Retailers have faced a bitter winter so far in 2020 as economic woes triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic have shown no signs of letting up, even during the holiday season.
The U.S. Commerce Department on Wednesday reported that retail sales nationwide fell a seasonally adjusted 1.1% in November, according to The Associated Press. It was the largest drop in seven months, declining further than analysts expected, the news outlet said.
El Paso County merchants, meanwhile, were limited to 50% customer capacity as local cases of COVID-19 surged in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. That limit hampered sales at boutiques, malls and other stores during a crucial time when holiday shopping typically boosts retailers' bottom lines.
Retailers, however, worked to hang on in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Businesses that adjusted to the pandemic by emphasizing online sales and curbside pickup during the holiday season are likely here to stay, said Alex Armani-Munn, the economic development specialist for the Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs.
“I think we may lose some more retailers,” Armani-Munn said. “But the ones we have right now downtown I think have proven to be really resilient and have proven to adapt well to this type of situation.”
Armani-Munn said residential development — single-family homes, townhome and apartment construction — in the city holds good prospects for future retail growth. If businesses make it through the challenging winter months, sales trends look promising, he said.
“We know that we've had double-digit losses, month after month, due to COVID,” Armani-Munn said. "But if you can sort of extract the two months this year where we were somewhat close to normal, the underlying trend is still really positive.”
But adapting to state-mandated restrictions designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 isn’t easy.
“We’re really bending over backwards to make any kind of sales that we can,” said Peri Bolts, co-owner of Eclectic CO., a downtown boutique that sells local artisans’ jewelry, clothing and gifts.
Holiday sales have compared well to 2019, though not without ample innovation, Bolts said.
“Every step of the way, we have pivoted to whatever the state and local orders are, as well as what our customers are telling us that they're comfortable with,” Bolts said. “So curbside pickup, home deliveries. And at one point, we were doing private in-person appointments.”
The challenges of the pandemic stifled foot traffic at local malls, too.
“The sales aren't what they were last year to date,” said Sherry Drew, spokeswoman for the Chapel Hills and Citadel malls in Colorado Springs. “But they're still seeing some strong sales and we're seeing strong traffic at both centers on the weekends.”
Drew said both malls tried to move some holiday festivities online, such as visiting with Santa. Now, families can do Zoom calls with Mr. Claus, although in-person visits are still available too with health precautions in place.
While digital adaptations helped some store owners weather the winter months, catering to customers’ needs was just as crucial.
Sam Eppley, owner of Sparrow Hawk Cookware in downtown Colorado Springs, said stocking the right inventory helped his business as home cooking and baking gained momentum during the pandemic.
“All the categories having to do with bread making or pizza making, pasta making, wok cooking — all those things are really popular because they're fun family things you can do at home, they're not that hard,” Eppley said. “But you usually need a couple of specific items to make them work.”
Even with online shopping, curbside pick-up, new sales and marketing tactics, store owners still rely on in-person business.
“We feel very blessed that we're allowed to be open and operating,” Eppley said.