COVID-19 impacts small businesses in different ways

FORT SMITH, ARK – Have the longstanding family-owned businesses in downtown Fort Smith fared well in 2020? Depends on what they’re selling.

The owners of Tip Top Western Wear, Rik’s Shoes and Newton’s Jewelers on Garrison Avenue have each owned their businesses for at least three generations. While all have said COVID-19 has made for an unusual year, each business has experienced extreme highs or lows in revenue depending on how people in the area have chosen to spend their money.

Nationally, COVID-19 caused a sharp decline in the United States gross domestic product of almost 10% through the second quarter of 2020 amid shelter-in-place orders and widespread unemployment, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Spending habits in Fort Smith paint a different picture, however — city sales tax revenue was up from 2019 in six of the nine months through September, according to records.

But they’re not spending money on clothes — at least not at Tip Top or Rik’s, anyway.

“We’re in survival mode,” said Tip Top owner Sam Wald. “We are buying as needed, and we’re finally getting communication back with the companies.”

Tip Top, which Wald’s father opened more than 50 years ago, said his sales have already suffered the past decade at least partially because of online shopping. This dynamic of modern retail coupled with COVID-19 has been “especially tough” on his business, he said.

His customers also present a challenge during a pandemic.

“My customer base is an older clientele with children and grandchildren, and they have definitely not been real aggressive about getting out and about,” he said. “I’m blessed I’ve got them, because we’re seeing them back out and about now. It’s time to get out and take some chances.”

In response to all of the factors, Wald has scaled back his store hours. Two retirees who worked for him also quit for fear of exposure.

Wald said “no one has complained” about the scaled-back hours.

“They’re all good people, and they’re understanding that we’re just trying to survive,” he said.

Suzy Bushkuhl, whose family has owned Rik’s since 1964, has had a similar experience. She said average annual revenue of $140,000 has been cut by “at least half” during the pandemic.

“When the mall opened up, it kind of slowed us down a little bit, so we’ve had some competition out on Rogers Avenue. But nothing has slowed us down like this. Nothing,” Bushkuhl said of the Central Mall’s 1971 opening. “We’ve had some down times, but nothing like this. Nothing. It’s been unbelievable.”

Like Wald, Bushkuhl has had a man who was at retirement age quit from her store. She said his decision to either work part-time or fully retire was accelerated by COVID-19.

To make up for lost business in her store, Bushkuhl has reached out to customers to see if they would like their shoes delivered to their homes.

“(It’s) just doing that little extra — call people who are regular customers and see if there’s something they needed,” she said.

Newton’s, which sits across Garrison from Rik’s, has also utilized their delivery services during the pandemic. They’ve also sterilized the entire store — something owner Kelly Newton said they’ve always wanted to do but were prompted to do when the pandemic hit.

But the story at Newton’s is quite different than its longstanding counterparts.

“Each month since April has been at least double what it was last year, and last year was the biggest year in our history,” Newton said.

Newton, whose father opened up the original Newton’s Jewelers in McAlester a few years before the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, said the current pandemic has been the driving factor in their record sales. After the store was closed for four weeks when the pandemic ramped up in the states in March, he noticed people were getting creative in how they spent the money they would otherwise spend on leisure.

“People aren’t leaving town, they’re not taking trips, they’re not using their bonuses for anything. They have nowhere to go. Their vacations are all canceled, just like mine. They need to do something for their spouse because this person has been captured in their home with their children or something,” he said. “We still have anniversaries, we still have birthdays, we still have engagements. Everything is just personified more than it was before.”

Despite the record sales, Newton and his employees have “completely rebuilt” their shop. He also said up-front costs for personal protective equipment and following protocols were expensive.

Newton said he cares about his customers regardless of how well his store has done in 2020.

“Our main thing is we want people to be safe. We want our friends, customers, people we don’t know to be safe,” he said.

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