Chestnut Hill: Germantown Avenue Businesses Reflect on a Year of Lockdowns

Germantown Avenue is the commercial heart of Chestnut Hill, but for smaller, niche businesses along this corridor, staying afloat during the pandemic has been hard. 

Sarah Ries, owner of Host Interiors, a local home furnishing store, described the first wave of lockdowns last spring as hard on her business.

“For the three months we were closed, our revenue lost 50% from what it normally is,” Ries said. “Were glad it didn’t go lower than that cause we still had customers working with us over the phone or through email to place orders.” 

To help combat the closure and revenue loss, Ries applied for a PPP loan. Despite the loan taking longer than expected to clear, Ries was very grateful to receive some sort of financial help. 

“It kept my employees working for those three months, and it covered payroll expenses during the shutdown,” she said.  

Debbie Weiner, owner of Delphine Jewelry, did not qualify for a PPP loan and had to find other ways to stay afloat.

“I’m in Chestnut Hill and it’s a tight knit community,” she said. “So what we did was keep merchandise in the window so customers would walk by and take the piece and curbside.” 

Host Interiors normally relies on in-person sales, so having customers come in and view or try out the furniture is paramount, Ries said.  

“For us, not having people come into the store was a huge problem,” she said.

Ries had to find new ways to sell furniture. She worked with interior designers she has a relationship with, gathering orders for their clients via email. Working with more designers directly helped her keep the business going when customers weren’t allowed to come inside the store.

Ries also set up an online store, but hasn’t seen a huge shift in customers utilizing the online ordering system.

“People want to come in and try out the furniture for comfort,” she said. “So, It’s a hard thing to transfer to Internet sales. That didn’t really take off for us.” 

Although the creation of the online site didn’t bring in many online sales, it did allow customers to view products and then visit the store to get a closer look. The showroom is fairly big, so when restrictions on indoor shopping were lifting, customers could enter with few worries of overcrowding. 

“We have a lot of space, so in terms of keeping employees spaced out, it’s pretty easy,” Ries said. 

Customers have been very respectful with the store’s social distancing policies, Ries said. 

“With the customers, I felt that people feel if they had a mask on they didn’t have to stay 6 feet away,” Ries said. “We had a couple of instances where we had to ask people to stay 6 feet away.”

Weiner also set new social distancing policies in her store. She’s found customers to be mostly compliant.

“When lockdowns opened up and people could come out and go to the store, we got plexiglass and an air purifier,” she said. “Everyone has to be masked.” 

Lately, though, breaks in the supply chain threaten Ries’ business more than lockdowns, she said.

“Our manufacturers that make the product here in America are having problems producing the product as quickly as the customers want to purchase it,” she said. “The factories are experiencing employees out with COVID. That’s slowing production down.” 

Phil Dawson, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Business Association, said his organization used multiple strategies to help local businesses during the pandemic. The first step was to let the community know what Chestnut Hill businesses were open.

“People could continue to support them,” he said. “We saw our web traffic actually be significantly above other years before the pandemic because more people were starting to look online for local businesses.”

Ries said community support for hers’ and other businesses have been the most helpful source of support from the past year. 

“We are so grateful for the communities,” she said. “The customers have been really supportive, and customers are helping out small businesses. We’re extremely grateful for their loyalty and effort they put into shopping with us while we were closed.”

As things began to open up, the Business Association marketed Chestnut Hill positively as a place where people could support small businesses outside in a safe manner, Dawson said. 

Dawson and the Business Association also sought direct support for their member business.

“Getting them information as it was coming out on a daily basis,” he said. “Getting resources for different city opportunities, government restrictions, loan programs, educational workshops—all of those resources they needed to get additional capital.”

The Business Associationalso launched a local fundraising campaign and raised over $55,000, dispersing the funds through micro grants. 

“It wasn’t a ton of money, but it is in addition to the public and private funding that was out there to help keep businesses afloat,” Dawson said.

Funding from these micro grants helped Weiner’s business stay afloat.

“We benefited from that too,” she said.  

Weiner and Ries both hope more people getting vaccinated will mean more customers coming out to Germantown Avenue to shop, and hopefully spend money in their stores. 

“I think once everyone is vaccinated, I think things will resume,” Weiner said. 

Dawson and the Business Association are also rethinking some of their annual events, like the Chestnut Hill Home and Garden Festival, looking for ways to maintain social distancing while drawing attention to businesses in the neighborhood.

“We’ve made modifications to our usual home and garden festival, [planning] something small that doesn’t attract huge crowds that will bring the public out to Chestnut Hill,” Dawson said. 

Weiner is optimistic retail revenues will start to bounce back. The first customers she saw after the initial lockdowns were lifted last spring seemed more exuberant than usual. She hopes the same will be true once life gets back to normal. 

“People couldn’t wait to be out,” she said. “They are like, ‘I’m buying something!’” 

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