To many Massachusetts merchants, government-imposed restrictions were once among the biggest obstacles during the pandemic.
But now that stores are allowed to open with reasonable capacity limits, owners face a simpler but more bedeviling problem: The shoppers simply aren’t coming in the doors.
The Retailers Association of Massachusetts just surveyed its members for the first time since June. More than 200 responded during the past four days, and the results aren’t pretty. More than 40 percent said sales from March through July shrank by at least half from the same period a year ago.
A similar number, perhaps not coincidentally, expects they’ll need to do more layoffs to balance the books.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, not back in June. A broad swath of the retail industry had been shuttered by the Baker administration, to help beat back the spread of COVID-19. The disease was under control in Massachusetts, or so it appeared, and it was time to open back up. So-called “nonessential” retailers could let customers back in, starting on June 8. Maybe some kind of normalcy could return by Labor Day.
Flash forward two months. No one expects anything resembling normalcy now. Thousands of local office workers are being told to stay home until 2021. Schools remain a big question mark. COVID numbers seem to be ticking upward in the state, and many shoppers remain hunkered down in their homes.
Back in June, “only” 31 percent of the trade group’s members said they had seen their sales decline by more than half during the pandemic, from March 10 through June 10. Now, 44 percent are checking that box.
Retailers are stressing about the lack of customer traffic, financing their inventories, keeping up with the rent or the mortgage, and the end of the federal lifeline known as the Paycheck Protection Program. Most are tweaking their business model: more online sales, new curbside and home deliveries, fewer brick-and-mortar locations. But will it be enough?
Store co-owner Eric Michelson is trying everything he can, including curbside pickups and home deliveries. But sales at Michelson’s Shoes in Lexington and Needham are still running nearly 50 percent behind last year’s levels, week after week. All the reasons for seasonal business at this time of year — the graduations, weddings, summer camps — have all but dried up. Back-to-school? Not looking promising.
Michelson said he had been hoping more shoppers would feel comfortable getting out of the house by this point in the reopening. Instead, he said, even a modest uptick in COVID numbers can make consumers more fearful.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. About 20 percent of respondents said they expect revenue to be flat or up, year over year, during the pandemic. That compares to just 8 percent in early June. Nearly half the respondents to this poll fall under the “essential” category — drugstores, food markets, auto repair shops, and the like — and stayed open all spring. But the fact that more retailers say they are seeing sales stabilizing now than at the start of the reopening in June suggests that some of the “nonessential” businesses are rebounding as well.
Small-business owners are nothing if not optimistic. They have to be, in order to survive. Nearly 40 percent say they’re confident sales will recover to pre-COVID levels a year from now. However, a similar number say they will need to wait much longer for that magic moment to arrive.
Of course, retail isn’t the only sector in crisis mode right now. The widespread concern about the economy’s health shows up in the recent business confidence polls by Associated Industries of Massachusetts: The group reported a notable drop in its confidence index on Tuesday, translating to five months in a row in negative territory.
The big chains dominate the headlines about store closings: GameStop, Victoria’s Secret, Macy’s, Bed Bath & Beyond. The list goes on. Just this week, the owners of Men’s Wearhouse, Jos. A Bank, and Lord & Taylor tumbled into bankruptcy. More lease cancellations. More layoffs. More going-out-of-business sales.
The deaths of mom-and-pop retailers? Those obituaries are harder to track. But these independents have an outsized impact on the characters of their communities: the local frame shop, the downtown toy store, the once-hip craft brewery.
Unfortunately, the retailers association survey is self-selecting. It doesn’t really indicate how many stores could be in danger of closing forever, or have already shut down for good. Those merchants have bigger things to worry about than another poll cluttering their inbox.
For Jon Hurst, the group’s indefatigable president, it can seem like an uphill battle, even in the best of times, as consumers and their dollars shift online and, often, out of state. While a recovery remains so elusive with each passing week, Hurst can’t help but wonder how many more of these struggling stores are going to survive.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.