Alabama’s Stay-at-Home order ended on April 30 at 5 p.m. Angela Atchison’s rent for her store, Pause; Boutique, was due on May 1.
The boutique opened its doors on April 30 at 5:01 p.m., just one minute after Gov. Kay Ivey’s new Safer-at-Home order kicked in. For Atchison, that was a green light.
“I had to,” Atchison said. “It wasn’t just disregarding health, it was literally a matter of needing to stay in business…It was nice for me to try and get that extra push to be able to make my bills.”
Under the new order, retail shops in Tuscaloosa, including stores deemed non-essential, can be open to the public. Stores can only allow up to 50% of the normal occupancy, and store employees must regularly disinfect commonly used items and surfaces.
For Tuscaloosa retail store owners, the decision on whether to open their businesses balances the need to give their customers a safe shopping experience and keep their doors open.
Atchison said she had a good response from customers on her opening night, and that after a slow first weekend back open, business was starting to pick back up.
“There’s still people that are cautious, but there’s also a lot of people ready to get out of their house,” she said.
During the weeks where non-essential retail stores could not be open, stores transitioned to focus on online sales. Atchison said that her store being closed pushed her to set up an online store to purchase items.
Ernest & Hadley Booksellers, an independent bookstore in downtown Tuscaloosa, will not be reopening until May 25 due to both health concerns surrounding COVID-19 and a good response from customers shopping with the store online. However, the store is continuing curbside pickup and shipping orders.
Ernest & Hadley store manager Avery Leopard said that the bookstore’s online sales have increased by over 400% compared to the last three fiscal quarters.
Leopard said that she understood why other Tuscaloosa businesses have reopened, but that since Ernest and Hadley’s process of having online orders and curbside pickup is working for the store, that is what the store will stick to.
“It just felt too soon for us [to reopen],” Leopard said. “Part of the fun part of purchasing books is touching them and looking at the back covers. With everything that’s been going on, we decided to wait and see.”
Charles Spurlin, owner of The Shirt Shop, opened his store to the public on May 1 after being closed for about six weeks. While The Shirt Shop was doing business online and orders were placed and fulfilled by the store every day while it was closed to the public, Spurlin said that he is “excited to have the doors open and be doing business again.”
In addition to getting to know his customers over the years, Spurlin is relying on goods and services The Shirt Shop provides to bring customers in, including in-house alterations, brand selection and inventory selection.
“In especially a store like this, you’ve got to give people a reason to come to you and buy,” Spurlin said.
Store owners and employees are still taking precautions when interacting with customers. While patrons at The Shirt Shop and Pause; Boutique are not required to wear masks to shop in the stores, both stores have complimentary masks available for any customer who wants one. Spurlin said The Shirt Shop has also been making masks out of available shirt fabrics that are included as gifts with purchases.
Atchison said that she has been disinfecting commonly used surfaces and areas, including the countertops, dressing rooms and door handles. In addition, she is keeping clothing that customers try on from the sales floor for at least 24 hours, staying primarily behind the counter to give customers space, and limiting the number of customers in her store to a maximum of 10 customers at a time — an occupancy smaller than the 50% occupancy allowed by the state of Alabama.
When Ernest & Hadley reopens, the store will not have more than about 10 people inside at a time. Leopard said that customers will be required to wear a mask in the store, but that there will be free masks available to those who enter the store without one. While the store is utilizing curbside pickup, the packaging is disinfected, and Leopard said she is washing her hands about every 10 minutes.
While retail stores can now be open, they are opening at a time where much of the student population has been out of town since the middle of March and many students will not be returning to Tuscaloosa until the beginning of the fall semester. The cancellation of spring commencement services meant a loss in business for stores who would normally serve a crowd of families celebrating their student’s accomplishments.
“In Tuscaloosa, a town this small, when 38,000 people leave town, you can feel it if you’re in the retail business,” Spurlin said.
However, all three store owners pointed to local support as a sign of hope during this time.
“Our customer base has been unbelievable,” Leopard said.
Spurlin has been calling loyal customers of The Shirt Shop he has gotten to know over the four decades the store has been in business to let them know that his store was now open. The list of customers’ and friends’ contact information has grown over the years to take up over a dozen pages in his legal pad.
“West Alabama, Tuscaloosa and Northport have always supported The Shirt Shop,” Spurlin said.
He is also proud that The Shirt Shop was able to help out customers who reached out in need of support. Spurlin posted his personal phone number online so that customers who needed help could reach out to him.
“That’s what the retail business is all about,” Spurlin said. “We help people.”
Atchison has been receiving texts and emails from her customers who wanted to make sure she felt supported.
“I had a ton of people who reached out wanting to know what I had here for them to purchase,” Atchison said.
But, even with the support from her regulars, starting to sell items online and reopening, and adjusting inventory to fit a non-student crowd, Atchison expects she’ll have to weather the storm a little while longer.
“I’m not expecting good business until football season,” Atchison said. “As far as the walk-ins and the way things were, I don’t think it will be the same way until fall comes back, and it comes back completely open. That’s the only way I see it recovering.”