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Downtown Flagstaff businesses, hit hard by coronavirus, band together to strike back
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Downtown Flagstaff businesses, hit hard by coronavirus, band together to strike back

From the A collection of the Daily Sun's coronavirus coverage series

Between coronavirus social-distancing measures and the start of a snowstorm, downtown Flagstaff streets on Wednesday were, if not bereft of people, certainly not bustling with locals and tourists shopping as is usual.

To address the sudden and extreme drop in business this week, normally booming with shoppers during the traditional spring break period, nine downtown Flagstaff businesses have banded together to cross-promote each other.

At the urging of Jennifer Rolley, owner of the Sweet Shoppe on Aspen Avenue, business as diverse at Babbitt’s Backcountry Outfitters and Crystal Magic are offering as much as 20% discounts to shoppers at participating businesses if they show a receipt that they purchased products at neighboring stores.

Rolley said she spearheaded the idea of a downtown-wide promotion earlier in the week after seeing other businesses shutter their doors or greatly reduce hours. Foot traffic has been, frankly, abysmal since the citywide closure of bars and restaurants and the admonition for people to stay at home whenever possible.

“I was sitting here waiting, so I got on the phone and started making calls around town,” Rolley said. “I said to (owners), ‘Guys, now’s the time to collaborate and incentivize.’ We need to do something.”

By Wednesday morning, Rolley had rounded up nine downtown businesses that promised to offer 10% or 20% off merchandise if customers made the rounds at the other stores.

The reaction, so far? Slow, she admitted, but promising.

“I’ve already had four people come in here and get something after they’d been (next-door) at Shoes & Such,” she said. “Listen, I don’t anticipate this’ll make people jump in their cars and drive downtown immediately, especially with the snow. But this is Flagstaff, and we all work together. I doubt you’d see anything like this in a big city like Phoenix. You know, businesses working together, instead of competing.”

Such steps are necessary, said Jessica Granello, owner of Crystal Magic on San Francisco Street, because the extreme and unprecedented self-isolating and social-distancing steps in the wake of the virus outbreak threaten to shutter small businesses — or, at least, lead to layoffs of staff and a steep reduction in income.

“It’s important to try to tell people we’re still open, that not all businesses in Flagstaff have closed,” Granello said. “We want to urge people to come, if you’re healthy. It’s a hard time for small business owners. We need to make sure we band together and all support each other. It’s something we haven’t seen before. We’ve seen recessions happen but nothing quite like this, something that affects everybody universally.”

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The timing, local business owners say, could not be worse. The snowstorm is expected to ebb by Friday, but the disruption of the coronavirus so far has shown no signs of slackening.

“I’d imagine this is going to last a lot longer than we want it to,” Granello said. “That’s one of the reasons why we’re trying to stay open now, because it really hasn’t hit — at least that we know of — northern Arizona yet. We’re trying to get as much time in as we can before it gets really bad and nobody goes out up here.”

Many small, locally-owned businesses, which usually do not have the resources to have a huge online presence, have nonetheless turned to online sales.

Bethany McElligott, a manager at Shoes & Such, said she has spent the past two working days transferring much of their merchandise to an online sales portal. She says it’s necessary giving the drastic reduction in foot traffic.

“It’s been pretty dead,” she said. “But we’ve been offering 25% off on items, in addition to working with (other business on an additional discount). We’re now taking orders online and by phone. We have to.”

Businesses that never figured to offer home delivery or curbside service now have been forced by necessity to change their way of selling.

“I opened 20 years ago, and I’ve been through the Great Recession (circa 2008),” said Miranda Sweet, owner of Rainbow’s End on Route 66. “My heart is definitely in this, so I just can’t turn my back and close up. I’ve already shortened hours. And I’ve been reaching out to my own community, posting my merchandise. And it’s worked really well. I’ve actually done it more on my personal (social media) than the business’. I’ve been very honest with them. I can’t (stay in business) without them. I’m like, ‘Hey, if you need something, now’s a good time to shop.’”

On Tuesday, Sweet made her first fashion delivery, dropping off two skirts and a dress to a customer’s front door.

“It felt weird,” she said. “I never thought I’d be a delivery service.”

Desperate times call for desperate measures, owners say. They realize that, if or when the outbreak increases, they may have to close up no matter how much of a discount they might offer. They are hoping it’s only a temporary setback.

“One day, when this is all over,” Rolley said, “I’m going to re-post all this on Instagram and say, ‘Hey, guys, remember this crazy time.’”

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Feature Writer, Community/Calendar Editor

Sam McManis is an Arizona Daily Sun features writer and the author of two books: “Running to Glory: An Unlikely Team, A Challenging Season and Chasing the American Dream" and “Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness.”

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