Julia Fournier recalls driving to the California high desert during mid-March, eager to find merchandise for The Bee’s Knees, the small resale shop she runs in the Coronado neighborhood of Phoenix. She’d made reservations to stay at a casino off the I-10, not knowing the dominos would begin to fall in America’s response to COVID-19 while she was on the road.
“My first night there, the NBA announced that they were canceling games,” Fournier says. “It was so surreal — nobody there knew how to behave.” Life felt more normal once she got back home, but not for long. Soon, places like Disneyland announced closures, and Fournier wondered about how to handle her store brimming with eclectic fashion and decorative fare.
The shop is part of a creative enclave called The Hive where several small businesses have space. Fournier co-owns the building, so she’s taken a hit as some have struggled to pay their rent. Fournier is struggling in other ways. “What I really love to do is go out and find things and then share them with people who come to the shop,” she says.
That’s not happening, now that businesses deemed nonessential are temporarily closed to help curb the spread of the virus. Some boutiques and creative spaces have responded by ramping up their online offerings, but Fournier says that’s not her strength. And she laments not having more control over current events. “I think I’m in a stage of grief because of not being able to plan for the future.”
It’s a challenge faced by many boutique owners in metro Phoenix, including Georganne Bryant. Her shop, Frances, located near Camelback Road and Central Avenue, is filled with fashion, housewares, novelty items, and children’s goods. On Friday, April 17, she posted an Instagram video update that struck a chord with the community. “We got 100 or so orders that day,” she says. “I’ve been hustling like I’m back in my first year of business.”
Bryant has eight employees, but says she hasn’t had to furlough anyone so far. “I’m lucky because I haven’t bought items for the store recently, so I have some reserves.” Still, she says, that cushion won’t last forever. Spring sales typically carry Frances through the slow summer months, so Bryant is hoping people will keep shopping in the coming weeks — especially for occasions like Mother’s Day and graduation (despite most ceremonies being canceled). “A lot of our orders are really sweet, like people buying five little gifts and notes to send to five friends.”
Over at Phoenix General, owners Kenny Barrett and Joshua Hahn are marketing “PHXHUG” care packages filled with small gift items. They’re leaning into the pandemic, in part because of the local demand for health and safety items. Popular items include cloth face masks by Phoenix artist Carrie Marill and greeting cards that reference measures of true love like giving your beloved toilet paper. “We’ve always wanted to get into making our own products, so now we’ve turned our downtown space into a production facility for hand sanitizer,” says Barrett.
Barrett estimates that Phoenix General sales have dropped by half since they decided to temporarily close both locations on March 16. “We used to do about 5 percent in online sales, but that’s how we do everything now because there’s no other option.” They’ve applied for financial assistance, but Barrett says a lot of programs aren’t geared for businesses with just a few employees. And they’ve asked their landlords to be flexible about rent payments. “There are so many factors, but we’re trying to stay optimistic,” Barrett says.
Lisa Olson was busy making big plans when the COVID-19 virus brought most of Phoenix to a halt. She owns a creative space called Practical Art, which sells works by more than 100 Arizona artists. “We’re fortunate because we had a good January and February, but we’re still dipping into our savings.”
Before the pandemic, Olson was hoping that money would help buy a warehouse so she could launch a creative space for ceramic artists. She even had plans to hire another person, add professional classes for artists, and hold creative dinners at Practical Art. “We’ll have to put a lot of things on pause.”
Practical Art already had a robust online shop, so Olson is focusing on finding creative ways to take community events online, like a monthly pie social that benefits local charities. “We’re taking it day by day,” she says.
Several boutiques have been hit hard in recent weeks. Local Nomad owner Lauren Danuser says her sales have dropped by 40 percent and she’s had to furlough one of two employees. Now, she’s working to improve her online presence by upgrading her website and investing in digital marketing.
Local Nomad is selling a lot of candles, incense, and ceramics these days. “People want their home to be a sanctuary and a safe place, but they also want it to be comfortable and inspiring.” Like most boutiques, she’s offered free shipping since temporarily closing her brick-and-mortar shop. Some also do deliveries or personal shopping appointments while being mindful of social distancing guidelines.
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Despite efforts to adapt, COVID-19 could still take a toll. “I think everyone is at risk for closure,” Olson says. “We’re not in any immediate danger but who knows what kind of economy we’ll come back to.”
Several shop owners are coping with the uncertainty by sharing information and support through an informal retail collective whose members include Desert Crafted, Frances, Local Nomad, Phoenix General, Strawberry Hedgehog, Stinkweeds, and others. “This is all so unprecedented,” says Bryant. “We’re all trying to figure it out as we go.”
For community members who want to help, small purchases, social media shares, or reaching out to tell a local business they have your support can make a difference.
“There are really good days, and there are really terrible days,” Olson says. “Small business owners are resilient, but we really miss that community interaction.”