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 Shain Park, considered the heart of the city, welcomes visitors May 21.

Shain Park, considered the heart of the city, welcomes visitors May 21.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


Birmingham retailers eager to reopen

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published May 26, 2020

 Messages of hope line the windows of 6 Salon in downtown Birmingham.

Messages of hope line the windows of 6 Salon in downtown Birmingham.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki

 Jillian Hadley, of Caruso Caruso, in downtown Birmingham, delivers a customer’s order curbside.

Jillian Hadley, of Caruso Caruso, in downtown Birmingham, delivers a customer’s order curbside.

Photo provided by Lennon Lalonde, Caruso Caruso

 The Birmingham 8 Theatre wishes residents well while it remains closed during the lockdown.

The Birmingham 8 Theatre wishes residents well while it remains closed during the lockdown.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki

 Speedy Tees encourages shoppers to stay safe during the pandemic lockdown.

Speedy Tees encourages shoppers to stay safe during the pandemic lockdown.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki

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BIRMINGHAM — In every community around Michigan, even three months after the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in the state, most commerce is at a standstill, school desks sit empty, barstools grow cold, store shelves lie bare.

But don’t be fooled.

While we’re still under a stay-at-home order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to prevent the spread of COVID-19, local businesses are hanging on, waiting to fully reopen soon and serve their neighbors any way they can during this crisis.

While data show that the lockdown reduced the number of fatal cases of the virus, the economic ramifications can’t be ignored: small businesses are suffering their own ailments. Without the resources and financial backing of stakeholders to lean on, those small, independent operations face not just diminished revenue, but layoffs, missed vendor payments and, in some cases, worse.

Legislators and business associations at every level say they are doing what they can to lessen the blow to those businesses, but what those merchants really need now is support from customers and each other.

Shining a spotlight on community-based organizations and businesses has never been more important, and that’s where the Demers family feels like they can do their part to help merchants recover. As the owners of C & G Newspapers, with 19 publications dedicated to hyperlocal news coverage and advertising, the family feels a huge responsibility to keep residents informed about what is going on in their own backyard, said Managing Editor Gregg Demers.

“I think every business person feels the same way. They’re all pitching in to get everyone through this terrible crisis. That’s when we really see the best in people,” he said. “I’m so pleased with the response from our editors and reporters, and how dedicated they are to getting the job done and keeping readers connected to their community and informed about what’s happening where they live. I think that’s the role we can play to help get through this, and it’s an important one.”

Reminding readers that their favorite restaurants and stores are open — even if it’s in an altered format — might make all the difference for those small businesses, according to Lennon Lalonde, the men’s buyer for the popular downtown Birmingham retailer Caruso Caruso.

“I would say I’m very proud of what we’re doing right now. All the changes we’ve made for safety, we’re just more confident than ever,” he said.

At press time, Whitmer had announced that retailers could reopen to customers by appointment with 10 or fewer guests in a space simultaneously. That’s great news for Lalonde, who has had to get creative in order to keep the lights on during the lockdown.

“We’ve created a business within a business. We’ve reached out to some of our top customers and offered a subscription service while we’re closed,” he explained. “They tell us what we’re looking to buy — we’ve had a lot of requests for premium loungewear and premium house clothes — and we deliver those clothes right to your house. You unpack it, play fashion show, decide what you want to keep and you only pay for what you kept.”

The rest of items in the curated box are picked up for return to the store or exchanged for something that’s a better fit. Lalonde said he’s been packing orders with around $5,000 worth of merchandise in hopes of selling even 20% of it.

“People need entertainment right now more than anything, and that’s a part of what the box offers,” he said. “You build a box, maybe mothers and daughters, a husband and wife, you open a bottle of wine, hang out and try everything on. ‘Oh, that looks good on you.’ ‘I hate that.’ You’ve got something to do for a little while.”

The custom boxes, delivered and picked up from homes, will likely be continued in some capacity as Caruso Caruso moves forward and toward a full business model. Add to that the store’s 25% off a purchase for every $100 spent, and promotions definitely put shoppers at the advantage, Lalonde said.

He said that, even more than usual, sales will hinge on elevated service.

“We are definitely the independent anchor of downtown Birmingham, and a lot of stores are looking to me as far as what to do. This format is definitely not sustainable, and if we were to go until the end of the year, it would probably close down any business that relies on customer interaction,” he said. “With the Maple Road reconstruction in front of the store, we know we’re in a situation that, if you come here, we have to reward you.”

The Birmingham Shopping District has introduced several promotions to coax dollars back downtown, like promotional videos highlighting local merchants, gift card giveaways and more.

“Throughout the past two months, the BSD board and committee members came together to develop a variety of bold initiatives to assist our business community,” said Ingrid Tighe, the executive director of the BSD. “As we prepare for a new normal, our goal is to help businesses not only survive, but thrive in a COVID environment.”

The BSD is also crowdfunding to raise money for personal protective equipment for the city’s small businesses, and Main Street Oakland County will match up to $4,000 of funds raised.

Along with that, the Birmingham City Commission approved a number of economic assistance measures to benefit businesses, including hand-sanitizing stations in high-traffic areas, free parking in structures and an “aggressive” campaign to increase awareness of the city’s ParkMobile parking app so parking can be completely contact free.

“Whether you work in Birmingham, own a business in Birmingham or live in Birmingham, we are all in this together,” Birmingham City Manager Joe Valentine said in a prepared statement. “These initiatives were designed to support an entire community struggling to recover. We are fortunate to be in a position where we can support such a comprehensive program.”

Michigan Small Business Development Center State Director J.D. Collins said in a prepared statement that he’s “so proud to see the state’s small business resources rally together in this time of crisis. The stories we are hearing from the small businesses affected by COVID-19 are devastating.”

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