Allowing customers to call in orders and pay by credit card, then swing by to pick up their purchases — bagged, outside the store, with no person-to-person contact — would go a long way toward recouping some of the sales they are losing. And it would be safe, they contend.
“We’ve had six calls in the last hour asking if they can pick up,” said Claudia Towles, a retailer. “Currently it is illegal to do curbside pickup as a non-essential retailer.”
Towles and her husband own aMuse Toys in the Fells Point neighborhood in Baltimore.
In an interview, she said the store is operating at less than 20% of its usual volume. The sales they are getting are through their web site, though she said it’s a strain on her staff to do deliveries. Some days it means driving between 30 and 50 miles for a handful of purchases.
“A lot of us don’t have the infrastructure for deliveries — at least not in the way to make it cost-effective,” she said of the state’s small retailers. “We’re trying to stay relevant in front of our audience.”
“Small retailers were given the ability initially to have curbside, and that was taken away,” said Cailey Locklair, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, which has urged the governor to amend his executive order on retail sales.
“These little businesses that are being crushed right now because they have zero sales and zero income can safely provide to the community the times that they sell. There is definitely a way to do that, because other states are doing that. Many other states are doing that.”
As the debate over essential vs. non-essential retail plays out around the country, many business owners are questioning why consumers can purchase alcohol to-go but not other retail products.
“If the liquor stores are able to do this, there’s frankly no reason for why our Main Street shops can’t do the same thing,” Mike O’Halloran, head of government affairs for the National Federation of Independent Business in Maryland. “That’s a very important issue.”
Ashley Duckman, head of government affairs for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said greater use of curbside pickup can be an important way-station for stores that have seen a dramatic drop-off in sales.
“We do not prescribe when and exactly how the economy should re-open, but at some point it will,” she said. “And it will require a phasing-in. And this is a good example of how we can assist in bridging the gap between completely closed to open.”
“You can’t expect a small retailer that has no cash flow, has nothing going, to suddenly produce churn. You need to give them the opportunity to slowly build up and to have some continuity of operations.”
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), a real estate executive before entering politics, said this week he is sympathetic to the plight of retailers during the COVID-19 crisis, and he has pledged to put forward a plan later this week to reopen the state’s economy when hospitalization rates show a consistent decline.
Towles, the Fells Point toy store owner, stressed that she fully understands the need to prioritize public health. She said she closed her store a week before Hogan’s executive order to protect her staff.
Her efforts now are primarily to remain afloat and to remind her customers that they’re still around.
“Our biggest fear is that if we fail to continue to be relevant or top of mind, that when this is all over, we become irrelevant. So we’re working 10 times harder to make 10 times less, in order to be able to still be [here] on the other side of this.”
By Bruce DePuyt