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Helping Denver’s Microbusinesses

A new campaign attempts to increase foot visitation and counteract the COVID trend of internet purchases.

Erika Righter was concerned even in the early days of the pandemic that her loyal client base would shift its buying patterns drastically. She started a crowdfunding campaign in April 2020 to pay artists to paint slogans on the boarded-up windows around her South Broadway gift shop, Hope Tank, to remind Denverites that the shops were still open and needed their support.

“The idea was actually to design it so that people don’t forget about us,” Righter told us last year, adding that she wanted to “make something beautiful and put some money in people’s pockets.”

She’s still fighting to ensure that COVID-19’s waves of change don’t sweep away the city’s tiniest businesses.

Righter has recently used grant money from Denver Human Services to pay more artists in order to re-energize local businesses. She’s commissioned bright nylon signs that read “GO BIG FOR SMALL BIZ,” and she’s shifted her focus away from Broadway this time. The initiative is a cooperation with Access Gallery, which provides possibilities in the arts to people with impairments.

Righter’s advocacy has spread beyond Broadway. She hopes that individuals from all over the metro, if not further afield, will support the effort.

“The root story is my personal frustration with feeling unheard in the brick and mortar healing process,” she explained to us. “What it came down to was that I went to several smaller towns in Colorado and saw how supportive they were of small companies.”

She’s concerned that the city’s rehabilitation efforts have been disproportionately centered on dining, and that there hasn’t been enough help for small businesses like hers. The new banner campaign is in response to her concern, which is prompted by her perception that customer behavior altered dramatically during lockdowns.

“I believe individuals have grown accustomed to working from home and ordering everything online,” she explained. “I believe that people’s habits in their communities have altered.”

While tourist foot traffic has increased in recent months, in-person transactions are still below pre-pandemic levels. She is concerned that local customers who used to stop by as they strolled around her neighborhood will no longer do so.

It’s possible that the reality isn’t as dramatic, but it’s difficult to say.

Mark Matthews is a vice president at the National Retail Federation who specializes in market research. He claims that before COVID, online ordering accounted for around 12% of all retail transactions in the country. Last year, that figure jumped to 19 percent.

“Since then, there’s been a rather continuous drop-off,” he informed us over the phone. “Foot traffic isn’t back to where it was, but it’s improving steadily.”

Online-only transactions have dropped to around 14 percent, however trends are becoming increasingly difficult to follow. One issue is that novel modes of transaction, such as people ordering online and picking up things at curbsides, are difficult to categorize. This type of transaction is known as a “omni channel” transaction, and while it’s becoming a more common occurrence in company, it doesn’t fit neatly into traditional sales reporting methods.

While overall data suggests that things are returning to normal in the retail industry, Matthews believes that small firms, such as Righter, will have had a harder time keeping up since “it is a little more challenging to interact online than some of the larger stores.”

Debra Johnson, co-owner of MATTER, a book and print shop near Coors Field, said walk-in business has been slow until the previous week or so. She explained that because of global supply-chain concerns, many are concerned that holiday gifts may be scarce, therefore they’re arriving sooner than normal this year. While the current rush has been enjoyable, she is also considering competition from online behemoths. She said she was pleased to get a banner from Righter since it serves as a reminder to customers that her firm would not exist without their support.

“Jeff Bezos has all the toys, discounts, and free shipping that isn’t free,” she remarked. “It’s a truth that you can go to Amazon and get a book for less than we pay wholesale.” So you have to want to support your local independent bookstore on purpose.”

Another issue for urban firms, according to Matthews, is the persistent lack of clients who live outside of their areas. Prior to the pandemic, there was a big drive to make items for those who had to commute to work in cities. He told us that this has flipped, with white-collar professionals staying at home. It’s great news for suburban businesses, but it’s not so great for people like Righter.

The Denver chapter of the Small Business Administration is hopeful that the holiday season will encourage customers to return to local retailers.
In 2020, several firms switched to online ordering, which delivered “long-term benefits” to their bottom lines, according to Colorado SBA head Frances Padilla’s op-ed, which will be published this week. She does acknowledge, however, that the online drive “may present long-term issues for owners going back to full-time brick-and-mortar stores,” and that her office realizes that metro-area retail operations may still require assistance.

To that end, Padilla advised company owners to call her office if they require assistance. The Small Business Administration is also working hard to reengage customers with local businesses on Small Business Saturday, the weekend following Black Friday.

In her op-ed, she added, “Please join me in making at least one purchase from a locally owned small business in your city or town.” “These company owners are truly community super stars who deserve our support, gratitude, and respect.”

While Righter appreciates the holiday boost, she believes that focusing on a single shopping day overlooks the wider picture. She’s hoping that her banner campaign will set an example for city leaders and business groups as she seeks to persuade them to promote hyper-local shopping all year.

“Hopefully, this is something that the community can emphasize,” she said. “Because it’s so important to our survival, I’m attempting to change the behavior.”