YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — For a business like Party On!, a party supply and costume store at the Eastwood Mall Complex’s McKinley Center in Niles, the pandemic easily could have been a death knell. In-store revenue came “to a screeching halt,” recalls Jeff Lyda, vice president of Adyl Inc., the operator of Party On and Everything Buckeyes in the main mall building.
Limits on capacity sharply curtailed functions like weddings, corporate events, fundraisers for nonprofit agencies and even family birthday parties over the past year. Further, for a few months, nonessential retail was closed, and even after it reopened capacity restrictions were put in place that remain in effect today.
That forced retailers to innovate amid the challenging economic environment imposed by the pandemic.
The Cafaro Co., which operates the Eastwood Mall Complex, Trumbull County’s largest retail center, assisted its tenants in several ways, says Joe Bell, director of corporate communications.
Non-chain or locally owned tenants “had to rely on their own resources” and the mall tried to help by improving signage and providing guidance, Bell says. “There were all kinds of questions about whether they had to limit the number of people in their stores and everything like that,” he adds.
Among the ways the Eastwood Complex helped its tenants was by establishing the Mall-to-Go curbside pickup program.
“We designated certain sets of parking spots outside several mall entrances and set up the program,” Bell says. The mall publicized which stores were participating. Patrons could contact the stores, make their selections, arrange payment and sit in their cars while someone from the store brought their merchandise to them.
The mall also created the “Emerge Stronger” tool kit, which provided resources to inform the public about their hours and other information.
One mall tenant, Tri-Healthy CBD, had been open since September 2019 when it closed for about four months, says Chris Treff, district manager.
“Word of mouth is what really has kept us going,” he says. The store gets new customers every day who say they were referred by a doctor, family member or friend.
One of the first steps the cannabidiol – or CBD – products retailer took was to introduce a delivery service for online orders, with an emphasis on catering to its most vulnerable clients, such as senior citizens, veterans and people with disabilities, Treff says. Free mail delivery also was provided.
“We didn’t want to price anyone out of relief,” he says. Additionally, the store purchased smaller items or broke down products into smaller packages to offer “a sample pack” that customers could purchase if they couldn’t afford larger volumes.
Online media played a role as well, both in terms of sales and interacting with people. Tri-Healthy does weekly live streams with employees. Owner Paul Kaldy also uploads daily videos, during which he talks to customers and answers questions.
Many of the store’s regulars have shifted to online purchases for the sake of convenience, Treff says.
Outside the mall complex, Trumbull County retailers similarly innovated to survive the pandemic.
“Business is good,” says Nick Giancola, who with his sister, Erica Lewis, co-owns Spruce Home Décor & Gift Store in Niles and Boardman. “We’re very blessed as a small business to go through the pandemic and see an increase in our business.”
In general, home decor and gift sales have gone “through the roof,” he points out.
While Spruce was lucky to be in a business segment that experienced growth, “We had to create in order to grow,” Giancola says.
Spruce had a basic website but no online sales platform. The business did have experience with social media marketing, and even before the pandemic shutdown, it began doing live sales on Facebook. “This really opened the door for people to shop with us virtually,” Giancola says. Free door-to-door delivery was offered for a time for customers within 15 miles of either store.
“That really helped us. We still offer delivery but we have a fee,” he says. There also was “a learning curve” for shipping products across the country, Giancola says.
More than a year later, online sales are “catching on and seeing incredible growth,” even with the reopening of the Niles and Boardman brick-and-mortar stores, he says. Spruce is shipping to states as far away as California and Alaska, he reports.
“We learned some things along the way,” Giancola says. Mall shopping by the customer base of the Niles store is centered on the weekend, so it is now open Friday through Sunday. Niles serves as the shipping site and the setting for Facebook sales, which have increased to three times weekly.
Spruce also has a smartphone app that people can use to watch the live sales and order products.
At Andrews Shopping Center in Howland Township, sales last year at the variety store were up an unprecedented 24% from 2019.
“Fortunately, we were deemed essential, being a hardware store,” owner Harmon Andrews says.
The store benefited from traditionally drawing an older clientele. “A lot of the older people suspected that there would be less people in here than in Lowe’s or Home Depot, so they felt safe here,” Andrews says.
Early in the pandemic, people had to wait outside in lines because of store capacity limits. Andrews says his customers were confident that they could get inside his store sooner than at a big-box retailer.
Sales for the first three months of 2021 are up from the same period last year, before the impact of the pandemic was felt, Andrews reports.
Like other retailers, Andrews adopted measures – cleaning counters, masking and instituting curbside pickup service – that he anticipates will continue after the pandemic.
Technology will continue to be incorporated into the Party On and Everything Buckeyes operations to make access to products more effective, Lyda says.
“The plan is to continue to add more of our available inventory on our website. The main reason is to be in front of our local potential customers while they are doing their research,” he says. “We plan on offering the widest selection of quality goods and services in both of our stores.”
While people will be happy when mask mandates go away, Cafaro’s Bell expects many people will “maintain that sort of social distancing thing.”
Curbside pickup is “going to stick around,” he predicts.
Pictured at top: Chris Treff says Tri-Healthy CBD introduced delivery service for online orders.