LOS ANGELES — Puzzles and dollhouses have been the hot sellers so far this holiday season at the Miracle Mile Toy Hall on Wilshire Blvd., despite the store being open just five hours each week. Like so many other businesses this year, the popular independent toy store has been scrambling to stay afloat during the pandemic, offering FaceTime shopping, browsing by appointment, and curbside pickup.
“I have my number on the door, and people can call me,” said store manager Christina Mullin, who is expanding the Toy Hall’s in-store hours over the holidays in the hopes of drumming up business. “We love our customers, and they’ve been very loyal to us, but we just need to see more of them before the end of the year.”
In 2019, during the annual post-Thanksgiving shopping event known as Small Business Saturday, the Miracle Mile Toy Hall tripled its normal sales.
This year? "There’s nothing normal about this time, so I don’t know what to expect,” Mullin said.
Like thousands of other independent retail stores in L.A. County, Small Business Saturday is the unofficial kickoff to their busiest sales season, when customers are encouraged to “shop small” and help their local communities. Since American Express founded the event in 2010, consumers have collectively spent $120 billion supporting it.
For its 11th year, taking place during a worsening pandemic and downshifting economy, Small Business Saturday is taking on even more importance. Sixty-two percent of U.S. small businesses said they need to see consumer spending return to pre-COVID levels by the end of 2020 in order to stay in business, according to American Express.
It won't be easy. Under new rules the L.A. County Public Health Department imposed November 20, retail stores are limited to 25% of their maximum allowed indoor occupancy through at least December 16. And if the number of COVID cases and hospitalizations increases, the county could impose a Safer at Home Order that would only allow essential and emergency workers and those securing essential services to leave their homes.
“It’s a difficult time,” said Ron Fong, executive director of the Asian Pacific Islander Small Business Program in Los Angeles. “What used to be Cyber Monday is going to be a lot of what happens on Friday and Saturday. I don’t know if we’re going to see a lot of people going out to shop.”
Fong’s organization works with 2,500 entrepreneurs in L.A. each year, providing training and counseling for new business owners. One of the most effective tools for small businesses this holiday shopping season, he said, will be social media that helps with marketing, giving customers options to purchase things in advance online and allowing for contactless pickup or shipping.
For customers who want to support Small Business Saturday, Fong suggests they stay local if shopping in person because “small businesses tend to employ local people who spend in their own communities.” Customers who aren’t comfortable shopping in person can still support independent retailers, he said, by purchasing from those same local businesses online.
Due to the pandemic, 51% of consumers plan to switch their gift buying to mostly online this year, according to the NPD Group’s holiday purchase intentions study released earlier this month.
Giant Robot, a Japanese toy and gift store on Sawtelle Blvd., switched to online shopping only in March. In August, owner Eric Nakamura added live streams to show and sell products, from vinyl toys and graphic mugs to sushi-shaped sponges and cat yoga magnets. Even so, sales are down 50% this year, he said.
So in August, Nakamura added outdoor shopping to leverage the foot traffic from the area’s bustling outdoor dining scene. Every Friday from 4 to 11 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 10 p.m., Giant Robot sets up two canopies with six tables of product.
“For a while, it looked like normal pre-COVID crowds with people hanging out and walking around,” said Nakamura, who has been in business 19 years. Still, he’s worried how his sales will be affected now that L.A. County has prohibited outdoor dining through at least mid-December.
“With that gone, I don’t know how the canopy will do. It’s a big question mark moving forward,” he said, especially for this weekend’s trio of big holiday sales events: Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday.
“In the past, Small Business Saturday, we always did well,” Nakamura said. “I don’t have any specific expectations for this year, like some crazy deluge of people, but they are being really positive and thinking about it more than ever because all of us need to support the smalls as much as we can. The bigs are fine. The smalls like us, we need the support.”