Businesses finding new ways to operate amid pandemic uncertainty

LARAMIE — On Monday afternoon, a handful of shoppers browsed through racks of clothing at NU2U, 320 S. Fifth St. In the large space, it was easy for them to keep their distance from each other, one of the new rules of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Normally, spring is a busy season for the used clothing store, owner Chelsea Harder said. But University of Wyoming students have been sent home and the store has temporarily stopped accepting consignment.

For a consignment store that depends on student shoppers, that’s bad news.

“We’re facing harder times, but we’re trying to be creative to pull through it,” Harder said.

So far, Harder and her husband, Rob, have avoided changing employee hours or store hours. They’ve diverted some employees to posting items on an online marketplace for used name-brand clothing called Poshmark.

The store is also offering private shopping hours for those who wish to visit by themselves. Employees are showing off their clothing tastes on social media and offering to become personal shoppers. Any gift certificates purchased before June 1 will have no expiration date.

“We are trying to find tasks to redistribute hours and doing projects that we didn’t have people doing before,” she said.

But even with creative changes to the business model, sales have declined.

“We’re trying to keep a positive attitude, but it’s definitely very slow and everyone is really concerned about what the next six months will look like,” Harder said.

As the nation took a collective plunge into social distancing last week and a turn toward panic about COVID-19, the business community is paying a high price. On Thursday, Gov. Mark Gordon ordered a two-week closure of “public places” including coffee shops, gyms, bars, schools and daycare centers. Restaurants can remain open to offer curbside take-out or delivery.

On Friday, the state banned gatherings of 10 or more people until at least April 3. The ban doesn’t include grocery stores or retail businesses.

In Laramie, some retail businesses have closed their doors temporarily anyway. Others are trying to find new ways to conduct business amid shifting rules. For everyone, the mood is uncertain.

Trey Sherwood, executive director of Laramie Main Street Alliance, said business owners are experiencing both fear and optimism.

“For the most part, people have been willing to embrace the need to change their business model and are reacting as quickly as they can to the situation,” she said.

At D&L Music, owner Dave Rickard closed the showroom while continuing to do instrument repairs and curbside sales. The store’s audio services have gone the way of all large events.

“I feel pretty fortunate that we’re still able to do some of the things that we do,” Rickard said.

He hasn’t made any changes to staffing yet, but again, nothing is certain.

“I would resist any change like that as long as possible,” he said.

Cowgirl Yarn owner Lori Kirk is offering hours for high-risk customers from 10:30 a.m.-noon Tuesday-Friday. She’s also offering local delivery, free shipping and curbside pick-up. For a self-proclaimed “hugger,” the changes have been hard.

“It is just so quiet down here right now,” Kirk said.

She is determined to remain open because her products are perfect for quiet hours at home.

“I want people to be doing things with their hands and their heart instead of screen time,” she said.

She had her one employee work from home last week and has had to cut the employee’s hours, but she’s looking forward to better days.

“Once this is over, it will be so nice to have the store full of people and not have to worry about distance,” she said.

At the Chocolate Cellar, owner Carrie Hansen is selling pre-made Easter baskets that customers can grab and take home.

“I’m going to stay open until somebody tells me I can’t stay open,” she said.

She furloughed several part-time employees, feeling terrible about it. But like others, she’s grateful for community support.

“Every person that comes in and buys something, we really appreciate it,” she said.

Supporting local businesses

Sherwood said Laramie residents can support their favorite businesses by purchasing gift cards, using delivery or curbside pick-up and checking in on social media. Gift cards are especially important for businesses whose services don’t translate well to social distancing modes.

“You’re essentially giving them cash to keep employees, pay their bills and order supplies,” she said.

Melissa Ross, marketing and membership director for Laramie Chamber Business Alliance, said positive reviews and comments on social media are not only good for morale, but they can boost long-term revenue for recipients.

“Once we come out of this, it will translate into helping them get more sales in the end,” she said.

It may be too soon to start talking about silver linings, but Sherwood said challenging times are forcing new ways of thinking.

“We’re seeing a lot of innovation and creativity from our business community,” Sherwood said.

Ross said she hopes the Laramie community will continue to appreciate its small businesses and their unique services.

“If you want to have that in the end, it’s really important to try to keep supporting as much as you can through these tough times,” she said.