PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Mike Dunne, owner of Dragonfly Bath and Body, 728 S. Virginia St. in Midtown Reno.

Lauren and Mike Dunne, the owners of Dragonfly Bath and Body store in Midtown, have an acute case of economic whiplash.

“What a roller-coaster year for sales,” Mike Dunne said. “For January and February, we were right on target. Then in March, (pandemic restrictions) shut us down and we were closed until the middle of May.”

Retailers then were allowed to reopen, but because his shop depends on walk-in customers who also patronize nearby restaurants like Chuy’s Mexican Kitchen and Two Chicks, Dunne’s business remained in the doldrums. That’s because restaurants were restricted to take-out service only. Few people were walking in Midtown. “We didn’t see business come back until June (when the restrictions ended),” he said. “It was a sobering experience. Businesses that didn’t carry a lot of debt were lucky. If they had a lot of debt, they were in trouble.”

Since then, Dragonfly has recovered. Late summer and holiday sales were strong as people returned to Midtown, he said, while showing a visitor large empty bowls waiting to be replenished with fresh bath and skin products that are made in the store from locally-sourced ingredients. “We’re now about on pace (in sales) for this time of year.”

Waiting for ‘normal’

The recently-renovated Midtown District is well positioned for economic recovery. Along South Virginia Street and within the Sticks plaza, bars and restaurants are shoulder-to-shoulder with retail shops. Gift shops, art galleries, yoga studios, clothing stores, fitness centers, tattoo and piercing parlors, and health/wellness businesses are all in easy walking distance from one another.  Still, all local businesses have taken a hit from the pandemic and the economic slump that it caused.

Many small businesses are treading water as they wait for something resembling “normal” life to return. The organizers of a campaign encouraging Reno citizens to buy local, Reno Loves Local, realize that even though residents want to support local shops, services and eateries, money is tight for customers as well. In response, Reno Loves Local has suggestions for some zero-cost actions that individuals can take to help support the area’s economic backbone.

Helping businesses digitally

The effort also has a Facebook page with more information and it features several local businesses. The Reno Loves Local campaign, created by Bryon Evans Film, Electrikk Digital, the Gattuso Coalition, and Yelp Reno, is supported by grants. Funding came from the City of Reno via the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“(We know) how difficult spending money on things beyond necessities is this year, so we came up with suggestions for people to lend their support to local companies even if they may not be able to buy goods or services from them right now,” said Michael Tragash, community manager for Yelp Reno.

“It’s clear our community wants to rise to this occasion and do all we can to help our local businesses thrive. These simple, free things allow everyone to be a part of the solution. If we’re sharing the good word for our businesses, they can focus on rebuilding them to pre-pandemic levels.”

Spreading the word

The zero-cost activities include: following local businesses on social media and signing up for their emails; telling friends and family about a business that you appreciate; writing reviews on Yelp or other online sites; interacting with businesses on social media and using the business’ hashtag; mentioning them when sharing posts about a Reno small business; and sending messages to businesses you like and telling them why.

“Many people may not be aware of the impact their online actions could have on a business,” Tragash said. “Not everyone realizes leaving a review, liking, commenting, or sharing a business’ post can result in that business being discovered by a friend, who might not know about it, and that friend could very well be in a position to spend.”

He said business owners know that even the simplest online acts can track back to dollars for them. “Every little thing helps,” he said, “and it’s our collective actions as a community that will keep our local businesses top of mind and thriving in the new year.”

Writing ‘love letters’

The campaign is sponsoring an opportunity for consumers to win gift cards to area restaurants, retail shops and service shops through its new engine: the #RenoLoveLetter effort. The initiative asks participants to write “love letters” praising locally-owned Reno businesses they appreciate as a simple, zero-cost means to help spread the word about those restaurants, shops and service providers.

Participants will be entered to win one of 100 gift cards worth from $25  to $100 from local establishments. The business that receives the most love letters will also win a grand prize of its choice of either a business development package (valued at $1,000) or $1,000 in gift cards purchased from said winning business that will then be donated to local heroes via a nonprofit, charitable organization or a direct gift. 

Taking the pledge

The campaign also is encouraging individuals to take the #RenoLocalPledge, which already incorporates zero-cost actions and is being hosted by local digital promotions company, ShortStack. That pledge includes taking personal safety and the safety of others seriously, a statement of intent to visit Reno-area businesses in person when possible and considering local options first when buying gifts.

A mainstay of the pledge is for people to use their individual digital presence (in the form of likes, comments, saves, shares, and reviews) to support local businesses, artisans and others who enrich their lives and the community. Reno Loves Local created Facebook and Instagram accounts to highlight small businesses in the retail, restaurant and services industries throughout the Truckee Meadows.

The COVID-19 vaccine heralds the beginning of the end of the pandemic, but there’s a long road ahead to economic recovery.

A long trek back

Many Americans have lost jobs, spent much of their savings; disposable income is a fond memory for a lot of people. Even after the vaccine is widely distributed, restrictions are lifted, and the unemployment rate falls, financial stability isn’t automatic. Surveys and projections indicate that when cash starts flowing again, many people will opt to build up savings or pay down debt incurred during the pandemic.

 “About 65% of consumers expect a return on their 2020 taxes, according to a study by Prosper Insights & Analytics. Consumers who indicated they plan to deposit all or most of their return into savings accounts rose from 41% in 2019 to 50% in 2020. Consumers who indicated they planned to use their returns to pay down debt rose from 32% in 2019 to 34% in 2020.  — National Retail Federation report, December, 2020.

During the contagion, permanent business closures have risen by an estimated 34% over the same period in 2019, according to the World Economic Forum, a nonprofit think tank in Geneva, Switzerland. Yelp data indicate 163,735 businesses across the United States have closed as of Aug. 31, a 23% increase over 2019.

“We’re seeing indications that Nevada consumers are feeling the financial effects of the pandemic more than the national average and are beginning to tighten their household budgets,” Bryan Wachter, senior vice president of government and public affairs of the Retail Association of Nevada, wrote in the group’s most recent report.

Think local in a global crisis

Wachter noted that efforts like the Reno Loves Local campaign apply statewide.

In addition, he said, when consumers interact with local businesses, they should understand that small operations also are hobbled by the effects of the pandemic and the economic downturn. Wachter said customers should be aware that retailers are understaffed and have to deal with the added responsibilities of keeping their stores safe, stocked and staffed.

It’s important that people be flexible when shopping, he said, due to product shortages and kinks in supply chains. “And please be gracious,” he said. “If you need to visit a retail store, smile and say thank you. You have no idea how much that may brighten the day of someone who is away from their family to keep food and supplies available.”

Wacher added that buying gift cardsfor local businesses help give them liquidity to stay in business through and after the outbreak. “Most local shops have their own websites or Etsy stores and can ship or deliver products direct.”

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Customers can mix their own custom scents at Dragonfly Bath and Body.

Getting people in the doors

Dunne, of Dragonfly Bath and Body, said expanding online sales was a silver lining of the pandemic. “Before COVID, we didn’t do too much online, but (the pandemic) kind of forced our hand.”

He said competing online among retail giants such as Amazon isn’t easy and it’s no panacea, but increased Web sales helped Dragonfly keep its head above water during the months of the shutdown. But in the end, the brick-and-mortar business model remains the shop’s key to success.

“We’re still here and this pandemic is still going on, but it isn’t going to last forever,” Dunne said. “…It’s hard to believe we had so much business through here during the last few months. People shopped locally. They came back and we’re grateful for that.”

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