The summer season shook out better than expected for business owners in the Boothbay and Wiscasset regions. Last spring, most just wanted to come out of it able to pay their rent and bills, and get through the winter. The summer’s weather was gorgeous and that always helps. For towns dependent on summer residents and visitors, businesses saw more business than anticipated in a pandemic.
Despite COVID-19, people came – summer residents, tourists and Mainers statewide. They expressed their concern for the regions’ small businesses and showed their support by shopping.
“I have to say, truly, people came. We even saw locals who had never been in the store before. They visited and they were happy to be here,” said Betty Jeanne Maddocks, owner of Janson’s Clothing Store. “We had an amazing summer.”
Sherman’s Book Stores owner Jeff Curtis said once the hotels and other lodging establishments were permitted to open, business was much better than anticipated in the spring. “The people have been so happy to support us and that really helped. I think the state did an amazing job keeping the number of (COVID-19) cases down. People who came into the store were thankful about the wearing masks policy; it made them feel more comfortable. It just worked out amazingly well.”
Dianne Gimbel echoed Curtis’ observations. She said she and husband Mark expected to be down 50% this season. They cut back on the stock, employed less staff and really dug in while preparing for the worst.
“We opened in late May. In June locals were coming in to show their support for us. July was better than expected when people started coming and staying in town. By October things had flattened out,” said Gimbel. “We are OK. We survived and we’re really grateful. I worked seven days a week all season. We were all in it to the end; Mark was busy restocking the shelves ...
“We found that with less staff and adjusted hours, everyone was more invested in the businesses and we worked as an incredible team,” Gimbel added. “We’re going into 2021 cautiously optimistic.”
Sherman’s was up and running with the year-round staff and few part-timers. Curtis also decided to stick with winter hours, closing at 6 p.m. instead of 10. “We are dedicated to being open seven days a week, year-round to keep our staff employed.”
Curtis also noted how supportive and great the people were telling staff how much they wanted to help.
In late spring, Curtis was able to cancel some of the merchandise he had ordered. And he was able to order in July and August. It all turned out to not be a problem.
“I never realized a lot of costs can be adjusted and you play with them depending on the level of biz. You can be way off in sales, but it’s OK because your inventory is less,” Curtis said. “I think we have enough to get us through the winter; you have to be like a squirrel around here in the summers, and I think we have enough nuts. We learned a lot about what we need this year. The joke around the office is, we need to figure out what we did so we can do it again in a good year.”
Although Sarah Logan said House Of Logan and The Village Store lost some of the traditional summer purchases of dress up clothing due to the cancellations of weddings and other events, other sections did well.
“We were pleased with how housewares, kids’ accessories, and casual clothing moved,” Logan said. “Traffic picked up in July and August. A lot of families were in town. We saw a lot of group shoppers and many of our regular customers came back.” Logan attributed much of the mid and late summer traffic to the great weather and the later foliage season. People were out and about.
Just as Sherman’s website helped Curtis’ business stay afloat last spring after the business was ordered to close with other retail shops in the “non-essential” category, having a website proved valuable to Don and Lianna Kingsbury at Two Salty Dogs.
When the couple opened the business, they decided to do two things: Create a website from which customers could buy pet supplies and carry dog food – the lines that had not been carried in grocery store chains. That website “went off the rails in March” with locals and customers from away using it for supplies, treats, toys, clothing … “A lot more than food,” Kingsbury said. “We also began offering curbside service and free delivery. We’re also advertising our Early Bird discounts on the website, so our summer people can take advantage of the sales,” Kingsbury said. “It was a far better season than we could have predicted.
Like most stores, Two Salty Dogs operated with less staff: Kingsbury worked with two part-timers rather than five. The Kingsburys also stopped advertising in periodicals including Maine Magazine and some newspapers.
In Wiscasset, Erika Soule, owner of Rock Paper Scissors, reported an “OK summer, but better than expected.” Soule went from three employees to one this season and cut back from seven days a week to five. She plans to stick to that for now; it all depends on the numbers.
Soule said this fall has also been busier than expected. “I think people were feeling more comfortable traveling and venturing into shops. Also, I’ve seen a large number of customers coming in solely to support local businesses because they want shops to continue to exist.”
She found that, for the most part, people were compliant with the COVID-19 rules. “It’s hard to ask people to wait outside when the shop is at capacity (four people),” said Soule. “But it’s necessary in order to remain open.”
BIRCH co-owner Greg Uthoff said although May and June were a bit slower, July through October were very active. At BIRCH only four people at a time were permitted and they were all very good about checking to see when it was OK for them to go inside. Uthoff said he could count the number of people who would not wear a mask on one hand, and each one was asked to leave the store.
Uthoff attributes the support the business receives from return customers to the relationships built before 2020.
“We have a customer from Tulsa, Oklahoma who has come to Maine annually and has purchased quite a bit over the years,” said Uthoff. “In March she called us to say she couldn’t come this year, but she still wanted to buy some things. We took her on a visual tour with a camera and she ordered from us.”
“You have to take one day at a time,” said Logan. “Be cautious and be innovative.”