Business was looking strong for Nadira Chase in early 2020.
Her Adiva Naturals retail shop in Shockoe Bottom that sells skin care and hair products was expected to have a strong year. She was even almost ready to open a temporary pop-up shop in Denver in mid-March last year with possible plans for a permanent store there.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and wreaked havoc on her personally and her retail business.
Chase contracted the coronavirus while visiting New York in early March last year. She didn’t know she had it until she returned to Richmond and spent a couple of days in a local hospital. Then she spent the next two months recovering from the virus.
She was admitted to the hospital a year ago around the same time her retail shop had to close because of a state mandate requiring all nonessential businesses to shut. The store eventually was closed for about two-plus months. Chase had to let go three employees.
She also had to stop supplying most of her wholesale accounts because she has had difficulty getting supplies like bottles for the products she makes. And the temporary Denver store never opened.
“It’s been the worst year of my life,” Chase said. “But we have been quite resilient.”
The pandemic turned an already challenging business environment for retailers into never-ending uncertainty.
Like thousands of independent retailers across Virginia, Chase has fought for the survival of her business.
“We have been so blessed because I have so many colleagues that couldn’t sustain and we were able to,” Chase said. “We were able to sustain operations. We didn’t have to close down permanently where so many have and there are so many for-sale signs or for-lease signs on businesses now.”
The retail industry has been particularly hard hit during the pandemic, with malls and stores closed for months last year.
Many retailers — some analysts have estimated thousands across the country — have simply shut their doors forever as they were unable to sustain the dramatic loss in revenue as consumers stayed home to slow the spread of the virus.
Some have closed their bricks-and-mortar locations in favor of operating only on the internet.
Shop owners continue to scramble to keep their businesses afloat as the pandemic persists into 2021, hoping that once most Americans have been vaccinated that consumers will feel more confident about going out to stores and malls to shop.
About three dozen national retailers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year, compared with a total of 23 retailers that filed for bankruptcy in 2019.
Among those retailers that filed last year are Lord & Taylor; J. Crew; J.C. Penney; Neiman Marcus; Tailored Brands Inc., the parent company of The Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank; Stage Stores; Stein Mart Inc.; and Ascena Retail Group, which owns Lane Bryant and Ann Taylor.
Saxon Shoes Inc., the Henrico County-based retailer that started as a small store in downtown Richmond in 1953 and grew into a regional footwear and accessories powerhouse, filed for federal bankruptcy protection in August.
Six nationwide chains have filed for bankruptcy so far this year, including Paper Source, Belk department store and women’s apparel seller Christopher & Banks. Experts expect more national retailers to file this year.
Some chains, notably Stein Mart and Stage Stores, which owns Peebles and Gordmans department stores, shut down all locations permanently.
U.S. retailers had announced plans to permanently close more than 10,700 stores for all of 2020, according to The Daily on Retail financial newsletter.
All of those store closings meant job losses in the retail industry have soared during the pandemic. Black and Hispanic workers have been hardest hit as they were more likely to work at stores, restaurants, hotels and other similar industries.
Many national retailers closing stores did not file for bankruptcy but took the action and other expense reductions in order to strengthen their business for the long-term.
For instance, Nordstrom, the upscale Seattle-based department store retailer, closed 16 of its 116 full-line stores, including the one in western Henrico’s Short Pump Town Center that had operated there since the mall opened in 2003.
Locally, Need Supply Co. never filed for bankruptcy but decided last summer to shut down its entire business, which included Need Supply’s three stores — its flagship store in Carytown and two licensed stores in Japan — along with Totokaelo stores it owned in New York and Seattle. It also shuttered its e-commerce business.
“We were overextended. And when COVID hit, we just didn’t have the reserves to get us through six months to a year of just severely diminished sales,” Christopher Bossola, the company’s co-founder and CEO, said in September when the business had shut down. “We just weren’t planning on a hit like we got with COVID.”
The economic impact from the coronavirus pandemic forced other local stores to close for good last year.
La Grande Dame, a plus-size designer apparel boutique that has operated in Richmond for 28 years, closed for good in August.
“I just didn’t see any viable way to making it through for an entire year without clients coming into my store and not having the merchandise to sell them,” owner Art Toth said recently, noting that many manufacturers making women’s clothing in sizes 12-24 cut back on production.
“I knew from a business standpoint that I didn’t have a way to get through this,” said Toth, who now is a sales manager at Alan Furs.
Chocolates By Kelly, the small handmade fine chocolates shop that operated in various locations in the Richmond region since late 2008 including its last shop in the Short Pump Town Center, closed the bricks-and-mortar part of its business. The owner moved to Pinedale, Wyo., which is near Jackson Hole, with plans to sell her chocolates online to wholesale and corporate clients.
Premiere Costumes, which had been a retail fixture in Carytown since 1974, closed for good in November after sales during October fell about 50% compared with October 2019. October should have been one of the strongest months of the year for Premiere Costumes because consumers typically spend a lot on Halloween costumes. But not last year.
