Be patient and buy ‘with purpose’: How to be a good last-minute shopper in Philly

How customers can make shopping smooth and stress-free during the pandemic as COVID-19 cases remain high and businesses adapt to restrictions.

Nick Lukow waits in line to enter Ocassionate gift shop in South Philly. (Miles Bryan/WHYY)

Nick Lukow waits in line to enter Ocassionate gift shop in South Philly. (Miles Bryan/WHYY)

Philadelphia retailers have a couple of messages for people planning to buy last-minute Christmas gifts.

Chiefly, they’re grateful. 2020 has been a terrible year for most of the city’s small businesses: They’ve been hit by government-mandated shut downs, theft and vandalism, and a sharp decline in foot traffic. The fate of a second stimulus bill passed by Congress this week that would give these businesses a financial cushion to help them through the slow winter months is now uncertain after criticism Tuesday from President Donald Trump.

All of this makes the holiday shopping season — even the tail end of it — more important than ever for the city’s retailers to survive. Nationwide, nearly half of all small business owners say they have been counting on above average holiday sales this year to stay in business, according to an American Express study.

That’s been complicated by the latest surge in COVID-19 cases. In Pennsylvania, case numbers have plateaued after a post-Thanksgiving spike but daily counts remain higher than all the months of the pandemic preceding. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has urged people to shop online in the days leading up to holidays.

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Philadelphia retail store owners say they are following city guidelines and ready and able to safely accommodate shoppers, but they and their staff are hoping last minute customers do their part to make the process smooth and stress-free.

Waiting in line? Be patient

Last month, Philadelphia officials put tight new restrictions in place on city businesses to try to slow the surge in coronavirus cases. Retailers are limited to five people per 1,000 square feet. In some shops in dense parts of the city, that means one or two customers allowed in at a time.

The result? Lines to enter can stretch down the block at peak shopping times.

“I’m sure we’ve missed out on a lot of sales because people couldn’t get in the door,” said Ashley Peel, co-owner of the Old City boutique Philadelphia Independents, which has a two-person customer limit.

Peel added that most of her customers have been “super patient.” Other retailers echoed that sentiment, but said customers hoping to pick up some last-minute gifts should plan on the possibility of spending some time outside first.

Some business owners have come up with creative ways to quell line anxiety. Elissa Kara has taken to pouring shots of whiskey for the customers who queue up outside of her Passyunk Avenue boutique, Nice Things Handmade.

Nice Things Handmade boutique owner Elissa Kara, left, prepares to pour a shot of whiskey for Lexi Sharp, who was waiting in line to enter. (Miles Bryan / WHYY)

“[It’s for] the lovely people standing in line in the cold,” Kara said while pouring shots over the weekend.

Kara says every customer counts right now. The business does not do online sales, and Kara says the fact that she is in default on her college loans has made it difficult for her to obtain coronavirus grants or loans.

Lexi Sharp was fifth in line to get into the boutique. Waiting was “not too bad,” she said, but she added the drink will make the time pass “a lot quicker.”

Don’t take U.S Post Office stress out on small businesses

The pandemic has pushed many more businesses and consumers to online sales — but the shipping system those sales rely on has been under major strain.

Tens of thousands of packages have piled up inside Philadelphia-area postal service sorting facilities, the result of a staffing shortage and unprecedented demand, as first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer. Packages sent as early as late-November remain undelivered.

Philly’s retailers have a message on that: We see you, we hear you, and we are just as frustrated as you are.

“I understand why people are getting irritated, completely,” said Andrew Campbell, manager of the spirits shop Art in the Age. “But once it leaves our shop we don’t really have any power over it. So when the tracking number isn’t updating, or it is saying it is still with us when it’s not, it’s one of those difficult conversations.”

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Brandy Deieso, owner of the Little Apple gift shop in Manayunk, said when the pandemic hit she listed all of her goods online for the first time, and encouraged her customers to shop there instead of in the store.

Now, this year’s sales are on track to be as good as they were last year, she said, but many of her customers haven’t received what they paid for.

“We have had customers placing orders the first week of December and we are getting phone calls now saying they still haven’t received them, and they are showing on the tracking that they are sitting in Florida,” she said.

Thankfully, Deieso said, none of her customers have directed their ire at her, “although I know a lot of people are a little saddened.”

Deiso knows she is one of the lucky ones. Businesses on Main Street Manayunk, where her gift shop is located, have seen their sales decline by an average of more than a third this year, according to the Manayunk Development Corporation. While restaurants and bars have been hit the hardest, retail stores have suffered from the lack of foot traffic caused by restrictions on dining.

Nationwide, half of all small businesses expect to close down within a year if the current business climate continues and they do not receive more aid, according to a new survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and MetLife.

Browse in-stock merch online, and shop with purpose

If you are shopping for presents in person, retailers hope you check out their websites first.

Many small businesses have posted pictures and descriptions of their merchandise online for the first time this year. Browsing online helps customers make sure what they want is still in stock. It also cuts down on the time they spend in store, which both reduces the possibility of coronavirus transmission and makes life a little easier for employees.

“On a regular shopping day, we get breaks,” said Andrew Martin, manager at Kitchen Capers’ Center City location. “But when there is a line of people outside we have a constant flow of customers. It takes its toll on us.”

Small businesses that offer curbside pickup are urging people to take advantage of it for similar reasons.

Finally, some small business owners and staff said, for the sake of the store and the people who are waiting in line, please be decisive.

“I would hope that people are shopping with purpose, and not just browsing,” said Martin. “There’s not a whole lot you can do about that. You can just hope that people have the foresight to think about other people.”

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