Midland retailers balance safety with cheer this holiday season

‘Tis the season to shop local. Now months into the pandemic and well-versed in COVID-19 safety rules, local retailers are finding new ways to spread cheer while offering socially-distant shopping alternatives.

As it’s opening on a Saturday morning, downtown gift boutique Serendipity Road is already seeing a steady flow of customers admiring its artistically-styled holiday gift displays. A store associate busily moves through checkout behind a plexiglas barrier encased in a gilded picture frame.

Safety measures like staying six feet apart while shopping seem to have become second nature. Many customers are continuing to visit the store despite pandemic restrictions and rising case numbers, reports Serendipity Road owner Julia Kepler. The store sells a wide range of handcrafted and artistic gifts, crafting kits and decorations, focusing on products made in Michigan.
At Serendipity Road, check out takes place behind a specially-decorated barrier.

"For our specific retail, we haven't really had more restrictions this fall than when we first reopened in June," says Kepler. "Retail has been a really low contact area for the spread of COVID, so things for us really haven't changed a lot. As a company, we had very tight restrictions to begin with, so we kind of just kept them there."

Serendipity Road offers online shopping, call-in orders, curbside pickup and porch delivery. Over the phone and on the store website, shoppers have an opportunity to build a custom gift box with products from throughout the boutique to create a one-of-a-kind present. After staff members assemble and wrap the gift boxes, they are ready for delivery or low-contact pickup.

They first introduced the boxes and curbside pickup around Mother’s Day. “We knew that by Christmas time we would need to have that service up and running really well again," says Kepler. "There is definitely more demand for these services around the holidays."
Serendipity Road’s partner toy store, Joyful Tantrum, reports increased sales of interactive toys for families amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Purchasing habits are shifting this holiday season as Midland residents spend more time at home. The maker's boutique and its affiliated toy store, Joyful Tantrum, are seeing an uptick in sales of self-care items, home projects, games and family activities. Faced with stressful times, shoppers are looking for ways to connect, unwind and increase their homes' comfort factor.

Behind the scenes at the busy maker's market, store management is using a unique approach to employee scheduling to ensure worker safety and prevent disruptions to store service. "We had to create a ‘microschedule’ within a normal schedule where people work in specific spots within the store separate from each other," explains Kepler. "That way, if one person needs to quarantine, it doesn't end up quarantining the staff as a whole."

Across town at wildlife-themed retailer Nature Niche, owner Martha Holzheuer sees customers shopping for items that support birds and animals while providing decoration. Holiday bird seed mixes and self-hanging bird seed wreaths shaped like Christmas trees and snowmen are in high demand. The store also sells original metal signs and ornaments made to order on its in-house metalworking machinery.

Nature Niche owner Martha Holzheuer poses with holiday decorations.

Kits for practicing the Scandinavian custom of leaving birdseed on doorsteps on Christmas Day for better luck in the New Year have already sold out (more are on order). Many are looking for new holiday traditions and a fresh start after a year filled with challenges.

A sign on Nature Niche's front door combines a cheerful evergreen decoration with a clear message: "No Mask, No Shopping." Since opening in May under the garden store exemption to state-mandated closures, the retailer has adapted to restrictions and expanded services to include online ordering, pickup and free local delivery within a 7-mile radius. The shop is located on West Wackerly Street, west of Eastman Avenue. Currently, about 50% of Nature Niche's business comes through the online channel.

"We've definitely seen an uptick with holiday shopping and the COVID numbers getting worse for people doing the pickup option and ordering online, either to minimize their time in the store or not have to come in at all," says Holzheuer. "We're happy to do whatever makes folks most comfortable."

Nature Niche is decked out for the holidays. Curbside orders are ready for pickup in boxes and bags.

Between stringent safety measures for in-person retail and various alternatives for pickup and delivery, Midland residents can choose from many options to safely shop at local stores this season. For small businesses, holiday shopping represents a significant part of yearly income and can give stores the momentum to stay afloat during tough economic times. "From October to November, sales double, and from November to December, sales double again," reports Serendipity Road's Kepler.

"According to the National Retail Federation, holiday sales average about 19% of annual retail sales," says Midland Business Alliance CEO Tony Stamas. "With the uncertainty of 2020, that makes it more important than ever to remember to shop local. There are many projections that online shopping sales will increase dramatically while offline sales will decrease this year."

While the interior of Nature Niche is decorated festively, the store attributes approximately half of its business to online sales.To make local shopping easier and more accessible, the Midland Business Alliance is partnering with retailers to offer special deals, discounts and giveaways. The group has compiled shopping local lists and videos, supporting retailers providing gifts and services that can be paid for with gift cards.

As part of its "12 Days of Shopping Local" Facebook event, the MBA is giving away 12 baskets worth $400 each and filled with gifts from local stores. Events like this promote Midland small businesses to a broad audience.

"Supporting local businesses is critically important because it's supporting your friends, neighbors and the entire community," says Stamas. "Shopping at a local business keeps your money right here in Midland and is a great way to pay it forward."

Read more articles by Marta Manning.

Marta Manning was born in Poland and relocated to Midland after living in various cities on the East Coast. A lifelong passion for writing and photography prompted Marta to shift her career trajectory from lab science to freelance journalism. She contributes regular articles on medical topics to WebMD.com and helps business clients write proposals for federal research funding. Her articles have appeared in the Chemical City Paper, Our Catholic Faith Midland, the NAMI.org national blog, and the Midland Daily News.
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