Local shopkeepers adapt 16, 18, 20 (ArtWare HHS)

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A customer at ArtWare on Hilton Head Island places an item she decided not to buy in a green basket. Store staff will disinfect items in the baskets before replacing them on shelves. JENNIFER MEGLIORE

From closures to curbside service to sanitized everything, Bluffton and Hilton Head Island small businesses are struggling to survive the pandemic shutdown while serving their customers.

When Gov. Henry McMaster authorized the reopening of some "non-essential" businesses, many local owners took the opportunity to reopen, albeit with a modified approach to customers and store employees.

"We sanitized the store and we currently have masks and spray cleaners and antibacterials. You name it, we've got it," said Mark Postlethwaite, co-owner of Markel's Card & Gift Shop in Bluffton. "We're loaded for the proverbial bear."

The shop was among those that reopened April 21, having closed March 25 following the Governor's order. Business hasn't picked up much.

"There's hardly any traffic," Postlethwaite said. "We offered mail orders through Facebook but it just seemed to me people weren't buying. People were buying blue bows and a few baby gifts, but people just weren't shopping, except at Home Depot and Lowes - the essentials. We are the gift industry and everything has been canned. And the people who have come in have bought for themselves - sort of to pick themselves up."

The popular gift store is usually jammed at the holidays, but under current guidelines, only 15 shoppers can be in the store at any one time.

ArtWare, a gift shop on Hilton Head Island, has also reopened for in-store shopping, although owner Jennifer Megliore conducted online shopping and curbside delivery during the restrictions.

"We've been a really good example of how to make people comfortable," Megliore said. "I think it's because we make sure of people's needs. ... People can come to the table and ring a bell for service and I can be their personal shopper. People can pull up and honk twice and we will bring out their order they ordered online."

Megliore wears a mask and asks everyone to do the same when they come to the store. She said she's had to "ramp up and ramp down" her protocols based on being closed to the public or open. The floor of her shop is dotted with green baskets, she said, so that once a customer has touched an item, if they do not buy it, it goes in the baskets and is then sanitized before it goes back on the shelf. Nothing is too small for her attentions.

"It's almost been entertaining as people watch me Lysol all of the money that comes in," said Megliore. "We have been sanitizing everything that comes in and all the money we change and hand back has been sanitized, too. We take cards or cash, whatever makes people feel comfortable.

"We need to be vigilant like our life depends on it because it may," she said.

Disinfecting everything is routine at CannonFit fitness center in the Sheridan Shopping Center, but when the coronavirus crisis loomed, it became nearly a full-time job for owner Chad Cannon.

"Once all this started, I went around personally, and held a disinfectant in my hand and wiped down as we went. Everything was constantly wiped down and I asked my clients to also wipe off every piece of equipment when finished," he said. "I was doing more of that than working."

He closed his training center April 2, although about a quarter of his clients - mostly older members - had already stopped coming in for their sessions.

But that didn't mean the workouts ceased.

"When I closed the center, I sent out a video and I told everyone I would continue to send them weekly workouts, and I did urge them to continue on with me," he said.

Most continued with the individualized weekly workout he sent via texts or email, including links to his YouTube exercise videos. There is no date right now to reopen, and he is still considering what he will ask his clients to do once they return.

"I will initially keep doing what I was doing before we closed. I still have the signs up to ask people to wipe everything. I have considered asking people to wear masks during their workouts," Cannon said. "I have considered a lot of things. I want to keep everybody safe, including myself and my family."

In the meantime, like every other small business owner, he is dealing with paperwork, applying for the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) emergency advance and the Paycheck Protection Program loan that covers employee payrolls, among other things, including sole proprietors, which is what Cannon is.

"I received the whole thousand dollars from one of the loans, and the PPP loan I have not received anything. I think mainly because I am a single-employee business," said Cannon. "We seem to be last on the totem pole. I don't see it coming anytime soon. Sure hoping for it."

Nancy Landwehr, owner of The Spirited Hand, another Bluffton gift shop, has also found that filing the paperwork needs patience.

"I got a follow-up from the Small Business Administration for supporting documentation, with a message that they'd received it all, and they would get back to me when the funds were available," Landwehr said. "I feel good about that that I got some kind of response. But now I'm just waiting and wondering. I have two employees but neither one of them is working now."

It's not for lack of effort or opportunity but "a huge drop in traffic."

"We did not close completely but offered curbside and shipping. I came to work every day so I had some place to go. I had a lot of zero days, but I was here in case someone called or wanted something shipped," she said.

The closings were close to Easter and there were a lot of grandparents who expected to see grandchildren with gifts, she explained.

Landwehr does not have a shopping cart option on her website, so she spent time taking photos and answering questions for customers via email. And with the diverse merchandise inventory, remote shopping is more complicated. Landwehr was ready to reopen when the official word came April 20.

"We have Clorox wipes and try to maintain social distancing, and the door is open for fresh air. We don't have that many people at a time. I figure six to seven is tops for me with 1,800 square feet," she said. "Now I'm using my Constant Contact newsletter to encourage people to shop local and try to support each other."

As critical as the economic support is and will be in days to come, there is also the human impact, something Postlethwaite - and probably many others - had not anticipated.

"Financially, it's rather devastating. Our rent here is really high," he said. "But it's just 'try to get back to normal,' not 'try to make money.' It means having conversations with your neighbors. It means having friends in your store who are customers. I didn't realize how much I missed that. Those relationships are important."

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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