Evanston merchants are starting their Holiday retail push earlier than usual, thanks to the financial impact of COVID-19.

“It definitely needs to be earlier,” says Jaime Leonardi, owner of Stumble and Relish, on Chicago Avenue. If there’s another wave of the coronavirus, “we could get shut down again,” she adds. Business in April was just 30% of normal. “That thought is still lingering.”

Leonardi’s store, which specializes in locally made items such as jewelry, cards and candles, is among the 250 businesses in the Main-Dempster Mile shopping area.

The director of the district’s marketing organization, Katherine Gotsick, says merchants usually start gearing up for the Christmas/Hanukkah shopping season on Nov. 1. But this year, that effort is already under way.

“For the vast majority of my businesses,” Gotsick says, “they’re just trying to figure out how to get month to month” State coronavirus regulations shut stores like Stumble and Relish for a month earlier this year, and there are still limits on how many people can be inside at once. Restaurants and bars are also struggling due to indoor capacity limits and public unwillingness to dine or drink inside.

To help increase business, Main-Dempster Mile has created a game called Lockdown Monopoly, with local stores and eateries taking the place of Atlantic City streets on a Monopoly-like board.

Large versions of the board are posted in some businesses, but the game is played by downloading a card. Buy something at a Main-Dempster business (in person or online), bring the receipts to a designated site on Small Business Saturday, Nov. 28, and win prizes.

Downtown Evanston, the marketing organization for downtown businesses, starts its own shopping and dining drive later this month, with a theme of “Make Lemonade.”

“We’ve been handed a year full of lemons, but downtown Evanston is turning them into lemonade,” says a news release.

There will be lemon-themed activities, performances, art installations, and business doors with lemon stickers. There will also be a downtown scavenger hunt, with prizes, “all while contributing to a community ‘shop local’ campaign.”

A kick-off takes place at Five and Dime, 1026 Davis St., on Sunday, Oct. 18. The “Make Lemonade” drive runs through Nov. 15.

Wherever a store is located, the coronavirus remains a challenge. “It’s totally out of our control,” says Gotsick. She says merchants who have built a strong, personal relationship with customers are more likely to survive tough times than a store where you simply walk in, make a purchase, and walk out without any connection to the owner, manager, or employee.

Leonardi says her business is now back to about 75% of what it used to be, thanks in part to sales on her website. She’s noticed an interesting change due to the pandemic. Because people are staying home, “candle sales went through the roof,” she says. She’s also sold “a ton of puzzles,” something Stumble and Relish did not even carry before the pandemic.

Evanston is the kind of place which supports local merchants. Those merchants are now holding their collective breaths and hoping the virus will not flare up again during the prime shopping season. “The Holidays,” Leonardi says, “that’s the Super Bowl for us.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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