By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD — As the holiday Christmas season approaches, some Port Orchard merchants enter the holiday shopping season with trepidation as concern grows over the impact of a rising number of COVID cases.
To say this will be a challenging period for local merchants may be one of the biggest understatements of the year. They’ll be expecting fewer shoppers this season since retail analysts anticipate that a large number have abandoned local stores to shop online.
But those who do plan to shop in person will likely have fewer dollars in which to spend. The partial shutdown that began in November under Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate is especially painful, said Matt Murphy, president of the Port Orchard Chamber of Commerce, because many businesses depend on the holiday season for a significant portion of their yearly income.
“During this holiday season, they may not be able to make it up, which means they may not stay open,” Murphy said.
“Some businesses have dropped thousands of dollars into inventory. They probably have net-30 days on it and that bill is going to come due Jan. 1. Hopefully, they are going to be able to pay for it.”
For many, it may seem as if the novel coronavirus has been around forever, but actually, this will be the first Christmas business owners will have to negotiate the unanticipated twists and turns of the pandemic.
Businesses will face a number of hardships in the coming weeks, the chamber president said.
“I think one of the biggest challenges facing businesses is just getting people out of the house and making them feel that it’s safe to shop.
“The fear that some individuals have of the virus could make them stay home,” he said. “But, in reality, businesses are doing everything possible to keep things clean and safe.”
Some consumers have the misconception that businesses had to close after the governor’s Nov. 15 order, which was made in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases, Murphy said.
“People need to realize that businesses are still open. It’s not like the last lockdown. Almost everyone will be open, just with limited capabilities like 25-percent occupancy. Occupancy restrictions shouldn’t prevent people from getting out and shopping locally,” he said.
Inslee’s recent proclamation ended dine-in restaurant service but takeout remains a widespread option and retail stores continue to be open, although with a 25-percent capacity restriction, Murphy said. Beauty shops and pet-washing facilities remain open. However, gyms, bowling alleys and theaters are closed.
During the stay-at-home lockdown issued on March 23, people were ordered to remain home except to conduct essential activities; all but businesses providing essential services were closed.
Another complicating factor during this shopping season: Congress has yet to pass a new stimulus bill to help employees and companies impacted by the pandemic.
During the lockdown last spring, many workers were able to get extra unemployment income of $600 weekly through the federal stimulus legislation.
“The bottom line result is people are going to have less money to spend.”
Since budgets will be tight for many South Kitsap residents this winter, the chamber president encourages people to increase the amount they spend at local stores rather than traveling to retailers outside Kitsap County.
Local stores offer a good variety of products, Murphy reminded.
To promote Port Orchard merchants, the Chamber of Commerce has put together a local shopping guide, called “Home for the Holidays.” The 12-page color booklet lists unique places to shop in South Kitsap. The publication is available at many local merchants.
Shop owner’s perspective
One merchant featured in the chamber’s handbook who is facing many of the difficulties Murphy outlined is Josephine’s Mercantile, a downtown Port Orchard store owned by Samantha Smith.
Her establishment is a 10,000-square-foot store that features vintage antiques, gifts, home goods and a café. The shelves are filled with wares from 14 vendors, Smith said.
“For me, fear of the unknown is a big concern,” she admitted. “I invested $50,000 into Christmas inventory. My fear is before my bills come due [on Jan. 1], I may get shut down [by the governor] because we are not ‘essential.’ If that happens again, I don’t know if I can survive.”
Adding to Smith’s concern is the fact the next few weeks are normally the peak season for holiday sales, a time she counts on for significant revenues. Despite uncertainty about future coronavirus statistics and any resulting measures that may be taken by government officials, Smith is doing her best to keep the cash register ringing.
“We are doing our best to keep the shop afloat by utilizing social media and having good customer service,” she said. “I am constantly having to get creative to get sales. We are doing live stuff on Facebook to reach people where they are at — in their home, on the couch or at work.
“Basically, we go live on Facebook for an hour a few times a week. We show the items we have and people can message us and say, ‘I’d like to purchase that,’ so we call them and get their credit card information. We can arrange curbside pickup if they don’t want to come into the store,” Smith said.
Health restrictions invariably prevented the store from holding its annual Holiday Gala.
The event, which would normally kick off the holiday season, featured gifts for the first 100 shoppers and free food and non-alcoholic drinks. Some 1,500 customers would come to the gala over a two-day period. Sales during a single day would equal a week of sales.
“We won’t be able to hold it this year, so that will really affect our numbers.”
Josephine’s is not the only store struggling to attract customers. Several downtown businesses have closed during the pandemic. The local Chamber of Commerce does not keep statistics of the businesses that have closed this year, but Smith estimates at least five Bay Street stores have shuttered during the pandemic. The impact of closures extends beyond the owners and employees of those enterprises, she said.
“I can honestly say that right now, downtown Port Orchard feels like a ghost town. There are a lot of empty storefronts. When businesses close, it actually hurts other businesses too. If people come here and 90 percent of downtown is closed, they don’t come back again,” she sighed.
Even though local businesses are likely facing a rough patch this holiday season, the hope is they can be as resilient as Smith has been.
”We have so much riding on the store. I’ve spoken to my husband numerous times and said, ‘Maybe I should quit and get a job,’ and he’s like, ‘You know you are not going to be happy.’
“For me, what gets me out of bed every day is I have staff and vendors and an amazing community. I can’t quit on them. So I will fight the fight to make sure I can stay open as long as I can.”