Detroit — Dozens of shoppers perused Christmas decorations and trinkets on display inside and outside DeVries & Co.’s shop as Eastern Market’s weekly Saturday shopping drew locals and tourists alike.
“All of the vendors are so grateful,” said Derek Sales, 47, of Warren, who had picked up some sausage, a wreath and produce at the market and was looking at a snowman lantern at DeVries for just $11. “It’s important to support small businesses. You know that they were the ones who made that wreath. I’m supporting the work they are doing, and am getting something of value in return.”
Small business owners say they have been hit hard by the novel coronavirus pandemic and related shutdowns, as many customers have turned to online shopping. But they remain optimistic on Small Business Saturday as a fervent “buy local” mentality and cool, sunny weather brought many like Sales into stores.
“Things are going great, and I think that has a lot to do with the weather,” said Megan Lewis, manager of the DeVries cheese, specialty foods and gifts shop on Market Street. “A lot of people want to support small business.”
But a sharp dip was expected in brick-and-mortar shopping, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. A survey reported just 53% of customers going out during the Thanksgiving weekend planned to do so on Saturday compared to 73% in 2019.
The Michigan Retailers Association, whose membership is made mostly of small- and medium-sized businesses, is encouraging Michigan residents to make purchases from at least three local retailers this holiday season. A study it commissioned showed Michiganians spend $18.5 billion annually online and outside the state.
“Michigan retailers have worked very hard over the last eight months to meet safety guidelines enacted by state and local health officials to help stop the spread of COVID-19,” the organization’s CEO, William Hallan, said in a statement, “and the data shows that contracting the virus in a retail environment remains very low thanks to their efforts.”
Black Friday had not been as strong as previous years, Lewis and other business owners said. There were fewer tourists in town as indoor dining in Michigan was banned by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended against traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday.
But not everyone stayed away: Carlo Venditelli, 26, of Charlotte, North Carolina, had tried Detroit City Distillery’s liquor at his aunt’s house and had to pick up a bottle of the bourbon with its “classic and smoky flavor” to ship home.
“It’s my go-to,” he said while taste testing other options with his aunt, Lisa Cendittelli, 53, of Plymouth, at the outdoor kiosk set up outside the distillery on Riopelle.
Shortly before, Norman Bomer, 63, of Grosse Pointe, had purchased a new Bailey of Hollywood Tino at Henry the Hatter to match the new gray jacket his wife had bought him.
“I went to three other places before, and I couldn’t find one,” Bomer said. “But I’ve been coming here for more than 30 years. My dad and grandfather both used to come here.”
That loyal customer base has helped to keep up sales during the pandemic since the store reopened in late May, co-owner Joe Renkiewciz said. A few customers waited outside the door when the store on Riopelle opened Saturday morning.
“I came back from Florida in mid-April, and it looked like there had been a fire drill,” co-owner Paul Wasserman said. “Nothing had changed except there was a stack of invoices on my desk that I didn’t know how we were going to pay. If someone had offered me a contract that would have said I would get half of the revenue I normally do, I would have signed.”
The owners removed the winter merchandise and restocked for summer. Renkiewcz’s wife made recommendations for keeping customers safe such as clear plastic head dust covers that customers must wear to try on a hat.
“We have a lot of long-time customers, who just have continued to come out,” Renkiewcz said.
Other stores have had to get creative. Katrina Iott, an organic tomato grower in Petersburg, purchased Beau Bien Fine Foods on Riopelle in January weeks before the pandemic arrived to Michigan.
“It’s been extremely difficult,” Iott said. “I’m thankful for the Detroiters who come every Saturday to do their shopping at the market, but you don’t see people making their annual trip to Eastern Market. Or we used to get a lot of business from people before Lions, Tigers and Red Wings games.”
The shop was offering 20% off jams, chutneys, mustards and “Kat-Chup” ketchup alternatives in honor of Small Business Saturday, but COVID-19 has restricted the store’s ability to offer tastings. Iott has bolstered her online presence, even offering free shipping on the meat preserves and condiments. She also joined TikTok, a video-based social media network, to tell her story.
“I’m 52 years old and joined TikTok,” she chuckled. “I definitely never would have thought I would be doing that before.”
Down the street, Thumbprint Gallery was offering a free South African-made Gracious Coast candle with each purchase of products made by fair-trade artisans who are committed to paying fair wages, investing in their communities and are respectful of the environment.
The gallery has been open for only two-and-a-half years, and construction on Riopelle last year dampened foot traffic: “We don’t know what a typical year is like,” owner Becky Riess said.
But she appreciates the support she has received from her neighbors who have recommended her shop to customers: “There’s no better place to be a small business owner than in Eastern Market,” she said.
Back at DeVries, customers likewise agreed that the neighborhood was a great place to support small businesses, too.
“We know how hard it can be to own a small business, so we wanted to support them,” said Liz Ware, 56, of Grosse Pointe who owns a seasonal hotel on Mackinac Island. “They are the backbone of our economy.”