As small retailers reopen around Metro Detroit, cautious shoppers begin returning

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Amanda Britcher, co-owner of Gigi’s Mode in Plymouth, loves helping customers pick out clothing and accessories. It’s something she missed while her store, like thousands of other small businesses across the state, was closed nearly three months ago when the coronavirus pandemic hit Michigan.

Small retailers have begun to reopen their doors with certain restrictions, including face masks and social distancing. “Everyone is learning a new norm,” Britcher said.

Beverly Whitby, left, and daughter Amanda Britcher, co-owners of Gigi's Mode, are ready for customers at the Plymouth women's clothing store.

Some small business owners are changing the way they operate, at least for the time being with limited days and hours. Some say they’re seeing customers return, while others say traffic is slow because their customers either don’t know they’ve reopened or they’re afraid to venture out. 

"Maybe if you’re a hair salon, people are dying to get in," said David Broner, a mentor with SCORE Detroit, which provides free small-business counseling. "If you have a bookstore, I think they’re cautious but still curious. They’re coming with their masks on."

Because Plymouth is a walkable town, Britcher said she sees people milling about. Those who do come in are looking to make a purchase instead of just browsing.

“People are excited to be out,” she said.

While the doors were closed, Britcher posted merchandise on Facebook to keep customers engaged, but she said she wouldn’t want to do online sales for the long-term. “It takes the special out of what I want to do," she said. "...I like helping people find things that fit them and what they’re looking for."

Prisca Onyejiaka, owner of  African Fashion for Less on Livernois in Detroit, is finding that shoppers returning to her store are buying more-casual clothing because they don't have parties or other events to attend.

Customers at some stores are still hesitant to venture out.

In Northville, Margene Buckhave owner of the Stampeddler Plus craft store, said a number of her customers are older and are concerned about the risks of shopping in-store. Buckhave, who is a board member of the Northville Downtown Development Authority, notes the risk of shopping in a small business would be minimal.

“Being a small business, you’re not going to be around as many people as you are in a grocery store,” she said. “We are keeping our numbers to 10. We have yet to have that many at any one time. Just kind of depends on the day.”

Buckhave has done some personal shopping for customers, but many prefer to pick out their own paper and rubber stamps the store specializes in.

“When it comes to crafting, we’re the type of people that want to touch and feel,” she said. 

And after 37 years in business, Buckhave said she has no plans to do online sales. “I prefer to have the contact with the customer to teach them and help them and that sort of thing."

Danielle Carlisle of Detroit pays for her purchases to African Fashion For Less clothing store owner Prisca Onyejiaka on Livernois in Detroit, Michigan on June 17, 2020.

Store owners are doing what they can to help customers feel comfortable.

At Julia's Treasures From the Earth in Roseville, owner Julia Staniszewski has placed signage on the window noting that masks are required for entry. Customers must knock before they are let in. Those who don't have a mask are provided one.

"I’m more concerned with people knowing that I’m open and that I am trying to make people feel comfortable coming in," she said. "That they feel safe."

Once inside, customers can browse the rocks, fossils, gems and handcrafted jewelry on display. Sneeze guards hang over a couple display cases.

Lorie Charland of Clinton Township said Julia's Treasures From the Earth is the only store she’s visited since retailers began reopening. She has purchased rings, necklaces and bracelets in the past.

Charland said she’ll feel more comfortable shopping in smaller stores. “Wear your mask and sanitize, and it’s very safe that way,” she said.

The store is among the small retailers that have reduced hours to save on operating costs. “It’s so up in the air right now ...,” Staniszewski said. “There’s not enough business to stay open all day.”

There are some businesses that have reopened with their normal hours. African Fashions for Less on Livernois in Detroit is again open six days a week.

"I’m here,” owner Prisca Onyejiaka said. “Let them come. I’m waiting for them.”

Despite maintaining the hours, Onyejiaka said business is slower than expected. In addition to older customers being concerned about coming into the store, many aren’t buying clothing because they don’t have events to attend.

“They’re saying we’ll be back next year,” she said. “This year, we have no place to go. All the plans that we have are on hold.”

Onyejiaka said her customers who have returned are buying casual dresses to wear around the house.

“Every once in a while, somebody will walk in to make sure that I don’t go out of business,” she said.

Latonya Wilson of Detroit was among the shoppers browsing at African Fashions for Less one recent weekday. She said with the exception of Walmart, the store was the first she'd entered since the start of the pandemic. 

"Me, personally, I'm not too much a fan of online shopping," she said. "I like to feel and touch and try on things. I'm glad the stores are opening back up. You can check things out for yourself."

Amanda Britcher, co-owner, Gigi's Mode, gets a clothing display ready for customers at her Plymouth retail store.

Down the street on Livernois, Rufus Bartell, owner of clothing store Simply Casual, said he’s seen an overall increase in traffic along the avenue. He said he plans to operate with shorter store hours for a couple of weeks.

Numerous businesses on Livernois suffered last year due to construction on a streetscape project that removed the median and widened sidewalks. Then the pandemic hit. Bartel said he expects things to improve.

“We’re seeing a lot of new people,” said Bartell, who is also president of the Independent Business Association of Detroit. “I think that could be commensurate to the new sidewalks which we’re finally being able to enjoy as the finishing touches are added. There’s some cautious optimism out there.”

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN