Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Local News

Guilford Business Community Goes into 2021 with Hope, But Facing Significant Challenges

The year 2020 was an unprecedented challenge for the town as a whole, but for those running small businesses in Guilford, the pandemic created a uniquely difficult set of circumstances requiring a constant spirit of adaptation and cooperation.

While the struggle is far from over, those involved in the business community say that the year has proved that local businesses are more vital than ever, and the relationships they forge with each other and with customers are what has really carried many of them this far.

“I just love the ingenuity and the entrepreneurship that our businesses have—they’re amazing,” said former Shoreline Chamber of Commerce president and current Economic Development Coordinator Sheri Cote.

From the earliest days when restaurants and shops were uncertain about whether they would be allowed to stay open on a week-to-week basis all the way through this holiday season as many restaurants found new ways to serve customers and retail shops fine-tuned online shopping options and curbside pickup services, Guilford’s businesses have found ways to survive, relying on each other as well as innovating to navigate the continued struggles of the new world.

“They’ve learned how to sort of maneuver this pandemic and they’re going on, just continuing on,” Cote said.

Alicia Rayner, owner of The Marketplace, said that as the year comes to an end, her business is in a much better place in many ways, though still fighting the continuing challenges of the pandemic.

“Financially, obviously it’s been a struggle,” she said. “I don’t think we’re out of the woods. We can see the end of the forecast, but I don’t think we’re out of the woods.”

With a significantly lowered revenue through the pandemic and having to contend with at least one extended shutdown in December due to a positive virus case, Rayner said The Marketplace like many other businesses is very much looking for money from the new federal stimulus bill to get them through the winter months.

But she also said that 2021 could bring something more: new commitments to community initiatives like the ones that Guilford shops and restaurants put together in the early days of the pandemic, and just a general feeling of optimism, with maybe the end of the pandemic in sight.

“The first few days that we’ve been through in 2021, I do feel like there’s hope,” Rayner said. “It feels different.”

While any sort of potential post-holiday sale has not been finalized, Rayner said she hopes to see Guilford merchants keep looking for ways to work together like they did in 2020. She also said she has been happy to see the whole community adapt to the pandemic and its restrictions over time, with customers more committed to and aware of their responsibility to socially distance and wear masks.

Cote said it is always hard to speak about the business community as a monolith, as each shop and restaurant has had to overcome its own individual challenges. Some of the most important moments back in the spring and summer involved connecting business owners with Guilford’s state legislators and town officials to drill down on all the nuances of how they could open safely while still surviving, Cote said.

Now that these businesses have had many months to work out their best safe practices and search out new ways to attract customers, Cote said that going into 2021, there is more a sense of keeping spirits up, and following what has worked over the last nine months or so.

“At the beginning it was more of a scramble,” Cote said. “Our businesses have had more time to be strategic, and to think about, ‘How do I maximize my online visibility?’

“They’ve now had the period of time to really stop and think about that, do their research and figure out which platforms are best for them,” she added

Cote cited some of the Facebook Live shopping events where business owners invited prospective customers into virtual showcases of their wares, including one back in May that saw a handful of stores work together on one big video shopping event.

These types of events will continue to be important with the potential of another shutdown or more restrictions, Cote said, and emphasized that businesses are continuing to focus on safety over everything else.

But struggles include the continued need to provide safe options for customers, particularly for restaurants, according to Cote. After pushing through the fall with outdoor dining, cold and snow have made it impossible for many restaurants to leverage this option, forcing them to rely solely on takeout while waiting for spring.

The Marketplace made the conscious decision to forgo indoor dining for safety’s sake, according to Rayner, regardless of current state guidelines.

“It’s just a risk we’re not willing to take,” she said.

Rayner also said that she thinks a lot of the new initiatives are here to stay—everything from curbside pickup to social media shopping, and cross-business promotions. Both she and Cote cited several collaborations between Guilford businesses, where those stores that were deemed essential sold products from other merchants who were shut down as an example of how the business community members really care about each other, and are willing to go the extra mile to help out their neighbors. For example, Cilantro Specialty Foods stocked stuffed animals for the then-closed Flutterby’s and candies from The Village Chocolatier in the peak of pandemic shut-downs.

“That’s one of my favorite examples of collaboration through this pandemic, and it’s very specific to Guilford because I have not seen this happen in any other community,” Cote said.

Even looking past the pandemic, Rayner said she thinks local businesses will need to continue to adapt to a new world where customers expect new types of services, or have permanently changed their shopping habits based on all these adaptations.

“People’s life patterns have changed, and it’s not going to go back,” she said. “People over the last nine months have been able to dissect how they did things before and how they’ve been forced to do things now and I think a lot of those things are going to carry over.”

Whether it is people not going out for a regular coffee or relying on online platforms to find out about merchandise or sales, Rayner and Cote both said they saw both good things and new challenges ahead for businesses.

But as the year has come to an end, one thing many business owners have shared in common is gratitude and joy amid all the stress, as everyone looks forward to better days ahead.

“We saw our regulars and locals rally around us for sure, and I think all of the businesses here in town around the holidays,” Rayner said.

Wolf Guibbory, co-owner of Vera Wolf Jewelry, shared an extensive Facebook post late last year talking about his journey to finding a place where unique shops and experiences grounded in a local community were appreciated, and thanking all of the store’s customers and his neighbors for holding together during the pandemic.

“I write this as a salute to our Guilford community, deeply moved and grateful to those who bravely place their faith in our commitment to safety, voicing their support and spending their dollars in local businesses, so that we might all emerge from this scourge to see the dawning of brighter days ahead,” he wrote.

Jesse Williams covers Guilford and Madison for Zip06. Email Jesse at j.williams@shorepublishing.com.

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