SMB Profile: Looking Forward To Christmas In Connecticut

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Like all the towns on the Connecticut shoreline, Guilford is centered around a village green. On its north side stands a picture-postcard, white-steepled church. To the east is another church and spire, this one made of carved granite taken from the local quarries. On its western and southern borders stand rows of small businesses, from an independent hardware store to several women’s fashion boutiques, coffee shops and a few small restaurants.

On March 24, on what would have usually been a busy day at the start of spring, the state ordered all nonessential retail shops on the green to shut down, as the pandemic crept its way north from New York City and south from Boston.

Paul Listro, co-owner of Breakwater Books, remembers the day well.

“We had just gotten in three new shelves to place in the middle of the store,” he said. “And we had just unpacked boxes to fill them, because we were trying to expand the store’s inventory. I remember being really disappointed that no one was going to see the shelves or the books for a long time.”

The classics and science-fiction sections were hardly the biggest casualty of the Guilford’s Green’s tight small business community. That day was the start of a harrowing three-month retail lockdown. None of the stores that started the year have gone out of business as of yet, and all of them are trying to use what was by all accounts a brisk summer trade to build some momentum for the holiday season. At a time when none of its businesses were deemed “essential,” members of the Guilford Merchants Association were forced to dust off its nascent eCommerce chops and push through the pandemic.

“We had absolutely nothing for eCommerce,” noted Paula Jean Burns, owner of Rock~Paper~Sista’s, a nautical-themed gift shop. “The site I built quickly on my own wasn’t pretty. But that was our salvation, because people still had birthdays. They still had anniversaries. They wanted a way to recognize people while the pandemic was happening. But you know what? It comes back to the point of community. People were buying things because they wanted to support us. There was such a sense of community and wanting people to be okay. That it was remarkable.”

Breakwater Books was equally unprepared, but had some help. The American Booksellers Association provides all of its members with templates and tech assistance to build eCommerce sites. Listro said it quickly became a lifeline for his store’s sales and for the community as a whole. In short order, he and his partner Richard Parent found that they were spending their days answering emails, giving book recommendations over the phone and running orders out to a hastily assembled curbside pickup location.

Both Burns and Listro identify as small business owners, and have had some limited success with programs offered by the state or federal government. Neither filed for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) because they had no full-time employees. Breakwater received a small disaster relief grant from the Small Business Association (SBA). Most of the support and best practices they’ve been able to access have come from their own informal merchant groups.

One of the topics they’re more than willing to discuss is marketing. Breakwater’s owners have only been with the store since October 2019. Listro said his experience during the summer showed him that local traffic from Guilford and the surrounding shoreline towns was driving most of the sales. His current marketing plan is to get outside of the shoreline area and attract more shoppers to Breakwater’s eCommerce site, and to advertise in nearby New Haven media to stretch its in-store traffic.

Burns has been more focused on social media. She’s betting that a consistent presence there will keep her audience of current and prospective shoppers informed, engaged and ready to shop for the holidays.

“I’ve taken the position of ‘go big or go home,'” Burns said. “I haven’t come this far to not have a good Christmas. But I think it’s going to be different. I think we’re going to see a lot of people going online to see what I have, and then either purchasing online or coming in to find something very specific. Browsing in a store just doesn’t really work in the current situation, especially when I can only have five people in here. So, it requires me to be out there physically to let people know who I am, what our niche is and what we have in the shop.”

Listro is a bit more cautious.

“Sales are showing that our work with the store has been recognized, and we’re doing really good days at this point in terms of sales,” he noted. “Some days look like what we hope the holidays will look like. There are all kinds of things that are going to change the way Christmas looks this year. But if people are buying books now, I hope they’ll be buying books in December.”

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