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Yes, we’re buying gifts for Mother’s Day. But not from them, small businesses worry

Thousands of seedlings sprout in a hothouse on Ron Fox's farm in Pittsgrove, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Thousands of seedlings sprout in a hothouse on Ron Fox's farm in Pittsgrove, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Nationwide surveys suggest Mother’s Day will prompt big spending here in the U.S., even as the country hits record unemployment numbers because of coronavirus shutdowns.

Seventy-eight percent of people responding to a National Retail Federation survey said celebrating Mother’s Day this year was important given the state of the pandemic.

For Philadelphia resident Joe Chlapaty, it’s vital to get Mom something, even while he’s on furlough, because he wants to let her know they’re all “going to get through this.”

“She gets to still FaceTime and talk with me and my daughter on the phone, but she always sort of mentions, like, ‘Hey, I can’t wait until this is over and I can see you guys again,’” he said. “And [she’s] still, even though I tell her not to, dropping off food at my house. She’ll call me after she’s left, ‘Hey, I have a surprise.’”

Though some people like Chlapaty say they’ll be buying more modest gifts this year, those surveyed by the National Retail Federation said they planned to spend about $8 more on gifts, for an average of $205.

As for what people are buying, that’s changing. Categories such as books/CDs, electronics and housewares/gardening tools rose 20% in popularity compared to 2019, according to the retail federation.

Meanwhile, flowers — consistently the second most popular gift this decade among survey respondents — saw a slight dip in interest this year.

“Special outings” dropped down a rank to fourth place for the first time in at least a decade as social distancing measures remain in place across much of the country. Shoppers like Chlapaty said they don’t want their moms going to a restaurant just yet.

Gift cards now hold the rank of third most popular gift.

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Small businesses worry shoppers won’t spend with them

Though consumers surveyed seem to have a positive shopping outlook this Mother’s Day, small-business owners in the Philadelphia region say they’re not sure they’ll be the ones getting those dollars.

“On Mother’s Day, we darn near sell out,” farmer Ronald Fox Jr. said of the flowers he sells at Fox’s Market, the stand he owns in Salem County, New Jersey. “On Mother’s Day weekend, we probably sell about 1,000 hanging baskets.”

Ron Fox brings some tomato plants to a customer at his farm stand in Pittsgrove, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Contrary to what the survey found, Fox expects more than a slight dip in sales. He said he’ll be lucky if he moves a quarter of his plants.

Customers are increasingly describing his flower baskets — which start at $10.95, but are mostly priced in the high teens — as a luxury when their households are tightening up on their spending, Fox said.

“Some people say, ‘You can’t eat flowers,’ and it’s true,” he said of what would typically be his big moneymakers this time of year. “I won’t be greatly disappointed because I know where everybody’s coming from.”

Silvio Garbati, owner of Cafe Verdi, a 65-seat Italian restaurant in Wilmington, doesn’t need surveys to tell him how Mother’s Day will play out for his business.

“To me, I don’t look at the Mother’s Day [as] lost, I look at every day to survive and to pay my bills,” Garbati said.

Silvio Garbati is the owner of Café Verdi, a 65-seat Italian eatery in Wilmington, Delaware. For Mother’s Day, he’s offering a special take-out package that includes lobster tails and shrimp over half a tray of pasta. A pizza pie, cannolis and Italian bread also come with the order. (Courtesy of Silvio Garbati)

Like Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Delaware has banned dine-in services at restaurants as a way to thwart the spread of the new coronavirus. Garbati has reconfigured his business hours and menu for the times, even incorporating a four-day “survival meal kit” for families.

For Mother’s Day weekend, usually booked solid in past years, he is offering a special package that includes lobster tails and shrimp over half a tray of pasta. A pizza, cannoli and Italian bread also come with the order.

“You have to keep it going, that’s why we put the takeout and the deliveries, and we got to find the solution to bring the food to the people,” he said.

An atypical Mother’s Day

Subodha Kumar, a professor of marketing and supply chain management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, said small-business concerns about fewer sales this holiday are justified.

The number of sales a business brings in might have more to do with its size than the purchasing power of consumers, Kumar said.

“Bigger stores are able to keep themselves open in spite of all the problems because they have that capability,” he said. “Second, they’re much more aggressive in online delivery than the small businesses.”

Buyers may prioritize getting gifts from larger businesses that can guarantee presents will get to their loved ones on time, Kumar said. He also expects people will opt for gifts that require the least amount of face-to-face contact upon buying or delivery.

For Karla Galvan, a West Philly resident, the decision to make a Mother’s Day purchase was an easy one, even as she was laid off from her job as a paralegal during COVID-19-related cutbacks. The tricky part was what to get.

Galvan, who likes to plan ahead, had her Mother’s Day gift budget set aside long before the pandemic reached this region.

But her family is in Massachusetts, and a previous tradition of taking Mom out to IHOP for pancakes is not possible because of the miles separating the family and strict social distancing measures.

Still, Galvan wanted to treat her mother to something thoughtful — Mom has been finding creative ways to bring in some income, while her husband, in the fishing industry, has been out of work because of COVID-19.

“Any money really coming in from home is kind of like from my mom’s side hustles,” said Galvan. “She does tamales and cakes and things like that.”

An avid rehabilitator who likes to bring clearance plants back to health, Galvan’s mom has been spending the time she isn’t making Mexican treats fixing up her backyard.

“She wanted to put big planters there, so that way she could get that floral outlook, and she’s also been trying to get statuettes — concrete statuettes I guess is also her new thing while in quarantine,” said Galvan.

So Galvan bought a gift card from a home improvement store and had it mailed to Mom, so she wouldn’t have to struggle with downloading an online gift certificate.

Galvan said she even appropriated some extra money so her mom could have something “just for her” during the pandemic.

Gifts with meaning

Page Neal is co-owner of Bario Neal Jewelry in Philadelphia, a fine jeweler that uses ethically sourced stones and Fairmined-certified metals, and continues to favor the face-to-face shopping experience.

“As a custom jeweler, people want to be able to try on rings, see the stones,” said Neal.

Luckily, Neal and her business partner Anna Bario already had a system in place to do remote consultations before the pandemic — they take international orders.

Philadelphia jewelry maker Page Neal ships the custom hand-made pieces she designs with her business partner Anna Bario. (Courtesy of Page Neal)

One thing that stands out these days, she said, are the messages and intent that come attached with the purchases.

“We’ve had a lot of response from our customers online wanting to support mothers in their lives with fine jewelry, which has been really sweet and uplifting because if you’re a mom right now working from home and homeschooling — like I’m doing — it’s really a challenging time,” Neal said.

Finding a gift that’s unique, a gift that creates a special memory is on many consumers’ minds this Mother’s Day, the National Retail Federation says. In the survey, they were the most popular inspirations of all.

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