Jim McGuinn doesn’t rattle easily when it comes to business hurdles.
His music and electronics shop, Hot Poop, has survived the age of the internet, the death of vinyl, the rise of corporate giants and now the two-month closure this spring from the COVID-19 pandemic.
So when the latest round of restrictions on businesses and other operations was announced Sunday by Gov. Jay Inslee, McGuinn didn’t exactly tune in. Serving just 25% of the business’s occupancy at one time over the next four weeks?
“Pssh,” a self-deprecating McGuinn said, casting a sideways glance at the meandering aisles of his more than 4,700-square-foot main floor. “We’ve been doing that for decades.”
At neighboring shops up and down Main Street and beyond, some spaces don’t have size on their side.
From pocket-size openings to long and narrow corridors and even more open floor plans, the square footage of retail spaces is far from the only hardship to contend with under occupancy restrictions.
Many are also wrestling with the messaging that encourages people to stay home and safe but also support businesses to keep the local economy and jobs intact.
“It’s like saying two different things,” said Stacey Moeller, owner of Main Street boho shop Ella Mae Boutique.
It also comes on the edge of the holidays, when many see a bump in sales activity before the deep lull of the notoriously quiet local winter rest.
On Sunday and Monday, retailers — who make up just one part of the many business sectors affected by the latest changes — responded swiftly with posts on social media and signage on their buildings to indicate how many shoppers are allowed inside at once and ask for patience in the coming weeks.
A campaign downtown this weekend, Passport to the Holidays, is designed to create incentives for local shopping while also keeping participants safely distanced.
Although the event is an annual effort, the work around it is reflective of the massive pivoting in every direction by businesses. When they couldn’t open their doors in spring, a number of retailers used their social media channels to connect to their customers with live Facebook sales events, curbside pickup and personal shopping.
Moeller moved into high gear on website development that had been on the back burner. She attributes her boutique’s survival to the sales made there and now is hopeful that customers hunkering down at home will go back to the site again.
Several downtown retailers said the nice fall weather days drew visitors from other communities downtown over the last couple of months. If those folks uphold the latest mandate to stay home, the change will certainly be felt.
At Hot Poop, McGuinn said his peak sales times have been on weekends when out-of-towners load up on hard-to-find albums.
Some days during the week, he makes just enough to cover the cost of the employee on duty. He knows locals can get many of the same items from the web without leaving their homes. The service, selection and desire to support local businesses have to be enough to draw people out, he said.
“I can only sell you something that you really want and aren’t willing to wait three days for,” he said.
Downtown Walla Walla Foundation Executive Director Kathryn Witherington said making an intentional effort to spend money in local stores is critical to saving jobs and businesses. She said those who frequently shop online could easily shift from major corporate buying to searches for the same products in Walla Walla through their search engines.
“Maybe you find it and maybe you don’t,” she said. “It’s just as easy to do the search.”
Without a concerted effort to support businesses, she fears another five or so could be lost through winter, in addition to the seven that have closed this year.
Despite the effects of the pandemic, consumer spending on gifts is on par with last year, according to survey data from the National Retail Federation.
Consumers plan to spend $998 on average on items such as gifts, food, decorations and other holiday-related purchases for themselves and their families, the organization said. Of that, $650 is slated for gifts for family, friends and coworkers.
The overall spending projection is down about $50 from 2019, but the decrease is around hesitation to buy non-gift purchases, the federation reported.
At independent toy store Inland Octopus, owner Bob Catsiff said the holiday season is less critical to his business than it once was.
When the store opened in 2004, the holidays made up about one-third of his overall business, Catsiff said. Now he said he sees more spending throughout the year overall, which makes up for the losses he has experienced at the holidays to the internet.
Under the new restrictions, occupancy in his store at one time will decrease from 14 to 12 people — a number that can be filled from just a couple of families making a trip inside at a time.
With the limit, he said he needs shoppers to shop early and during non-peak hours, such as weekdays and late afternoons on weekends, to help offset lines.
“Inland Octopus will survive,” he said.
Still, other retailers face a completely different challenge with the pandemic’s toll. Goods they sell and that are manufactured in other parts of the world may be completely unavailable.
“My Tibetan ringing bowls aren’t made in Alabama,” quipped Skye Gardens owner Tiffany Sinclair.
Some goods have been hard to get from outside of the country, she said. Even if she can get them now, how does she create an order with such uncertainty around the shopping climate?
Her customers have largely continued to show up. Sinclair said she had her best September and October in her eight years in business. That may also have to do with the nature of her store specializing in new age and metaphysical products that customers may be seeking more of these days.
“I have it easier than some people on that,” she said.
Up the road at Lost Boardroom, owner Mike Donnelly said business tends to slow at the lifestyle clothing store and skateboard retailer around this time of year. He, too, went through a period when merchandise was hard to get.
Even domestic manufacturers of the gear he offers from Southern California were shuttered. Now that he’s stocked, the weather has turned.
Donnelly said the business can make it through the four-week reduction in capacity, but extensions on that and the unknowns of winter’s timeline could be difficult.
“We want it to be over like everyone else,” he said of the pandemic.
“I don’t know what to expect.”