Business has started picking up for Betty’s Shop after the worst summer owner Liz Calver can recall in a decade.
“It was a lot quieter. Even just the foot traffic on the streets and the car traffic on the roads, on Gulf Boulevard, was less than half of what it should have been,” Calver said about business in July.
October improved with the start of wedding season for the St. Pete Beach boutique — but it’s still slower than past years. As Calver prepares for the holiday shopping season, she hopes things will pick up more.
“To be honest, I have no idea but it is scary,” Calver said. “And I’m not sure it’s going to be a great holiday.”
Florida summers are typically slow for business. Snowbirds are gone, and tourists tend to be in-state residents. But this year shocked many local businesses as their stores sat empty. As the weather cools and the gift giving season begins, store owners across the region said they’re hoping holiday sales can help make up for the previous tough season.
Sales up but also more costs
Many businesses are facing the effects of high inflation — from customers spending less, to rents increasing and the growing expense of hiring workers.
Still, U.S. holiday spending is expected to grow 3% to 4% in November and December compared to last year, according to estimates from The National Retail Federation. Americans could spend more than $950 billion for the holidays.
“We expect spending to continue through the end of the year on a range of items and experiences, but at a slower pace,” said the national retail organization’s chief economist Jack Kleinhenz in a statement. “Solid job and wage growth will be contributing factors this holiday season, and consumers will be looking for deals and discounts to stretch their dollars.”
The founder of St. Petersburg’s Small Business Saturday festival Shopapalooza said that small businesses have higher costs now and more to make up, which adds to the financial pressures this time of year.
“It’s not as good as 2021 but I think it’s as good as last year, which last year wasn’t bad,” Ester Venouziou said. “But it is also tougher because they have to recover more from the summer than past summers.”
At Betty’s Shop, Calver’s motto has been to “pivot, pivot, pivot” when business drops.
“The way that I’ve pivoted in the past couple months to get through the slower parts is I’ve fallen more on our workshops and our one-on-one experiences,” she said.
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Her store is focusing more on events for the holidays like saltwater watercolor painting and do-it-yourself wrapping paper. Calver is also creating new T-shirt designs with local themes that can’t be easily replicated online.
“If they can find it on Amazon and your store, then you’re gonna run into problems,” Calver said.
“Make or break”
It’s essential for businesses to stay competitive but not all have the manpower to do so, said Bill Herrle, Florida executive director at the National Federation of Independent Business.
Many store owners are spending more time running counters than creating new products or reaching new customers, Herrle said.
“That comes at a loss of entrepreneurial effort. That is the unnoticed, unspoken effect of the labor shortage,” he said.
Overall, business could be good ahead of the holidays but it might not be as profitable because of inflation.
“Is it as ripe for growth and expansion, as it could be? Well, no, because the entrepreneurs are spending more time on the frontline,” Herrle said.
At Largo-based Arnold Jewelers, owners are anticipating serving more customers on tighter budgets this year.
“We want our customers’ money to go farther. So if they come into the store and buy something, they have another gift for free and hopefully that will help them out too,” said marketing director Brittney Arnold.
There’ll be different incentives throughout the holiday season such as the free gift with each purchase, tax-free sales, 20% off certain gemstones or a “pick your holiday deal” opportunity so customers can choose what works best for them. The store is also extending hours into the evenings to capture more customers ahead of December, a crucial month to make sales.
“The holiday season can make or break your family business,” Arnold said. “Shopping local is super important.”
Walking on thin rope
The economy has been a mixed bag since the start of the pandemic. And business owners are navigating uncharted territory.
It’s been like walking on a tightrope, said Allie Padin, the owner of downtown St. Petersburg gift shop The Canary.
The start was easy, with booming business from COVID revenge shopping. But these days its harder. Many small business owners are trying to hold out on expensive leases until a new wave of potential customers come with the rise of luxury apartments and condos and the new Rays stadium project that are still years from coming to fruition.
With demand dropping and rents soaring, Padin said they’re halfway across the rope dipping from the weight. Now, she wonders if owners like her can make it to the other side.
Ahead of the holidays, Padin put together a new kids section with toys and children’s books that has helped boost sales. She is offering to gift wrap for shoppers and deliver to their front doors.
“I enthusiastically encourage residents of St. Pete and the Tampa Bay area to head downtown to shop our local storefronts on Small Business Saturday,” Padin said. “Especially consider being here for us so that we can be here for you the whole year through.”
Not the greatest, but not the worst
Tampa boutique owner Linda Muszynski said she had to get creative after a stagnant summer. August was the worst month Tate and Tilly saw in four years. So she created a 50% off sales section in her store to recoup sales.
“I know exactly why it dropped. It was truly people are paying higher gas, higher utilities, higher food, everything is so off the charts right now, including for me as well,” Muszynski said.
Still, she was starting to worry as she heard more murmurs of families opting to skip buying Christmas gifts altogether this year. She knew that one of the only events Tate and Tilly takes part in each year, the Junior League Holiday Market in Tampa, would set the precedent for the season.
“Before Junior League started, you would not even want to be near me,” Muszynski said. “I was so scared.”
But at the market last weekend, she made sales by offering more marked-down items. At the end, the boutique’s stand looked bare. It was the best year she’s ever had.
Now, Muszynski said she’s more hopeful.
“I do believe that we will be OK, that people will buy,” Muszynski said. “They won’t buy $200 worth but they might buy $75 worth ... it may not be the greatest, but I don’t think it’s going to be the worst.”