“Sales have been pretty dead for quite a while and we just didn’t have the uptick [in October] we needed,” owner Chelee Lattimore said days before she closed her shop. She hopes to continue the business by selling costumes and other accessories online.
In order to survive, retailers have had to learn to adapt, adjust and, in some cases, pivot their business model.
They needed to come up with different strategies to keep their businesses going and to engage with customers in different ways as much as possible, said Carlos Castelan, managing director of The Navio Group, a retail consultancy firm based in Minneapolis.
Technology has played a big role in that as the internet became the savior for many merchants both large and small, he said, as the pandemic accelerated a trend toward online ordering and delivery.
“What we have seen is retailers that have done well have adjustment shifting quickly over to the digital demand,” Castelan said.
“A common theme that we have been seeing across the landscape is retailers thinking about the omnichannel retail model in terms of the role of the stores being used as fulfillment but also in terms of having a great in-store shopping experience for customers who choose to come in,” he said. “That will continue to be the theme in terms of success for retailers going forward.”
If independent retailers did not have robust websites before the pandemic, they quickly upgraded their e-commerce sites to better capture sales, he said. And many shop owners quickly allowed consumers to order both online or over the phone and pickup curbside — or even have the merchandise delivered.
Smaller merchants, he said, have gone under if they have not been able to fulfill the changing needs of the consumer.
“The ones that have been able to succeed have been able to figure out different ways to meet customer demands whether that is setting up online stores to even expanding more nationwide to ship to customers across the country,” Castelan said. “Basically, they have got to be creative in terms of different ways to get orders from customers.”
U.S. e-commerce sales have grown 22.5% faster than overall retail sales since the pandemic, according to The Associated Press, which cited Retail Metrics Inc.
That’s up from 6% in the decade before the coronavirus.
Customer service is and remains really important, Castelan said. That is one differentiating factor that smaller retailers can do well at, he said.
“It all depends on how customers want that service,” Castelan said. “If they are coming to the store and having great customer service to catch those sales, that is really important. They need to be thinking about both the store piece but also the digital side.”
Merchants have gone the extra mile with customer service by using technology to land a sale, he said.
For instance, some retailers have allowed customers to come into the store for private one-on-one appointments, while other shop owners have showcased their merchandise using Zoom, FaceTime or some other videoconferencing service.
“Those to me are examples of great customer service. It is about getting creative in terms of service and meeting the customers’ needs. There are ways retailers can think about or to find ways to grow and expand the business,” Castelan said. “That adaptability piece is really important. It is just critical.”
For Adiva Naturals, pushing sales online was the “saving grace” for the business.
In the first couple of weeks after the store closed temporarily, sales plummeted. It took about three weeks for online sales to pick up.
“Sales [online] were great. They were magnificent,” Chase said. “It was so busy you almost couldn’t keep up.”
Her business also delivered merchandise to customers’ homes within a 25-mile radius of the store. “We did that to make sure we got the sale,” Chase said.
Customers also could do curbside pickup.
When the store reopened, she had to limit the number of customers inside the shop at any one time because of state regulations. She eventually rehired the three employees she had to lay off.
Sales at her small shop at 1802 E. Franklin St. are key to her survival. “We are an experience store. You can buy products anywhere. However, you can come into our store and you get nurtured and you get educated. We love doing it,” she said.
The pandemic caused problems in other parts her business. She couldn’t get the plastic bottles, tops and other items used for her skin care and hair products that she sells to consumers and to other retailers.
She had about two dozen wholesale accounts, but now supplies only four stores — three in the Richmond region and one in North Carolina — because of the ongoing supply issues. “That has hurt us bad,” she said.
In a normal year, Adiva Naturals typically would launch new products and attend different events and trade shows. None of that happened last year, she said, which meant no revenue stream for that side of her business.
The company was supposed to open a temporary store in Denver a year ago in mid-March. Half of the product for the store was already there. She was on the hook for the two months of rent. “I lost everything I invested in that,” Chase said.
She’s still considering opening a store in Denver, but she’s not sure when. Maybe next year, she said.
Despite all of the challenges, Chase said revenue in 2020 was on par with what it had been in 2019. “They are down for me because we always make more [in sales] than we did the year before,” she said.
The business, she said, is still trying to recover.
“I never thought for a second that we would have to close for good,” Chase said. “It was just how are we going to be able to maintain. My thought had been on expansion, but now it was on how are we going to maintain. I knew it would survive.”
Chop Suey Books in Carytown basically has been closed to customers to shop for the past year.
The independent bookstore still takes orders over the phone or on the internet. But books are either shipped to customers or shoppers pick up their orders at the store’s front door.
Except for a couple of months late last year when customers could make an hourlong appointment to shop inside the store by themselves, Chop Suey Books has not opened its doors to shoppers.
“We have the doors locked the whole time,” owner Ward Tefft said. “We are doing all of this because we think it is safe for our co-workers and our community.”
