Black Friday could have been Bleak Friday. But it wasn’t. Small Business Saturday could have been Small Amount of Business Saturday. But it wasn’t. And as for Cyber Monday, well, with so many customers shopping online due to the pandemic, every day has been Cyber Monday since mid-March.

That’s the feeling of some Evanston small business owners about the most unusual holiday shopping season they’ve ever faced.

“I had no idea what to expect,” said Nina Barrett, owner of the Bookends and Beginnings bookstore downtown. But, she said, “We had a fabulous day on Black Friday, and a fabulous day on Small Business Saturday as well.”

Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday used to mean holiday sales and deals in stores. The sales and deals are still there, but the way to get them has changed.

“People are avoiding in-person shopping,” Barrett said, because of concerns over the coronavirus. Online shopping has been growing.

“People seem to be shopping earlier because of all the unknowns,” said Becky Sebert, owner of the Becky and Me toy store downtown. “It’s more online than ever,” she added.

Sebert said Black Friday was “not super strong,” because that shopping day is usually for large retailers and malls. But Small Business Saturday, which was started by American Express a dozen years ago as a way of promoting local stores, “was consistently good” this year, she said.

The coronavirus pandemic, and the shift to online shopping, has impacted what retailers are purchasing. Alejandra Escalante, co-owner of Accents Plus women’s clothing store downtown, said “a constant thought is what we’re buying. We’re very cautious.” Instead of buying, say, seven different styles, now her store will only buy four, just to be safe.

And while Accents Plus always had some items for sale in the Black Friday/Small Business Saturday period, now everything is 30% off. “Inventory is moving slowly,” she said. “We need incentives to move it. That’s how COVID has hurt us.”

COVID has hurt small businesses another way as well. Barrett said customers are seeing mixed messages. On the one hand, they’re encouraged to “shop locally,” to help save small businesses. But on the other hand, those customers “may not feel guilty about shopping on Amazon” because it’s an easy way to buy things without leaving the house.

“Amazon has strip-mined the shopping culture and has destroyed it,” Barrett said.

Of course, some customers did shop in person this weekend. In fact, Bookends and Beginnings had a line out the door. But again, COVID played a role. The line was small, and was a way to limit the number of shoppers inside due to State of Illinois coronavirus-related restrictions.

And with fewer shoppers in the store, that also means fewer impulse purchases. Barrett said people who come in for a specific book will likely browse and buy other things. “That’s the whole fun of holiday shopping as well as a physical bookstore,” she said.

Sebert said Becky and me “loses the sale of little fun stuff” which in-person customers would have bought in a normal year. Her store is doing curbside pickup, delivery and online shopping only.

At Evanston Stitchworks, in the Main/Dempster area, owner Amalia Malos had her Cyber Monday this past Thursday and Friday and “did well.” In-person shopping on Small Business Saturday was down slightly compared to last year, Malos said, but Thanksgiving week itself was up if you count both in-person and online.

When the pandemic hit in mid-March, Malos moved quickly to adapt. Besides selling fabric and yarn, her store had a variety of in-person sewing and knitting classes. Those classes are now virtual, but instead of comprising 30% of her business, Malos says the classes are only 2%.

However, online sales are up, and at a time when many people are at home looking for something to do, crafts like knitting can fill the bill.

Early on, Malos developed an at-home kit for making masks. She used a Go Fund Me account to raise money, and gave the masks away to anyone who would pay the shipping. Now 5,000 masks later, she’s “exhausted” from now being the only one working at Stitchworks, but is confident for the future. “If I can weather this storm, I’ll be okay,” she said.

One thing which does help Evanston businesses is Evanston itself, a community inclined to support small, local stores. Katherine Gotsick, director of the Main/Dempster Mile marketing organization, said she was “super encouraged” by the number of posts she saw on the Facebook site “Support Evanston Shops, Salons, and Studios,” people who made a “calculated effort” to shop locally on Small Business Saturday. “We are really fortunate to have an amazingly supportive community,” she said.

But despite a better than expected weekend, small businesses in Evanston and elsewhere still face huge challenges in a dismal economy.

Black Friday and Small Business Saturday were “all right” for Accents Plus, but “people are shopping very differently,” said Escalante. The store just started an online presence, which has actually helped drive in-person customers, who see items on the website and come in to try them on.

At Becky and Me, Sebert says, “We’re holding our breaths” to see what December brings. If it brings another lockdown, that, said Barrett at Bookends and Beginnings, “would be a complete disaster.”

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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