Excelsior, Minnesota pivots on Small Business Saturday during pandemic

Richard Reeve
Updated: November 29, 2020 08:51 AM
Created: November 29, 2020 08:45 AM

The sounds of a saxophone warbling jazzy Christmas tunes echoed up and down Water Street. Shoppers strolled along the sidewalks, virtually all were wearing face masks. 

And stores blinked with neon signs saying “open.”

“Everyone’s supporting beautifully today,” said antique dealer Elizabeth Flom. “The crowd is a little low right now, but it’s definitely still hustling and bustling. I think everyone just wants to be out.” 

It was Small Business Saturday in Excelsior, Minnesota, unlike any other in the midst of a pandemic. 

“It’s definitely different during covid,” said Cole Wilson, of Excelsior. “But I feel everyone is respecting it and wearing masks everywhere.” 
 
 Also everywhere: sale signs--- and precautions. 

“Yeah, I think that $14.50, yup,” Erin Martin said to a customer. 

Martin is now in charge of her family-run women’s clothing store, where she wants her customers to be safe. 

"My dad started it 49 years ago,” she says. "We make sure we have sanitizer at the counter, at the door, we sanitize the pens after each customer leaves, we wipe the counters down.” 

Martin also showed us how she steam-cleans clothes after a customer tries them on. Dressing rooms are also sanitized and masks are required, of course, and there’s a 50% capacity limit, which is 45 people, Martin says. 

All of this, while she and other small businesses are competing against pandemic-fueled e-commerce. 

"I hope that people really realize that shopping online is going to hurt the small businesses,” she explains. “You don't want these small businesses to go away, because then you'll have ghost towns." 
 
Between March and May, stores here were forced to close because of safety concerns. 
 
 "Everything got cancelled immediately after the shutdown happened,” recalls Mike Wilson, Martin’s husband. 

Wilson’s barbeque stand, North Star BBQ, opened for business in March. The stand helped to keep the store afloat--- and much more during the lockdown. 

“It’s really been a Godsend,” Wilson exclaims. “It’s really offset a lot of the revenue that we’ve had… when we went in the shutdown for twelve weeks, we still had to pay for all the inventory we carried at the store. This fell in at the perfect time."

Martin says she totally understands the necessity of wearing masks. But she says it makes it a challenge to bond with customers; after all, how do you know if a shopper likes an item if you can’t see them smile? 

“That’s probably been the toughest part,” she says. “Not having that personal part of it.” 

Still, concerns about the pandemic are having an effect. Martin says she normally sees around one-thousand customers on Small Business Saturday. This year, there’s been only a quarter of that.

But she’s trying to remain hopeful for her family, her business, and her customers. 

"By them supporting a small business, you are literally putting a kid through soccer practice,” Martin says quietly. “It means so much."

She and Wilson say they hope both their business will survive into 2021, the 50th anniversary of their store opening. 

Meanwhile, restaurants here, like everywhere in Minnesota, are closed to indoor dining until December 4th. 

“I don’t know if it’s a fear thing that people are looking at right now, with social distancing, but even though it’s not directly related to retail, we see the effects of that,” Wilson says. “It really doesn’t help the businesses in town because you don’t have that crowd of people having lunch and dinner, and able to eat inside.”  

But there’s a special bond in this town, even during these times, that goes beyond the holiday spirit. 

Consumers are feeling it, too. 

“We were kind of driving around earlier, and we were like, wow, Excelsior is just packed,” says Sophie Barnes, from Minnetonka. “If you’re going to spend your money, it’s better to do it with a local business and put that back in your city.” 


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