As the holidays roll in, this season looks a bit different for Athens businesses. Instead of the usual bustle and magic, most of their focus has been on surviving the ever-rising number of COVID-19 cases.
“I think (COVID-19) is negatively impacting our business,” Karen McGuire, manager of Import House, at 68 N. Court St., said. “Athens is a pretty depressed area, so we rely heavily on the university, as do all the businesses Uptown. So with the cuts in the university and decreased enrollment on top of the virus, it makes for rough times for small independent retailers like us.”
Lee Barber, manager of Universitees, at 30 N. Court St., an Ohio University-themed apparel store, concurred with McGuire in a message. Barber explained that the shop’s business was directly impacted by the lack of OU students in Athens.
With the obstacles of operating a business in a pandemic, retailers have adapted, offering new virtual platforms to reach consumers and new procedures to protect them.
“We've adjusted our store hours (and) added special in-store promos,” Barber said. “(We) have also activated our online store and also offer curbside pick-up.”
McGuire said that Import House, a clothing and jewelry store, made precautionary adjustments but ensured its employees weren’t affected by shortened hours or job loss.
“We shortened our hours; we used to be open until 8 p.m. and now we close at 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. on the weekends,” McGuire said. “We did not decrease our staff. We have some very long term wonderful employees and we didn't want to affect their livelihoods. Actually, the owner has stopped taking a paycheck, really.”
For local clothing store Kismet, at 19 W. State St., the pandemic pushed the shop to finally complete its retail website, Mackenzie Weber, store manager, said. The pandemic has also led Kismet to rely on its social media accounts to communicate with its customer base.
The uncertainty of the pandemic has also brought some concerns about affordability with the holidays just around the corner. With the financial hardships that have accompanied lockdowns and quarantines, retailers have pivoted to ensure affordability.
“Although big box stores have enticing deals and big advertisements, don’t count out your local merchants when looking for affordable gifts,” Weber said. “Follow their social media or join their email lists where you can often find special deals or get notified of their sales.”
McGuire thinks that homemade, sentimental gifts are just as sufficient as store-bought ones — and sometimes more affordable. But she also stressed that people who are looking to buy gifts should consider purchasing from businesses that give back to charities, especially during this turbulent year.
“Part of our store (Import House) is dedicated to the Athens County Humane Society . . . and 100% of the proceeds of our socks and T-shirts go to that,” McGuire said.
McGuire further said that Import House decided to donate its profits after learning that charities were having a hard time with fundraising this year; another adjustment to accommodate changes brought on by the pandemic.
“With so much uncertainty, people are just simply more cautious right now — that includes their spending,” Weber said. “But we are grateful that there is a lot of encouragement out there to support the local businesses in the community.”