The shop at 2913 W. Cary St., across the street from the Byrd Theatre, is surviving, Tefft said, although sales last year declined 60% compared with 2019.
“We got a lot of support from the community, but it is a hard way for people to shop. It is not the normal way to shop,” Tefft said.
In October, Chop Suey Books began offering the hourlong appointments for customers to shop alone. Hundreds of people paid $30 in advance to be able to do so, with the money going toward their final purchases.
“It was a commitment on their end not just to come in and browse,” he said. “We were giving them the space to have the full range of shopping in the store in a very safe environment.”
The appointment program lasted until late December.
During that nearly three-month period, 95% of the time slots were filled, he said. All but one customer spent more than the $30 minimum.
Chop Suey Books stopped the appointment program in late December, but Tefft said he might restart it again this spring.
“It was emotionally gratifying for customers to come in and to see the work we were doing,” Tefft said. “To have people in the store was something really nice.”
Saxon Shoes blamed the economic impact from the coronavirus pandemic as a reason for it to file for the Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
When the pandemic hit last March, the company had to temporarily close its two stores — in Short Pump Town Center and in The Village at Spotsylvania Towne Centre in Fredericksburg — because of government orders to help curb the spread of the virus. The stores reopened in May.
In the first three or four weeks after the stores closed, sales fell by about 97% compared with the same period in 2019.
“It was an incredible shell shock,” said Gary Weiner, president and CEO of the family-owned Saxon Shoes and son of the company’s founders. “Nobody knew then what to do or for how long this [pandemic] was going to take.”
Saxon Shoes has taken the past year to get its business on better financial standing while adding new trendy merchandise and vastly improving its website.
“We are focused on building a better online experience while still hammering the in-store experience,” Weiner said.
Before the pandemic, a small amount of its shoe selection was on its website. Now, most of its assortment is online.
Also last spring while upgrading its online store, the company used technology in another way. Weiner’s daughter, Amanda, created Facebook Live events in April to help jump-start sales.
Saxon also offered curbside pickup and shopping by appointment.
Meanwhile, the company is buying trendy merchandise such as women’s sneakers and shoes from footwear brands including P448, J/Slides and Vintage Havana.
“These are shoes women are looking for,” Weiner said. “We are doing a big presentation from brands that we would have never thought we would have carried before.”
Filing for bankruptcy also made him and the company look at every aspect of the business from staffing levels to purchasing. The company’s plan of reorganization has been approved, and Weiner expects to exit bankruptcy court’s protection in the next 30 to 60 days.
His big issue now is knowing when consumers will be interested in shopping at stores and malls more regularly again. He is expecting stronger business later in the spring and into the fall.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Weiner said. “We do think people will come back and will shop again. Bricks-and-mortar stores will come back.”
Tweed, the boutique home-furnishings and gift store in The Shoppes at Westgate, took part of the past year to rethink its operations in order for the store to survive.
“The positive here is that we are learning a lot and we are making changes that you would not have made had it not been for the pandemic,” Tweed President Kate Stottlemyer said. “And these are things we would keep even after the pandemic.”
Stottlemyer said she and others working at the store started to look more introspectively at the shop’s operations.
“We are taking this opportunity to do things differently that we would not have done if we had not been forced to do it. It is something we should do more often than just during a pandemic,” she said. The pandemic “taught us to look at things differently.”
For instance, Tweed annually held a big spring open house since the shop first opened in 2004.
“This year, it would be wrong to encourage a lot of people to shop in the store. So, instead, we are running a series of in-store and online promotions from March through June,” she said. “It’s a different way of doing it.”
Pushing more sales through the internet was another change, she said.
Overall sales were flat last year compared with 2019.
“We were so grateful for that. We were very fortunate that we ended the year better than we expected,” Stottlemyer said. “The big thing right now is to take it a day at a time.”
High Point Barbershop & Shave Parlor had ambitious plans in early 2020 to open its third location in western Henrico last summer.
The pandemic put that project on hold.
“In January , we were full speed ahead for our third shop. We were bursting at the seams at our other locations,” said David Foster, a barber and co-owner of the business.
The pandemic forced High Point Barbershop, like other barbershops and hair salons, to shut down for nearly three months.
“We decided to wait and see. That was an awfully stressful time,” he said.
And when the two barbershops were able to reopen in June, the company had to stop doing any facial or beard-trimming services because it would require customers to take off their masks.
That eliminated a large number of customers. “We lost out on the opportunity to do something we specialize in, but it also opened up times to bring in some new clients,” Foster said.
The two shops — on North Meadow Street in the Fan District and on Altamont Avenue in Scott’s Addition — enacted some stringent safety measures to protect employees and customers. “That helped in consumer confidence in the business,” he said.
Even though High Point Barbershop postponed the opening of the third shop, the company still had to pay rent on the space since last summer.
Now, it’s at a point where constructions plans are underway for the third shop at Three Chopt and Cox roads. It should open sometime this summer.
“It is something to be really excited about,” Foster said.