When Governor Carney announced interim measures on Tuesday to allow some local businesses to re-open under modified conditions, Peter Kate boutique owner Sissy Aerenson didn’t see any reason to celebrate.
The new, “pre-Phase 1” measure allows clothing, sporting goods, department stores, and general merchandise retailers to offer curbside shopping to customers.
The same day Carney announced that hair salons and barbershops could open their doors to a limited number of customers.
“I am so blown away by this,” said Sissy Aerenson. “I am incredibly happy to be able to be officially open. I am, however, very disappointed in the fact that it’s just for curbside. I think the whole way this has been handled has been somewhat arbitrary.”
Aerenson’s business is located in the Fairfax Shopping Center, where several other small business retailers remained closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her fashions and accessories are available on her store’s website and on Instagram (@shoppeterkate).
Since Governor Carney’s stay-at-home order went into effect on March 11th, local retailers had to shut their doors. But larger retailers which also have food offerings as a component of their business have been allowed to remain open.
“The fact that someone can go to Target or Walmart and get some of the same things they can get here – we are a much smaller space where we can control who’s here and be aware of the situation with cleanliness.
“We are very consistent in wiping down doorknobs and dressing rooms, and keypads. And because we have an ability to control who’s in our store, it’s very upsetting to me. I think they put the small businesses at a tremendous disadvantage,” said Aerenson.
“The same person can go to Target and be around hundreds of people. And here, if you give parameters and rules, a small business will be a much safer place for people to be, and to shop,” she added.
Aerenson said she is grateful some customers have reached out by phone or over the website to enquire about new arrivals. Like other local business owners, Aerenson has employed her son to deliver items to customers for a contactless transaction.
Morgan’s of Delaware has been in business for 40 years. Owner Martha Morgan says she has dealt with several disruptions since first opening in 1979.
She has moved her business four times and launched her women’s fashion business just as interest rates skyrocketed to 20%. “Being in business for 40 years we’ve dealt with a lot of upheavals,” she said.
Now located at 222 Delaware Avenue in Wilmington next to the PNC Bank building and Brew HaHa!, Morgan says the fact that her business is downtown at a time when all but essential workers are staying home means few will likely drop by for curbside pickups.
Morgan would have preferred that retailers could take customers by appointment or a limited number at any given time inside the store.
“I think it’s an improvement, but clients need to come into the store. We would be happy to meet by appointment. I expect change by Monday,” said Morgan, who is hopeful Governor Carney will revise the interim shopping measure.
“I love our clients and miss them. We anyone that comes in to get a red carpet experience,” said Morgan. “It’s all about building customer relationships inside our store. We have never had a website. So we’ve had to move to doing things differently in this environment,” she said.
Just this week Morgan launched a Shopify account, which shows pictures of dresses and separates as well as their prices. She hopes customers will find her on Instagram (@morgansofdelaware), where they can bounce over to the Shopify platform.
But she knows there are limits to her potential to reach customers online. “Even for other retailers who were far along with e-commerce, online sales just aren’t the majority of sales. It’s still less than 30% for most fashion retailers,” she says.
Morgan says she has participated in the small business Town Hall Zoom meetings, and she knows that other businesses are voicing many of the same concerns she has. “I think the state is listening to the concerns of small businesses that are being intensely made. They’ve listened to the discrepancies and unfairness,” she said.
Steve and Margaret Smith sell classic men’s and women’s fashions at the Wilmington Country Store, which first opened its doors in Greenville in 1952. Eighteen years ago the Smiths opened Ellie Boutique next door with trendier and special occasion fashions for women.
While Smith optimistic that the curbside measure is a first step, she is disappointed she still can’t welcome customers into her stores.
“It’s a nice gesture but it’s kind of difficult because how are customers supposed to see what’s in the store? How are they supposed to know what we have available to show them unless it’s by email blasts or Facebook or Instagram? We’re trying to always reach more customers, but it’s just difficult,” said Smith.
Smith says not knowing when her shops will be officially allowed to open is perhaps one of the bigger problems she and her industry face.
“There are too many unknowns. So that’s kind of where it’s frightening. It’s just a situation where we either need to be open, or we need to be closed. This in-between, with the curbside is not really helpful — it’s a drop in the bucket,” she said.
Smith has drafted a letter to her customers saying she will do her best to satisfy their needs with some great new seasonal merchandise. “We’re just going make a go of it, and keep going and try to get some information out in front of the customer,” said Smith.
Wilmington Country Store and Ellie Boutique are located in the Greenville Crossing Shopping Center, near BBC Tavern and Grill and Walgreens. Their fashions can also be found on Instagram (@elle_boutique and @wilmingtoncountrystore) and purchased on the web for curbside pickup.
Martha Morgan has had to learn social media and digital marketing on a dime. But she takes the long approach to the pandemic and is certain her business will pull through. “We are believers and survivors. And we are offering a free face mask with every purchase!”