June 19, 2021

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How Denver’s Resilient Business Owners Are Navigating the Pandemic

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In a recent special edition of the Resilient Retail podcast, we spoke with a handful of retail store owners in Denver, Colorado, to hear about how they’ve managed to stay resilient despite a year of ups and downs.

Why Denver?

We wanted to zoom in and focus on this particular city as the pandemic hit its economy on multiple fronts. In fact, so far the pandemic has resulted in more than $1 billion in sales lost there, according to The Denver Post.

As one of the hardest hit cities in Colorado, Denver is an example of an emerging trend in the COVID-19 economy: Cities that historically relied on commuters, tourists, business travel, and shoppers from satellite communities are suffering.

  • With fewer people passing through Denver, fewer dollars are being spent. 
  • Tourism has dried up, and the city’s convention business disappeared.
  • Cultural facilities and sporting venues shut down, removing the sales those visits provided. 
  • Thousands of office workers who populated the Central Business District and Cherry Creek remain hunkered down at home, not buying lunches, shopping, or partaking in happy hours after work.

As a result, due to this massive blow to the city’s sales tax revenue, the city is now facing a budget crisis worse than what was seen during the Great Depression.

But despite all of these challenges, Denver is a shining example of what it means to be resilient. The local community is now stepping up and supporting its retail store owners more than ever.

Get the State of Local Retail in Denver Report

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Denver’s retail environment

Let’s start with some background on the Denver retail environment.

Denver is home to about 716,000 residents, and offers perks like lower cost of living, easier commutes, and a neighborhood-oriented community.

If you look at Denver’s downtown retail scene, most of the stores you’ll find there are local businesses. These retail store owners cluster together, rely on foot traffic to generate revenue, and focus on building audiences of loyal local supporters. 

This means store owners have an opportunity to foster strong, loyal customer bases. Of the retailers we spoke with, it seems those loyal customer bases have been a saving grace during a year of closures, limited operational capacity, and uncertainty. 

Denver cares about the culture it’s created. There’s a reason why people want to live in Denver, and the community doesn’t take that for granted. When it’s time to step up and make sure the cool stuff stays around…the people do it. —Curt Peterson, Smith + Canon Ice Cream Co.

What happened when Denver’s non-essential retail stores had to close up shop

Around March 15, retailers across Denver were forced to close their doors when Governor Jared Polis mandated all non-essential businesses to do so.

This was a tough decision, and for retailers who depended on foot traffic to their physical storefronts, this curveball came with the reality that they’d have to find a way to stay afloat in the interim, not knowing how long that would last.

For local plant store owner Paige Briscoe of ReRoot Gardens, it was an especially difficult pill to swallow.

After running her business from a shared retail space with other brands, 2020 was the year she decided to move into a standalone retail store that she could design and brand from the ground up. Unfortunately, she only got to experience one month there before having to close as a non-essential business.

It was like eating a crumb of a big giant cookie you really want to eat. But we had to close and make those tough decisions because we wanted to set a good example. —Paige Briscoe, ReRoot Gardens

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For other store owners, not being able to use their physical retail store spaces for community-focused activities presented a major hurdle. 

This was especially true for Jamie Jennings of Fancy Tiger Crafts: 70% of her store’s business came through in-person classes. Having to close her doors meant a major operational disruption.

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The great pivot: how retailers responded 

So what did these retailers do in the face of so much uncertainty during the pandemic?

In the spirit of resilience, they pivoted and found creative ways to evolve their businesses. Many of them turned to selling online. Fancy Tiger Crafts, for example, leveraged its existing Shopify store and encouraged local shoppers to make purchases online.

We had a decent amount of our inventory available online, and that completely saved us. And in those first couple of months, we actually grew our sales numbers. —Jamie Jennings, Fancy Tiger Crafts

For ReRoot Gardens, selling online presented a major logistical challenge: shipping fragile plants is no easy task. As a result, they encouraged shoppers to order online and to use the local pickup option to create a safer, more contactless option for order fulfillment.

We started shipping plants, and that was really hard because we lost, like, thirty-two boxes of plants. And the shipping cost itself was so high…I just wasn’t prepared for that either. Thank goodness we had, like, a little bit of savings from that one month we were open that I was able to chip away at. —Paige Briscoe, ReRoot Gardens

Curt Peterson of Smith + Canon Ice Cream Co. took a data-centric approach to try and estimate what kind of sales he needed to mitigate risk during the toughest months. He also started thinking of creative fulfillment options (like curbside pickup and call ahead to-go orders.)

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” he said.

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Living examples of retail resilience

When I asked these retailers what they think it means to be resilient, their answers were varied, but all of them still touched on core themes of what resilience truly means.

For some, it had a lot to do with understanding and persevering. For others, it was about being flexible, staying agile, and believing in the network of loyal brand supporters they’d worked hard to build up over the years.

Resilience, to me, means to be able to get stretched out of form and still be able to take back your form again. So it means: How normal are you after everything becomes abnormal? —Curt Peterson, Smith + Canon Ice Cream Co.

Another retail store owner mentioned having the ability to adapt and stay nimble as well as being able to bounce back from obstacles presented during a challenging time.

Another said resilience means acting as a beacon of hope for the people around you.

All of these individuals are living proof of resilience, and today, thanks to this quality, their businesses are on the rebound, despite an extremely difficult and scary year.

Listen to our special Denver editions of the Resilient Retail podcast:

Resilient Retail is available to stream on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and YouTube.

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