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With online orders, curbside pickup, and window shopping, how Capitol Hill retailers are facing ‘phased’ reopening

Doghouse Leathers is seeing business at about 25% of normal as its sales have moved to online and pick-up — “mostly local customers needing essential supplies” (Image: @creativitythatconnects)

By Lena Friedman, CHS Intern

Big releases are still happening at Likelihood

Since Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement of a phased approach to reopening Washington’s economy, Capitol Hill retailers have been busily planning — and putting some of those new plans into motion. Many neighborhood retailers are now opening up for curbside pickup as part of Phase 1 and are making plans for what the “new normal” in-store shopping will look like when brick and mortar stores can reopen to the public.

Washington’s Phase 2, which will allow for in-store shopping with certain restrictions, is expected to go into effect early June although no date has been specified. This will mark the closest return to business as usual for Washington retailers since their announced closure as part of Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” mandate on March 23.

Fashion and shoe store Likelihood on 11th Ave and E Union is figuring out where it fits into Washington’s phased approach. The store has been busy coming up with a plan to reopen their storefront after moving business online about a week before non-essential businesses were ordered to shut down.

“We are a specialty retailer built on personal and individual partnerships with our customers, and a lot of our product is considered touch and feel, so the majority of our business before this was in-store” co-owner Daniel Carlson said. “We started Likelihood built around the experience of the store versus virtually online.”

The company has been doing solely online orders since then and is preparing to reopen the store once the state permits.

Carlson said that being able to do curbside pickup works well for their business model so that they can get their shoe launches quickly to customers.

“We have sneaker launches that are pretty immediate, so when that launch goes — like a Jordan or a Yeezy — we have to release that day and we focus our releases on our local audience,” Carlson said.

The Likelihood team is busy scoping out how Washington’s phased approach will affect the shop’s business model going forward. “We’re now getting ready to open and preparing ourselves to get back to full capacity with the store open and our web sales going,” Carlson said.

Safe Start — Phase 1

Phase 1 timing:

Washington state is currently in Phase 1, with construction and other essential activities underway. The additions such as outdoor activities and additional sales and retail activities begin Tuesday, May 5. When the state moves to Phase 2, all components of Phase 1 will continue.

Phase 1 includes:

Phase 1 builds upon recent decisions made around re-opening some activities, including construction activity (allowed as of April 29) and outdoor activities such as fishing, hunting, playing golf and some park access, which Inslee announced last week.

Phase 1 also adds (as of May 5):

  • Drive-in spiritual services with one household per vehicle
  • Auto/RV/Boat/ORV sales
  • Retail open for curb-side pick-up orders only
  • Car washes
  • Landscaping
  • Some pet services (not including grooming)
  • Essential travel and limited non-essential travel to engage in Phase 1 activities is permitted.

Safe Start Phase 2:

When COVID-19 disease burden is low and decreasing and the four capabilities (health care system readiness; testing capacity and availability; case and contact investigations; and ability to protect high-risk populations) are met, the governor will issue an order for the state to move into Phase 2.

As noted above, each phase will be at least three weeks, data and metrics will determine when the state can move from one phase to another.

Phase 2 includes:

All components of Phase 1 will carry into the start of Phase 2, which will include outdoor activities in small groups with people from outside one’s household, as well as limited non-essential travel within proximity of one’s home.

Additional modifications to restrictions in Phase 2 affecting business will include:

  • Remaining manufacturing and construction phases

  • Restaurants/taverns less than 50% capacity/table size no larger than 5 people and no bar area seating

  • Hair and nail salons

  • Retail (in-store purchases allowed with restrictions)

  • Real estate

  • Professional services/office-based businesses (telework remains strongly encouraged)

  • In-home/domestic services (i.e., nannies, housecleaning)

  • Pet grooming

  • Essential travel and limited non-essential travel to engage in Phase 1 and Phase 2 activities is permitted.

More on what’s in Phase 1 and beyond here

So far, the list of confirmed permanent retail closures around Capitol Hill is surprisingly short. Most businesses are still sorting out the damage and waiting to see how federal loan programs will shake out for them. One example of a shop calling it quits is E Pike consignment store Le Frock which is now emptied and shuttered after nearly 30 years of Capitol Hill business. More will likely follow. Some like Twice Sold Tales have been boosted by the amazing generosity and loyalty of the customers they have served. Others are trying new things.

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10th Ave’s Elliott Bay Book Company closed its physical doors a week before the shutdown was announced, opting for curbside pickup and home deliveries in order to be as safe as possible. Since the state mandate, the book shop has done solely online delivery orders.

