rather robust despite the economic climate caused by COVID-19. It could be because holiday shoppers are not having to wait until the Traditional Black Friday when stores open up in the early morning hours.
Many retail chains have offered early Black Friday sales prices.
In downtown Bend, retailers are focusing on Small Business Saturday, a day where shoppers are encouraged to visit their local retailer, said Mindy Aisling, executive director of the Downtown Bend Business Association.
Tom Beans and his staff will spend part of Thanksgiving dressing up Dudley’s Bookshop Cafe for the holidays, a tradition he’s created for the past several years. In a typical holiday shopping season, he’d have the store packed with merchandise, shoppers and coffee drinkers. But this year, he’ll limit capacity, only serve coffee in to-go cups and encourage shoppers to go online.
“We usually have someone at the door,” Beans said. “If we’re at capacity, the question is how many of the customers will wait or come back if they can’t come in right away.”
While business is down year over year, it did pick up during the summer when tourists were in town and since the week after the election, business has picked up again, Beans said.
“We’ll be happy to do curbside and delivery for anyone who wants it,” said Beans. “The fourth quarter, between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is really the make or break time for retailers. We sure hope not to go back to being completely shut down like before.”
Around the corner in downtown Bend, Birkenstock Bend Shoe Co. is planning to follow all the latest guidelines for the holiday season, said manager Tori Oshel.
The shoe store on NW Wall Street will have someone manning the door and keeping an eye on how many shoppers are inside. They too offer online shopping with free delivery to customers in Redmond and Bend, Oshel said.
Since the pandemic, the shoe store had to up its online game by creating a website that shoppers can purchase from.
“It’s helped us,” Oshel said. “We feel more prepared heading into the holiday season with a good delivery system. We have the bugs worked out. It will be different this year, but it can still work.”