Boutique Blues
Baltimore magazine|March 2021
Five local retail shops share their COVID-19 woes.

Rob Reese was ready for a career change. After spending most of his professional life in digital marketing, he wanted to use his skills to breathe new life into a business he could call his own. It turned out Alternate Worlds, the Baltimore County comic book store where he’d been shopping for the past 10 years, was listed for sale. When Reese saw the posting, he thought, “This is perfect, this is the kind of stuff I love!”

In October of 2019, Reese closed the deal on the store. He was excited to make changes to the shop—developing a logo and branding, expanding its offerings of toys, reconfiguring displays, and building up the store’s website and social media presence—and slowly saw his business progressing. He knew there was still a lot of work left to be done in order to grow. But there was one thing he couldn’t have predicted.

“I didn’t know a pandemic was coming,” he says with a chuckle. “I wish I would have put that into the equation.”

Much like restaurants, retail stores have had to adapt on the fly since March, after local governments ordered non-essential businesses to close their doors in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 and later allowed them to reopen with capacity restrictions.

Nationwide, only 45 percent of small retailers reported that their businesses were in good health, compared with 65 percent of small manufacturers and 67 percent of professional service businesses, such as law offices or accounting firms, according to a July survey conducted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and insurer MetLife.

While that number improved slightly in a survey taken by those companies during the winter holidays, 64 percent of retailers said they thought the worst of the pandemic was still to come.

The landscape is dotted with local institutions that, faced with sharp declines in sales, decided to close for good.

Unsurprisingly, the five area retailers we spoke with saw business decrease significantly during the time they were limited to curbside pickup or online orders. But with creative ideas, a renewed push online, some new merchandise, and strong community support, several have recovered and are staying afloat as the pandemic drags on. Others are still behind. Here are their stories.

ALTERNATE WORLDS

When Reese bought the business, the number of customers who would stop in every week to pick up their regular orders of comics was about 300. That fell by roughly 100 once the pandemic hit, he says, with so many people losing their jobs or some form of income.

A decision by some major publishers in the spring to pause new releases until struggling shops could reopen ended up being a lifeline. Under ordinary circumstances, orders for new titles are placed with a distributor months in advance and stores must pay for the number of issues they requested, whether they sell them or not. At least now, Reese wouldn’t have to pay for merchandise he didn’t move. (Disclosure: Baltimore magazine publisher Stephen A. Geppi owns Diamond Comic Distributors, the largest distributor in the industry. His company halted shipments of new comics in March.)

Meanwhile, Reese turned to social media to try to drum up business, hosting livestreams to talk about new lines or to unbox items and posting giveaways and raffles. He also offered shipping deals and put together mystery boxes filled with an assortment of comics, toys, and other products.

“People still want entertainment, whether it’s something to read or a game to play or some kind of toy that goes with The Mandalorian,” he says.

While those tools have been effective, foot traffic is down about 20 to 40 percent and sales during the final months of 2020 were down 30 to 40 percent compared to the same period last year, Reese notes.

The lack of customers has been particularly felt in the upper level of the store—now a ghost town—where there are tables and chairs set up for patrons to play games.

“That was a huge source of stress for me,” Reese says. “I know I’m paying rent for all this square footage I’m not even using.”

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