With the unemployment rate at 11.1% and businesses shut down in every state, COVID-19 has taken a crippling toll on America’s economic health.
For many small businesses, which comprise 47% of private-sector payrolls in the U.S., according to the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, the sudden economic downturn has created a full-blown crisis.
The big-picture concern shared by economists is if businesses don’t survive, many Americans won’t have jobs to return to after the pandemic. That’s why experts have said it’s important to support local businesses, which are struggling to generate reliable income.
Now, salons, restaurants, florists and fitness instructors, among others, are creatively adjusting to the new realities of the coronavirus economy, pivoting to bringing parts of their business online, connecting with communities directly on social media or launching creative side hustles.
“GMA” put out a call to small businesses and service workers to see how they’ve responded to the economic downturn, and we’ll share their stories here, along with ways Americans can support small businesses.
Check back each week to meet more small business owners.
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Julia and Cornelia Gibson of Toned by BaggedEm
Business: Exercise brands featuring designer yoga mats
Julia Gibson, 35, and Cornelia Gibson, 31, are the co-founders of Toned by BaggedEm, an exercise-focused brand aimed at bringing representation and celebrating “all bodies” to the forefront of fitness.
The brand was born on the principle of being “created by real women on real fitness journeys FOR real women on real fitness journeys,” according to its website, and is known for its beautifully designed yoga mats.
“Toned by BaggedEm was just birthed out of something that we would want for ourselves, and we just imagined that the world needs it and the world will want it as well,” said Julia Gibson.
Currently, Toned by BaggedEm features five different yoga mats, including a limited edition men’s mat, with artwork courtesy of their mother, Golivia Gibson.
“She was an art teacher in New York City for many years, and knew how to understand our vision and bring it to life,” Julia Gibson said.
“I’ve always been an artist, but my daughters never seem to have had an interest,” Golivia Gibson said. “For them to ask me to contribute what I do best, my drawing, it felt like the greatest honor.”
“The inspiration was personal and cultural. It was for my own body, and having lived through a time where that was not considered valuable and beautiful. It was an opportunity to have real history be displayed,” she adds.
“COVID-19 highlighted many of the health disparities in our communities. This further pushed us to create products that gear our communities toward mental and physical wellness. These past few months have been rough and our mats have created a place where our customers can release and meditate,” says Cornelia Gibson.
“It is inspiring to see so many people join in to change the injustices within Black communities and fight for more representation. That has always been our goal,” she adds.
To date, they’ve sold more than 700 yoga mats and plan on releasing gym bags by the end of the summer.
How can America support your business: You can order mats and other items online or, if you’re in Charlotte, North Carolina, or Atlanta, you can pick them up in person at some studios.
Bret Smith of Stix & Cones
Business: Ice cream pops and to-go lunch boxes
For Brett Smith of Stix & Cones, staying afloat amid COVID-19 hasn’t been easy, but thanks to the city of Dothan, Alabama, the path is certainly smoother.
“The city put together a curbside pickup lane right in front of our businesses,” Smith says. “It was excellent, it was perfect, it was more than we could have ever asked for. It actually gave people an opportunity to visit us because, usually, downtown parking is a little bit rough.”
There’s also an evident draw to Stix & Cones, especially during the summer heat. Started as an ice cream company in 2015, the small business creates handcrafted popsicles, or pops, and also makes homemade waffle cones in which Blue Bell Ice Cream is scooped.
Over time, Stix & Cones expanded its sandwich and sides menu as a reaction to being near the city’s courthouse. As such, Smith says, his business gets every type of customer, from the judge, jury and clerks, as well as local lawyers and business people who want a quick bite to eat. This also helped evolve Stix & Cones, which was able to pivot during the pandemic to serve boxed lunches that can be picked up curbside.
“We were basically a little lunch spot right behind the county courthouse with no dine-in service, we weren’t exactly sure what we were going to do,” Smith says. “Positioning ourselves during the pandemic with individually sealed box lunches was a pivot that was unexpected.”
“Our box lunches were a hit with a nearby nuclear plant and we were able to serve the local sanitation department. It was really good, a neat way to reach out to the community,” he adds.
There’s another way Stix & Cones was able to reach the community, and that was through the company’s tricycle carts carrying the delicious pops and making visits around Dothan.
“We’ve gotten back to our roots this past year, going into neighborhoods, making ourselves available for any events that are socially distanced or spaced properly,” says Smith. ”That’s the kind of support that we have seen from our community and that’s the kind of memories that we want to help make in our community,” noting Stix & Cones’ recent participation at a graduation event.
How can America support your business: You can donate pops from Stix & Cones to first responders and charities in the Dothan area amid the pandemic. “We are astounded by the support we have for the gift program,” Smith says. “It’s just a way for us to be able to extend our reach into the community.”
Rachel Lutz of The Peacock Room
Business: Vintage boutique
Rachel Lutz has a background in political campaigns, social justice causes, grassroots organizing and retail. Nearly a decade ago, she opened her first store, The Peacock Room, which is a specialty boutique that offers a vintage, Hollywood-inspired collection of casual, cocktail and formal finds for women of all sizes and budgets. Continually gaining popularity in Detroit, she later opened three other retail shops.
Since March, all four of Lutz’s stores were closed due to mandated shutdowns amid the coronavirus pandemic. She had to lay off 12 employees and sustained a six-figure loss in sales. Additionally, Lutz tells “GMA” these closures have impacted the neighborhood because The Peacock Room also served as a gathering place for the neighborhood.
To quickly adjust to the new normal, Lutz turned to Facebook Live to start selling merchandise.
“My first Facebook Live had 7,000 views and was the biggest single sales day in the store’s history,” Lutz says. “The second Facebook Live had 10,000 views.”
Lutz also set up a fun interactive Facebook page called Sunday Stroll to highlight the looks of followers. “I wanted to encourage people to put on their fancy clothes and go outside for a walk,” Lutz says.
Lutz also opened up her platform for an elderly African-American bookseller in the community, Source Booksellers, which garnered the attention of thousands and helped the business to sell hundreds of books.
During the pandemic, Lutz was asked by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to represent small businesses on the Michigan Workforce Development Board for a two-year term. This ask came shortly after she spoke at one of the governor’s press conferences discussing how hard it was for small businesses to return post-COVID-19.
How can America support your business: “Engage in our Facebook Live sessions,” says Lutz. “People follow from all over and we’re putting Detroit on display to a wider audience.” You can also buy items from The Peacock room to help Lutz’s small business during this challenging time.
Do you have a small business that has been impacted by the coronavirus that you’ve adapted to stay afloat? Tell us how America can support your business here.
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