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Before this year, Michelle Emmons never imagined that she would sell vintage items via a livestream on Facebook.

But that’s what Emmons did when she had to shut down her downtown Yakima shop, Vintage Me, due to the COVID-19 pandemic for several months earlier this year.

Emmons was able to reopen a few months ago, but the weekly livestreams have continued.

“I have a handful of people who love it,” Emmons said. “They like to sit on their couch and have their glass of wine.”

The November and December holiday season is a time that typically brings in significant sales for retailers, big and small. Yakima County retailers generated $568.8 million in taxable retail sales during the fourth quarter of 2019, about 27.2% of the nearly $2.1 billion of the county’s sales for the entire year.

Yakima Valley small-business owners are working hard to not only end 2020 on a positive note but to provide customers a sense of normalcy.

“It’s almost that I need to try harder to make it more special because we need it,” Emmons said.

Shopping early

Indeed, Emmons has heard from shoppers who are putting up Christmas decorations earlier than usual.

“People went from Halloween to Christmas,” she said. “They’re excited to buy gifts. They need to sense something feeling normal.”

About 43% of those surveyed by the National Retail Federation, a nationwide retail trade organization, said they plan to start their holiday shopping in November. Only 11% said they would wait until December.

Jennifer Schweppe, owner of English Country Market in Yakima, said she’s started to see early shoppers. Some want to avoid the big crowds typical in the weeks leading up to Christmas, while others want to make sure the items they want to buy are in stock.

Ashley Morse, the shop’s social media manager, said products have not been as reliably available this year and it’s unlikely the shop can restock if items run out mid-season.

Schweppe said she’s offering a full stock of products for the holiday season — and anticipating a good season.

“I’m optimistic,” she said. “I feel now, more than ever, people want to shop locally.”

According to the National Retail Federation survey, 23% of those surveyed said they plan to shop at a small business. Not surprisingly, an even more significant percentage — 60% — plan to shop online.

Schweppe’s got that covered, too: While the shop closed for several months due to COVID-19 restrictions, she had Morse stay on so they could work on boosting their online presence. That included improving the shop’s online store, which helped garner additional sales.

“It enabled people to shop local easily,” Schweppe said.

Two years ago, Yakima’s Ship Shop at the Westpark Shopping Center started selling gift items. Now the shop stocks product from more than 40 local and regional businesses, including 12 wineries and three breweries.

That section turned out to be a valuable revenue generator during the pandemic, said owner Nicholas Kline.

As shoppers saw the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on local businesses, it has increased the urgency to support them, Kline said. He plans to push the “shop local” mantra throughout the holiday season.

“It’s changing the mindset of how people shop,” he said.

Shopping safely

COVID-19 cases have started to rise again in Yakima County and throughout the state and nation. Retailers are doing what they can to attract shoppers, including finding new ways to meet customers where they are.

“This is going to be the most unpredictable Christmas we’ve ever had,” Kline said. “It comes down to making people safe.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to the cancellation of events that often bring shoppers to local businesses.

In any other year, Sonya Anderson can rely on good traffic for her Sunnyside shoe shop, Taylor’d Footwear, during the city’s lighted holiday parade.

But the parade’s been canceled, and now Anderson is looking for new ways to bring shoppers into her shop. She’s co-organizing a small event with another small-business owner in December.

Anderson said she’s focused on just getting through the year rather than making any sales goals.

“I would just like to reach out to the consumer and say, ‘Shop small, in your hometown,’” Anderson said. “Keep America alive. The big corporations are doing fine; it’s the small businesses that are closing.”

Emmons, the owner of Vintage Me, said she’s also trying to be creative with promotions with the cancellation of downtown Yakima events that would bring shoppers to her door. She’s looking to the Facebook livestreams to promote new items in stock. She’s also looking into whether she can bring in a television to stream a performance of “The Nutcracker” while shoppers are in the store.

Emmons said typically she goes to Seattle to watch “The Nutcracker” in person with her children and grandchildren. That won’t be possible this year.

“What I’m trying to do is create a space that is, first of all, safe, and second, brings joy,” she said.

Schweppe, the English Country Market owner, said people’s need for social distance may provide an advantage for small businesses as they can serve as an alternative to more crowded shopping malls and big box stores.

She’s continued to offer several shopping options, such as online orders and private in-store appointments, to give shoppers peace of mind.

“It’s a time for more focused and personal service,” she said.