'It will be wait and see' Local businesses adjusting to limitations ahead of Small Business Saturday

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DOWNERS GROVE – Kathy Burns said the Christmas shopping rush already has started as people get a head start on the holidays, but like most stores, Thanksgiving weekend is typically a busy one for her business, My Special Toy Store in Downers Grove.

This year, though, she's not certain what to expect.

My Special Toy Store, like other retail stores, is operating at no more than 25% capacity as part of statewide restrictions put in place Nov. 20 in response to surging COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

That means Burns' store at 5137 Main St. can have about 10-12 customers in the store at a time. Masks are required.

The limitations, and the potential that fewer family members could be traveling from out of town to fill the downtown streets and stores, are variables that Burns and other business owners aren't used to for Small Business Saturday, which is Nov. 28.

"It's difficult to predict how busy it will be this weekend," said Burns, who started her seventh year in business this month. "A lot of times on this particular weekend, there's a lot of visitors in town for the weekend, aunts and uncles and grandparents that want to get their shopping done. But I'm not sure how many people are traveling this weekend. It will be wait and see. Hopefully it will be very busy. We're ready for it."

My Special Toy Store, which specializes in games, puzzles, educational toys and more, was closed for three months in the spring because of the pandemic, which Burns said "really set us back." She said they've recovered nicely since reopening in June, and business lately is going well.

"I don't think we'll be able to make our numbers from last year, but I think we're making a good recovery," Burns said. "If you erase the three months we were closed and just do a comparison month by month, we're ahead of where we were last year."

Burns said her store hasn't really had issues with the capacity restriction, aside from one customer Nov. 21 who was intolerant about waiting outside.

She said the store always has at least two employees at the front working the registers and counters, with a third employee roaming the store to monitor how many customers are in the business.

"Most everybody is understanding and they know why we have to limit the customers," Burns said. "It's been very easy to manage."

Burns said the restrictions aren't ideal, but it's the nature of the business these days.

"It's something that we're not happy that we have to do. It's only with hesitation that we have to do it, but we have to follow the state guidelines, just like the restaurants," Burns said. "We'd like to have as many customers come in as we can. To be realistic, we have to acknowledge that we may bring in less revenue this weekend than we typically do, but hopefully we'd like to exceed. It's such an unknown."

Amy Brown, who owns Evelyn Jane and Sweet Jane boutiques in Downers Grove and Evelyn on Second in Elmhurst, which specialize in women's accessories and home decor with jewelry and candles, said that she's seen a slowdown in foot traffic in the last week, but has seen an increase in online orders and phone sales. Her stores were closed for about 10 weeks in the spring, but noticed a big increase in traffic over the summer and fall where they recouped much of the lost business.

The two Downers Grove stores now can accomodate about four customers, the Elmhurst location six, with the new restrictions.

"Luckily our business hasn't decreased, we're just seeing it coming in different ways," Brown said. "People are enthusiastic about supporting local, which we're grateful for. Luckily the weather has been cooperating and customers are very aware of the new rules, so for the most part they can self-regulate."

Brown has seen an uptick in early Christmas shopping, which she attributes in part to the uncertainty of the pandemic and regulations.

Her shops are getting a head start on holiday week promotions, kicking them off them on Wednesday and running them through Sunday. The promotions are also available on the Evelyn Jane Company website.

"With the case numbers rising and people thinking about another shutdown, people have been very proactive about starting their shopping," Brown said. "It's something to check off their list, especially going into a month where it's not as easy to get out to a brick and mortar store."

Evelyn Jane Company's stores offer a gift concierge service where customers can call and a sales associate will help them choose gifts, allowing them to shop from home without having to go to the stores' website. It's also offering free delivery to local customers within the towns they're located in. Brown estimated that 25% of her stores' online business is pickup, whether curbside or people coming in.

Customers can also set up a private shopping appointment outside of business hours if they choose to do so.

"For the customers that do come out to support us, we are really going to streamline our checkout process, so it's a little more speedy than usual, in and out," said Brown, nothing that her stores are adhering to all the health guidelines including requriing face coverings. "We do expect a lot of support on small business weekend. We have provided a lot of different ways to shop and space it out. We don't want to have to turn any people anyway."

My Special Toy Store doesn't do online ordering in the sense of a website, but does bring in business outside of standard walk-ins.

Burns sends out a holiday catalogue to 7,000 customers through a specialty organization. She's doing more and more curbside pickup with items ordered over the phone and gift-wrapped. There is a staging area in the back of the store for customers to pick up orders.

Burns said she has a huge customer base in Downers Grove, but also draws from the surrounding suburbs.

Two hot items this Christmas are an Air Fort round tent for children and adults and a large indoor golf set that is new on the market.

Burns also has plenty of science kits, arts and crafts – the whole gamut.

The store offers free gift wrapping year-round.

"What sets us apart from other stores, we don't carry merchandise that is at Target or Wal-Mart, we deal with specialty companies from around the country," Burns said. "Our customers know the merchandise. We are very pleased to be a part of a successful downtown area."