Local business owners are preparing for the worst, but are cautiously optimistic for holiday shopping season | News, Sports, Jobs

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Cindy Weaverling, who works for Bodytruth Soap Apothecary, prepares online orders to ship through the mail on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020. The business has seen an increase in online sales since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

As cases in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic surge, businesses are anxiously approaching what is traditionally the most robust shopping season of the year.

For many Lawrence businesses, shoppers buying gifts from their stores during the holiday season can determine whether a business will continue into the following year.

That’s the case for Lucky Dog Pet Grocery and Bakery, 933 Massachusetts St., which has taken steps to counteract the pandemic’s effect on the shopping season.

“It really is make-or-break for us,” said Jennifer Thomas, co-owner of Lucky Dog. “All I can do is plan for the best and hope for the best, but also prepare myself for the worst.”

While the pandemic has forced many to shop online, that does not mean local businesses are missing out.

Some Lawrence business owners recently told the Journal-World that they are either cautiously optimistic or outright excited about the upcoming holiday season, citing the increase in their online sales this year, which they expect to continue.

“I’m excited about the holiday season this year,” said Stephanie Willis, owner of Bodytruth Soap Apothecary, 10 E. Ninth St. “It’s going to be interesting, but I think it’s going to be wonderful.”

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Jennifer Thomas, co-owner of Lucky Dog Pet Grocery and Bakery, poses in front of store-made treats.

Time of unknowns

While Lucky Dog offers year-round pet supplies, most notably dog and cat food, the holiday season is also an important time for the business because of its bakery.

The store sees an uptick in specialty treat purchases during the holiday season, Thomas said. But whether that will continue this year is unclear.

“It’s really tough, because this is all so new,” Thomas said.

To help make sure the business can continue to provide bakery treats during the pandemic, Thomas said she has been working to make the store as safe as possible.

During the pandemic, Lucky Dog moved to a new location downtown — to a larger space that provides better physical distancing among shoppers. The new location also provides for better access for customers to quickly park and pick up their ordered items, minimizing the time they spend around others.

While that may help ensure safety for the staff and customers, it’s still not an easy change to come to grips with, Thomas said.

“It’s heartbreaking, and it’s been an emotionally difficult place to be,” Thomas said. “We have customers we hug, who have been with us a long time and we consider family. That interaction has been really cool — and really difficult to back away from.”

Similarly, Danny Caine of the Raven Book Store, 6 E. Seventh St., said his shop relied heavily on the holiday season in its financial outlook. But this year, he’s not sure what’s going to happen.

While many businesses have found a way to allow customers back into their stores, the Raven has not been open to the public at all since the initial pandemic shutdown began in March. The store, with so many bookcases and tables, does not have much space for customers to adequately physically distance.

That’s a particularly difficult issue for an independent bookstore, which often relies on shoppers browsing and purchasing additional books they otherwise may not have known about.

“I, honest to goodness, don’t know how it’s going to go,” Caine said. “I’ve never done this before. Hopefully this is the last time we have to do a holiday season like this.”

But the bookstore may get aid from a former U.S. president. Last week Barack Obama released “A Promised Land,” a memoir chronicling his time in the White House. The New York Times recently named the book one of the 10 best of 2020 and reported that it is expected to be one of the biggest releases in recent memory, and many bookstores were looking to the book to help with sales during a difficult year.

Caine said the Raven was no different. The bookstore has “a ton of stock” of Obama’s book, and selling all of it would provide the store with security into next year, he said.

“The question of whether or not a retail business, especially a small business, is going to be profitable is answered in the last six weeks of the year,” Caine said. “Especially this year, a strong holiday season will save many small businesses.”

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Stephanie Willis, owner of Bodytruth Soap Apothecary, poses in the store.

Better than expected

Elsewhere, Lawrence businesses are experiencing something of a surprise benefit from the pandemic.

Prior to the emergence of COVID-19, Waxman Candles’ online shopping revenue was “nothing to talk about,” said Deb Werts, owner of the longtime Lawrence business at 609 Massachusetts St.

But this year the company, like most businesses, had to adapt. After public health orders closed businesses to the public in the spring, Waxman Candles expanded its online presence.

That led to a boom in online sales, increasing significantly in April for the highest month of the year. But what’s most encouraging is that online sales have continued, and it now appears that this month is set to be the strongest month for online sales for the shop.

“We think things are going to continue to look good online through the end of the year and possibly beyond,” Werts said. “I think people have formed a new habit and new form of shopping.”

Willis, who sells handmade soaps and other items through her business, said she has also benefited from an online store.

When much of the country initially shut down to limit the spread of the virus, Willis said she noticed local shoppers began purchasing her soaps and shipping them to friends and family in other parts of the country. That has led to the business seeing an online customer base grow throughout the year.

“I’ve seen this viral gifting effect,” Willis said. “I think that’s how business has spread.”

For the holiday season, Willis expects that kind of giving to continue. She has also added more gift products, such as chocolates.

“I’ve watched my business evolve from a bath and body shop to a gift shop,” Willis said. “I’m hoping (shoppers) can create more awesome gifts for the people they love in one space.”

Jessica Mooneyham, owner of AR Workshop, 1520 Wakarusa Drive, said her business had to adapt as well. While AR Workshop is known for providing group painting workshops, Mooneyham said 70% of her business’s revenue now comes from DIY-to-go kits.

“We have totally met a need that I don’t think people knew they would want eight or nine months ago,” Mooneyham said, noting she recently experienced a busy in-person retail day where families were coming into the store to buy the kits to do together over the Thanksgiving holiday.

AR Workshop has also benefited from moving much of its stock online as well. Mooneyham said she had been shipping the kits as far as Wisconsin and Texas.

But she knows that may not be the case for all stores. So she encourages Lawrence shoppers to continue patronizing local businesses during this difficult time.

She said she and her family moved to Lawrence about five years ago from Denver, partially because they loved the community and its support of “small, quirky” businesses.

“The community has rallied around my business in ways I could not have imagined,” Mooneyham said. “What makes Lawrence is all these quirky (businesses), and we have to keep supporting them to keep Lawrence cool.”

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