Boutique, thrift stores adapt to the pandemic

Lupe Oftedal and Martin Oftedal run Bebe O’s vintage boutique in the Tower District. The pair had to adjust to the increased interest in shopping online. Photo by Frank Lopez

published on August 21, 2020 – 2:21 PM
Written by Frank Lopez

For the Central Valley, summer is a great time to hit the lake, grill poolside, and visit malls and stores to shop and try on new outfits.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this summer tradition has escaped us this year.

Despite the myriad of new health and safety protocols being imposed on businesses and the public apprehension of risking exposure to the virus, clothing retailers have seen sales increase in recent months.

Retail sales at clothing accessory retailers rose 105.1%, rebounding from sharp declines in February and March, according to Statista.com.

Things are a bit different with online sales though. Adobe Analytics reports that daily online clothing sales fell 15% in June compared to May. What’s more, after months of declining clothing prices, online clothing prices rose 2.7% in June from May.

Local clothing stores have seen fewer customers since announcing the closures in March, but they are doing what they can to keep the lights on and stay in touch with customers.

Top Drawer, a Fresno women’s clothing and gift shop on Palm and Bullard avenues, started curbside pickup after shaky businesses reopened, but it was a challenge, the owner said Jane Saunders.

“It’s not like a quart of milk where you ask for it and we bring it to you and you go,” Saunders said. “There are a lot of choices in the store, and people want to see the choices. “

Saunders said right now it’s an important time for people to shop locally. While it can be easy to stay home and order items online, taxpayer dollars don’t stay here.

If a customer tries on an item of clothing, Saunders removes it from the rack to quarantine it for 24 hours. Because Top Drawer is not a big clothing store, the rules are a bit different for them.

Because Saunders is close to her customers, she leaves those who can’t decide right away to bring clothes home to try on. Most of the time, customers will buy the item.

There has been an increase in online sales and, although foot traffic in the store has declined, Saunders said she has seen more and more customers returning as they start to feel safe again. .

“People are out there and people want to go out, but they just want to go where it’s safe,” Saunders said. “If you could go to a restaurant shoulder to shoulder for an hour – without a mask – you could shop at a small business. “

The owners of Bebe O’s Vintage Boutique in the Tower District did what they could during the “non-essential” shopping bustle in March to deal with the bills.

Lupe Oftedal, owner of the second-hand clothing store, and her purchasing husband Martin Oftedal, closed their store after the first lockdown orders, but continued to operate out of the building to sell online.

There have been some issues with the city, Lupe said, with the store receiving closure warnings, but the Oftedals argued they weren’t open to the public – that they only sold two online.

Martin said the inspector should check with city lawyers to look into the situation.

Unable to afford the city fines, they started selling online from their homes.

The store was receiving donations during the lockdown as other places were not accepting donations due to fear of spreading the coronavirus with Oftedals unwilling to waste anything.

When it comes to used and donated clothing during a global pandemic, Martin said they take extreme care to pay attention to their health and that of customers.

“We did a curbside pickup. We’re really mindful of cleaning things up, ”Martin said. “If they came in a plastic bag, we wiped the bag down before we even brought it into the store. We cleaned everything before distributing.

Although Bebe O’s had an online presence before the virus hit, Martin said they would make around $ 1,000 a month from online sales, after the closings the store switched to strictly online sales. until it is allowed to reopen.

The temporary closure of the storefront has prompted Oftedals to become more engaged in their online presence, switching from online merchant platforms such as Ebay, Mercari and Depop to Instagram and Facebook as well.

Martin said an increased online presence helped sales.

During the lockdown, the store was delivering items to customers. Martin would drop off a package at a customer’s front door and text them to verify the deposit.

Even after “non-essential” businesses were allowed to reopen, Lupe said there had been a dramatic drop in the number of window shopping and people entering the store to browse casually.

“Going online has helped us by making sure we take care of our customers. A lot of people need this shopping therapy, especially when people are stuck at home. It’s not fair that Target and Walmart can stay open, ”Lupe said. “We wash everything and clean, and if someone wants to try something and they don’t want it, we quarantine it. We wipe everything. We make sure they use disinfectant before leaving. If we can persevere, there is nothing that can stop us.

While Oftedals do their best to keep the items on their social media pages, the allure of a vintage store is to walk in, browse, and find a particular item. This is less likely to happen if more people stay at home.

There were also fewer cases after rising infection rates and the second shutdown of non-essential businesses, including bars. That and the restrictions on restaurants made the Tower District a virtual ghost town.

Martin said travel restrictions have also reduced income. Every summer there is an influx of customers from other parts of the world who stop in the Central Valley, and that customer base has disappeared this year.

Instead of customers coming to the store to see what new items have arrived, they prefer to wait and see something they like online.

The trend appears to be nationwide, with online shopping platform ThredUp reporting in its annual “resale report” that with more and more people stuck at home and cleaning their closets, consumers are looking for bargains. from home.

According to the report, the online opportunity is expected to grow by 69% between 2019 and 2021. The broader retail sector is expected to decline by 15%.

With the loss of income, the Oftedals lost their health insurance and struggled financially, but Lupe said that with their faith, church family and community, they were able to continue.

Lupe said they can’t wait for things to get back to normal so they can continue their fundraising efforts. This year, they had to cancel their fashion show that raises funds for the American Cancer Society.

“We don’t see our clients as clients, we see them as family and friends,” Lupe said. “We are very united and always help those who need something. Right now the business community is really trying to stick together. Either way, we’re going to get there.

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Anne G. Cash

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