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A community Christmas tree stands outside City Hall as part of the inaugural “Light Up Athens” event in Athens, Georgia on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. Many Athens small businesses are looking to the holiday season as a reprieve from drops in revenue due to COVID-19. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; www.taylormckenziephotography.com)

Sanni Baumgärtner has run Community, a clothing store with a focus on sustainable fashion, since 2010. Like many other small businesses during the pandemic, Community has faced a drop in revenue and is looking to the holiday season for a reprieve. 

“December has been a good month for us so far,” Baumgärtner said. “I think that we had had a good first week in sales.”

Making the move

Like other businesses in Athens, the pandemic pushed Baumgärtner to move more of her business online in mid-March to make up for lost sales when people stopped shopping in person due to concerns over the pandemic. 

She created a website where customers could buy merchandise, but worried listing her one-of-a-kind items would be too time-consuming. But the pandemic left her no choice. So far, the labor of selling online has been worth it, Baumgärtner said. Online sales make up about 30% of Community’s total sales.

David Harrison, owner of Pedal Driven Cycles, has noticed similar patterns. His business, which sells and repairs BMX bikes and skateboards, has had an online presence since it opened in 2011. While in-person sales are down, Harrison has been able to pivot to online retail. 

Harrison’s sales are actually up from last December. Orders for custom-built skateboards have increased, and more people are getting old bikes repaired. 

“I think COVID itself has kind of reinvigorated this outdoor activity of going riding and skating,” Harrison said. “[They’re] doing stuff that’s fun where you’re not jumbled in a big building with a bunch of people.”

Other businesses are also seeing a surprising upswing in sales this holiday season. India Rows, owner of The Pearl Girls, has become a destination for shoppers from all over the Southeast. Her business makes and sells jewelry, and while customers have been unable to visit the storefront in Athens, Rows has had several massive online sales that increased holiday revenue. 

Challenges during the holiday rush 

Baumgärtner limited the number of customers inside her store to four at a time to maintain social distancing. She worries this will lead to long lines outside the store, which may discourage customers. To prevent this, Community has extended its hours and started offering private shopping appointments. 

Harrison is facing a supply chain that has been disrupted by the pandemic. While Pedal Driven Cycles is receiving plenty of orders, the nationwide demand for bikes has overwhelmed supply. Getting merchandise and parts can be slow and costly. Some distributors have even limited the amount of merchandise or materials stores can buy, Harrisons said, in an attempt to spread inventory among different retailers. 

In addition to selling jewelry, The Pearl Girls normally takes paying customers on trips to exotic locations like Australia, Mexico and Fiji to help them source jewels. Because of COVID-19 safety concerns, Rows said these trips are grounded. 

“A lot of people are dealing with COVID, this is just our life right now,” Rows said. “We’re just going to have to deal with the cards we’ve been dealt. Eventually, I’ll be traveling again.”

Rows also worries about the store’s inventory. Her revenue is down 30% and she’s had to get about $40,000 in grants and loans to stay open. She said it could take her years to pay off the debt she’s accumulated during the pandemic. She has to balance stocking the store with enough merchandise to meet demand, but not buying too much and losing money when items don’t sell. 

Adopting new strategies  

Community introduced The Athens Gift Box, which combines various products from popular local businesses like Condor Chocolates, Normal Soap Company and Jittery Joe’s. Baumgärtner said the gift boxes have been especially popular with former Athens residents who miss local favorites.

Pedal Driven Cycles is using curbside pickup. Customers can place an order online for a part or accessory, and Harrison assembles the order and puts it in a bag outside. Recipients can pick up the order at any time, even if the store has already closed. Harrison said it’s been popular. 

Despite a tough year, Harrison, Baumgärtner and Rows are optimistic. Baumgärtner has started selling some of Community’s clothing at Citizen Supply, an upscale store in Atlanta’s Ponce City Market that focuses on products made by small businesses and artists. 

Harrison’s sales have remained steady and he feels confident his business will survive. Rows said The Pearl Girls is finishing the year with improving sales and has not laid off any employees. 

“I think we’re having a really good holiday season,” Baumgärtner said. “It’s really nice to know that the community has been so supportive of us, and that we’re still here after this crazy, challenging year.”