Richard Bennett Clothing for Men has been a mainstay on Kings Highway in downtown Haddonfield for 38 years.
The small business must be doing something right.
However, in a world with COVID-19, the rules of the past no longer apply. Ben Santoro, the president of Richard Bennett Clothing for Men, says the menswear business has been quiet since the start of the pandemic. Small businesses like his are depending on what is usually the year’s biggest shopping season to stay afloat, he believes.
“We have this holiday season to hang our hat on,” Santoro said. “We hope that the public will come and support your local town, wherever they are.”
He was referring to Small Business Saturday, a day when people are urged to shop small and shop local. This year was the 11th year Black Friday’s younger retail cousin has been in full swing, and the extra attention could not have come at a more dire time for shops like Santoro’s and his neighbors’ in Haddonfield.
Local businesses across the country are suffering. And, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Business Pulse Survey, which measures how such businesses are faring during the pandemic, New Jersey ranked as the third most negatively affected state during the week of Nov. 16.
So Kings Highway businesses were crossing their fingers for community support on Small Business Saturday.
And the community showed up.
Foot traffic … with face masks, of course
Downtown Haddonfield was bustling with foot traffic Saturday. Some community members said they were a little wary about coming out in the middle of the pandemic but felt that it was safe with the right precautions.
“It definitely makes us more hesitant, but we could try to keep our distance, sanitize our hands going into every store, and obviously we got the masks on,” shopper Connor Koellner said.
The timing for getting out was right, too, said shopper Jessica Dadura.
“We didn’t go out for a good 90 days. We stayed inside, and now I think that people are doing things safe. They have good precautions in place,” Dadura said.
Kings Highway is home to more than 200 shops and boutiques. And while Black Friday was kind of disappointing, Saturday had a much more comforting feel.
“The community has grown tighter. They’re definitely going to the local retailers and supporting them, and days like today, Small Business Saturday, is obviously evidence of that, “ said Sam Yampell, chief operating officer of Haddonfield Fine Jewelers.
He said his store has had a tumultuous experience during the pandemic, which could have turned into a nightmare if not for some pre-COVID business that spilled over.
“In the beginning, it was a challenge when Governor Murphy closed down the nonessential businesses. We found ourselves with our doors closed. We were very fortunate that we still had some requests for engagement rings that we were able to finalize those transactions to ensure that people could still pursue their happy moments in life,” Yampell said. “After we reopened, Haddonfield is a wonderful town. The support of the community was excellent.”
Businesses have made adjustments to soften some of the pandemic’s blow.
“We’ve had different ways that we’re trying to give people options to get our product. We’re doing online, we’re doing farmers markets, in-store shipping,” said Melissa Crandley, co-owner of Mecha Chocolate, a Kings Highway shop that sells artisanal chocolate.
It’s been difficult for Mecha Chocolate this year, as it’s tried to keep employees safe and separated during their shifts.
But Crandley said that collaborating with other local businesses helped fill the void created by the absence of tastings, and that Mecha Chocolate had to adapt to keep customers interested.
“We also expanded our product line. We offer sugars now and hot chocolate mixes, so we’re trying to just do anything we can to kind of just add more material to our store,” Crandley said.
The importance of shopping small
Many shoppers walking along Kings Highway Saturday said they felt it was important to show up and support members of their community.
“They are local residents. A lot of them are our family that live in town or locally, and without them, we wouldn’t be able to walk on Main Street like this and have a fun Saturday afternoon,” said Elizabeth Rocco, a shopper and local business owner.
The tight-knit nature of Haddonfield was a recurring theme among shoppers.
“Our family had a small business, and it’s important to appreciate the people that are doing these things,” Dadura said.
Support from the community has also been a beacon for many employees of these small establishments.
“Well, it’s good because you don’t know if the workers probably need food on their tables, and it’s good to have more jobs for them to earn that money and provide for their families,” said Ruby Guerra, assistant manager at Passariello’s Pizzeria.
Yampell said he believes that he is an “excellent testament” to why it’s important to shop small and local.
“My family started in 1929, and I’ve had the pleasure of being a third-generation jeweler, and that is due solely because of repeat business, people who come to the same businesses year after year. They refer us. They know us, the same faces — the same conversation and dialogue, so there’s a comfort that comes with supporting your small businesses,” Yampell said.
According to Santoro, small business is a livelihood and a dream. And for many small-business owners, he said, while this dream comes with a will to win, it also comes with a will to survive. Coronavirus shutdowns and restrictions have pushed the latter into overdrive.
“And your income dropped because of the shutdowns and so forth, you’re hoping for this little shot in the arm of holiday buying to keep you going,” Santoro said.
That is why he believes it’s important for people to shop small and locally.
Santoro’s advice to small-business owners like himself facing hardships: “Keep that dream alive.”
It won’t be easy. Ylvia Asal is the owner of Anatolia Art and Craft Studio. Asal said business has been difficult, to say the least, and that she wants people to be careful so another shutdown can be avoided.
If businesses are forced to shut down once more, Asal does not know what will happen to her studio. But, she added, her dream of being an artist gives her the will to “inspire people.”
“Keep the joys of arts alive,” Asal said.
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