Elaine Fredriksson raised four children, working in the medical field alongside her husband, a physician, before finally realizing her lifelong dream: She opened Flor De Sol Boutique in Eagle, Idaho this spring. But two days after Flor De Sol opened — exactly when Fredriksson planned a grand opening party — Idaho joined much of the United States in shutting down all non-essential businesses to slow the spread of coronavirus, including boutiques.
Retail has been one of the hardest-hit sectors in the COVID-fueled recession, and boutiques in particular have taken a devastating blow. “I am scared. My heart and soul is in this place,” lamented Fredriksson, who envisioned her 2,500-square-foot shop as a destination where mothers and daughters could shop for everything from blue jeans to candles. “I thought, ‘Okay, now I have to start making money because I’ve invested everything in this.’”
So like many retailers, Fredriksson has pivoted to the avenues available right now: online sales and pandemic-era essentials like face masks. Flor De Sol had launched its website in 2017, and Fredriksson is filling orders through curbside pickup and delivery, though “sales are way down — almost nonexistent,” she said. To respond to the current moment, Fredriksson also commissioned several designers to create fashionable face masks, which have been a hit on the store’s Instagram page.
Tamara Moore is another retailer whose latest fashion is stylish masks. “I saw a lot of awkward, weird masks,” said Moore, who owns Wanderlust Boutique in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and is donating mask proceeds to a local COVID relief fund. “So I’m using beautiful, fun prints for masks so pretty you’ll want to wear one.”
Like her industry colleagues, Moore has had to be resourceful. With the 1,100-square-foot store shuttered, Wanderlust is relying on website orders, offering free local delivery and nationwide shipping. “I do my Facebook, my Instagram and my website myself, so I don’t have to pay anyone for marketing or SEO,” explained Moore. She’s experienced with flexible business models: Moore originally started the business seven years in a mobile trailer, and when Wanderlust moved into the 1,100-square-foot storefront last June, “it was a success from day one,” she recalled.
In a tony resort town, Wanderlust did well by offering stylish, merchandise under $100 and profiting from volume. But volume is way down: Wanderlust earns approximately 80 percent of its revenue from tourism, which has virtually evaporated as much of the nation remains under lockdown. Even if restrictions are lifted, the 2020 summer travel seasons looks decidedly iffy.
To make matters worse, like independent retailers everywhere, Moore has had difficulty obtaining emergency financial assistance through small business programs, where funds ran out before many could benefit. “Everyone’s forgotten about the boutiques,” noted Fredriksson, who also had difficulty applying for disaster loans. “I hear all about helping out the bars, restaurants and salons, but nobody talks about us.”
The crisis has crippled even long-established retailers like Brenner’s Fine Clothing & Gifts, a 53-year-old souvenir shop in Hoonah, Alaska. The multigenerational family business does virtually all of its business from cruise ships that dock at the tiny island town — population 800 — and with cruises halted indefinitely, Manager Stephanie Brenner is mentally writing off the 2020 season.
“Our business is 100 percent dependent on those cruise ships,” said Brenner. The shop opens seasonally during peak cruising months, and based on the information she is getting from industry and public health authorities, Brenner expects not to open the store at all in 2020. That means cancelling orders from the local artisans Brenner’s typically employs to craft jewelry and knife sets with Alaskan mammoth ivory and mammoth tooth — the kind of high-end souvenirs that have kept Brenner’s profitable over the decades.
Brenner’s is the kind of boutique that cannot easily shift to online or local-delivery business. Stephanie Brenner explained that the tiny island population is largely unemployed as a result of the crisis, and in any case, it’s not a demographic inclined to buy $40 souvenir “Alaska” sweatshirts. Geographically remote online shoppers are unlikely to be searching for Alaska souvenirs, either.
Yet as devastating as this scenario seems, the Brenners discovered the hard way that their insurance company doesn’t consider a government-mandated pandemic closure as a “business interruption” that would qualify the store for lost income reimbursement. Small business assistance loans have also proven elusive. “This will devastate us,” said Brenner with a sigh.
Elsewhere in the country, boutique owners are scrambling to shift in-store business online. “We’re encouraging people to go to the website,” said Sierra Maxwell, who has owned Bella Blue Boutique in Caldwell, Idaho for 10 years. The store had an online business before the shutdown, but even with customers unable to shop any other way, sales are down overall. “You can’t even compare,” Maxwell reflected.
In Boise, Natalie Durham allows some customers to shop privately by appointment at Piece Unique Clothing Co. & Shoez. She is working to upgrade the store’s existing website, which was previously “unshoppable,” meaning customers could peruse images but not purchase online. Now Durham is scrambling to deliver and ship merchandise whenever possible. “Business is terrible,” she said. “But we just have to keep going.”
That spirit animates boutique owners who are scrambling to keep bills paid and hoping that better days lie ahead. They envision a time, probably later this year, when customers finally emerge from their houses, eager to shop for new looks now that other people can see them. “We’re extremely hopeful to have some kind of a season,” said Stephanie Brenner. “We really plan to weather the storm. I think 2021 will be back to normal, and when Americans go back to traveling, I hope they’ll be supporting the industries and businesses right here in this country.”