“It’s a complete shift to our business model — we’re a brick and mortar store, we love the customer interaction, the one-on-one,” general manager Tracy Taylor said. “We love having people in and browsing, so it’s been a real learning curve.”

The company has worked to figure out how to process online orders efficiently and maintain some customer interaction, including by slipping book recommendations into orders being mailed out. “We’ve sort of been trying to come up with fun and creative ways to do what we love doing,” Taylor said.

With Phase 1 in place, Elliott Bay is hoping to resume curbside pickup any day now. The business is working on bringing back some of the staff that were laid off when the store was shuttered, so that in-store stock gets replenished in time for curbside pickup.

According to Taylor, Elliott Bay is already underway planning for how the layout of the store will change with Phase 2 — including monitoring the number of customers in-store at one time, removing most in-store seating and rearranging the front counter.

Retrofit Home says its storefront continues to provide an important service — window shopping

Nearby, furniture and home decor shop Retrofit Home on E Pike and 11th Ave is also been adjusting to the changes that moving business primarily online brings. According to co-owner Jon Milazzo, the shutting down of in-store business prompted the company to put a lot of energy into revamping their online presence.

“The silver lining of the whole thing is that we have time that we didn’t have before to develop our website,” Milazzo said.

One way Retrofit has stayed afloat since the shutdown is by having customers “window shop” items that are available for purchase online.

“We’re doing everything we can possibly think of to stay engaged, but you have your bottom line of money you have to make to pay your Capitol Hill rent in any given month,” Milazzo said. “We’re making some money but we’re not making the money we were making when we were open.”

According to Milazzo, Phase 1 will not significantly affect their current online and window shopping business model. For this reason Milazzo and the Retrofit team are already looking ahead to Phase 2.

“Fortunately our store is pretty big and so we can control social distancing more easily than smaller stores,” she said. “We’ll have to instruct everybody to look with their eyes and not with their hands — it’s a whole different world, so we’re trying to wrap our heads around that and plan for what that’s going to look like here hopefully beginning of June.”

Business co-owner Sarah Randall Williams of the avant-garde fashion and gift shop Ritual on E Pike also does not foresee Phase 1 will make much of a difference for business. Being a brick and mortar shop with specialized items, Randall said that their store is designed for customers to be able to peruse and try on pieces in-store.

“We’re not doing [curbside pickup] yet mostly because I think that all of my orders have still been local people, and if they can get something delivered to their home then I think that seems to be everybody’s preference,” Williams said. “We sell really higher-end avant-garde fashion, tarot cards and crystals so I’m interested to see as well if there will be demand for that sort of thing.”

Williams believes the shop’s customer base has been relatively loyal during this time. “I mean we are running a slashed price model right now, everything is 40% off,” she said. “I think that has sort of helped us keep our heads above water so far.”

Although the store has been functioning solely online since the shut down, Williams and business partner William Rheinhardt are planning to roll out curbside pickup during the latter end of May and are steadily planning for what the storefront will look like when it can reopen.

“Both he and I are going to do everything that we can to maintain this business and to be as flexible as we need to be to have some sort of working model that will keep Ritual alive and humming because this is our dream,” she said.

Another owner whose passion for keeping his business endeavours alive shines through is Brandon Waterman, co-founder of 11th Ave’s Good Weather Bicycle & Cafe and Good in Seattle. With Good Weather’s business as a cafe and bike shop affected, Waterman started Good in Seattle, a weekly delivery box of local goods and products that released its first box early April. Recent treats include local ale, bread, chocolate and records.

“I had a pretty good hunch that by combining a bunch of small local businesses and giving people an easy way to support that community that there would be a pretty good amount of people to do it,” Waterman said.

Waterman implemented curbside pickup into the project’s business model starting this week but thinks that many customers will still prefer receiving orders via delivery at this time. “We put that as an option on our website and I think there’s maybe three out of 60 who selected pickup versus delivery, so we’ll see how those numbers change over the future weeks,” said Waterman. When businesses are allowed to reopen, he envisions transitioning the boxes into more of a pickup rather than delivery setup for the long term.

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Another shop figuring out how to reach its niche market under current limitations is Doghouse Leathers on E Pike. The leather and kink shop co-owned by Jeff Henness has functioned solely online since the storefront restrictions began.

“We’re doing a lot of web store orders with our local customers, volume is probably 25% of our old business when we had the store open,” Henness said, as business is “mostly local customers needing essential supplies.”

The shop is set to begin curbside pickup today, a date that marks its first anniversary since moving into a larger space.

“Our customer base has been very loyal,” Henness said over email. “We have received lots of notes of thanks and support for offering the web service during the crisis.”

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