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Small Businesses Adapting Holiday Sales for Era of COVID-19

World of Mirth
“We pride ourselves on being a store where we invite people to come in and play,” says owner Thea Brown “We usually have play tables set up, we have different demo areas. It's not unusual for me to walk out onto the sales floor and see, like one of my staff laying on the floor playing with somebody.” (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)

Since 1999, the toy store World of Mirth in Carytown has been a beacon for people looking to find unique gifts for those who are hard to shop for.

“You never really know what you're going to find when you come in,” says  owner Thea Brown. “You might just find the weirdest thing you've ever seen. Like right now we have an office possum that like perches over your computer or it can sit like in your trash can. It's the weirdest thing ever. And I love it. “

But the strains of doing business after months of restrictions to stop the spread of the coronavirus are growing.

“We can do 30-35% of our business the two weeks before Christmas, depending on where Hanukkah falls. So not being able to just open the door wide open and let everybody come in, is definitely gonna dampen that,” says  Brown.

Brown applied for, received and quickly burned through a loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program. 

“We're doing what we can and we're making enough that I can pay my staff and I can pay my bills. And we're kind of chugging along,” she says.

One thing Brown misses most is seeing her staff play with customers.

“We pride ourselves on being a store where we invite people to come in and play,” she says. “We usually have play tables set up, we have different demo areas. It's not unusual for me to walk out onto the sales floor and see, like one of my staff laying on the floor playing with somebody.”

But now, due to the pandemic, she has removed these play areas, limited in-store customers to 10 at a time; And to keep her employees safe, she closed on Black Friday. 

And she has reduced her staff. 

“Normally I have a staff of 12 to 15. At this time, right now I have five,” she says. “And that's a huge, a huge shift for us, especially in a year where we've had to take on so many new responsibilities.”

These include providing  curbside pickup, local home delivery and ramping up their website to handle sales. 

Another Carytown store, Mongrel, took similar actions. They, too, updated their website to be able to sell products. 

“It’s been a process. And it’s totally new for us--we’ve never really had it before,” says Laci Combs, the general manager.

Despite COVID-19 restrictions -- including being closed for months -- the store is only two-percent down in sales.

“It’s definitely different and it’s not as many transactions, you know we’ve definitely seen a decrease in that,” she says.

Combs says with a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program and a strong customer base, the store has been able to stay afloat and even hire seasonal help.

At the same time, she says she’s hopeful about events to spur sales, such as Small Business Saturday.

“We’ve seen an increase in traffic, people talking about it, the buzz about it, signage everywhere. It’s been great,” Combs says.

Both Combs and Brown say the weeks leading up to Christmas is their busiest time of year. And not being able to have their doors wide open will definitely put a damper on sales. However, both say they are hopeful for a good season.

Ian M. Stewart previously was the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.
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