Trickster Company was a downtown Juneau presence for nearly six years before COVID-19 caused its recent closure.
A for rent sign is now visible on the Front Street space that previously contained jewelry, paper goods, sports equipment and apparel bearing indigenous designs and Northwest Coast art.
“It happened so fast at first we thought we could stay open,” said co-owner Crystal Worl in an email. “We quickly realized it didn’t make sense to stay open as did other shops. We were very sad to have to lay off our shop staff. As you know, Juneau is a small town. We all have close ties around us.”
However, shuttering the physical Juneau shop isn’t the end of the line for Trickster, Worl said. That’s in part because online sales have tripled compared to this time last year.
“This was totally unexpected and we are very thankful,” Worl said. “Online sales have given us the ability to maintain our Anchorage operations, continue to grow our product line and eventually invest into a new retail store in Juneau.”
Worl’s company isn’t the only local business to find a life preserver in the form of online shopping while mandates and caution closed physical shops. While conventional wisdom used to hold that online shopping and shopping local were antithetical, e-commerce helped some locals keep the lights on.
“Online shopping saved my business,” said Kari Reyes, owner and operator of FREYA Romance Boutique, in an email. “Online sales were up an average of 400% during a two-month period.”
That surge in business proved to be indispensable, especially since Reyes said FREYA did not qualify for personal protective equipment assistance because of the adult nature of the business.
“Come to find out, I didn’t need the government, I have an amazing community that finds us ‘essential,’” Reyes said.
While online shopping was already part of FREYA’s business model, quarantine did lead to the creation of at least one online store.
“It had been in our plans to build our web store this year anyway,” said Hollis Kitchin, co-owner of Bustin’ Out Boutique: Lingerie and Maternity Wear, in a phone interview. “We were wanting to do that because we do have a lot of customers from different parts of the state.”
Tammie Hanson, retail director for Sealaska Heritage Store, said online sales were up about 257% around the time of Juneau’s hunker down in late March. That’s given staff something to work on while the store is appointment-only.
“I think what was important is it kept us focused and busy,” Hanson said.
By the numbers
City and Borough of Juneau data paints a similar picture to business leaders’ anecdotes.
Sales tax figures suggest local businesses saw an uptick in online sales but an overall decrease while Juneauites flattened the curve by staying at home.
Clinton Singletary, CBJ sales tax administrator, said overall sales tax remitted to the city saw a year-over-year decrease of 5% for the first quarter of 2020. However, out-of-borough exemptions, which Singletary said can indicate long-distance online sales for local businesses, were up .4% — from $16,987,551 to $17,057,111.
Sales to customers outside the borough are exempt from Juneau’s sales tax, according to CBJ sales tax guidelines, so online sales to people outside Juneau would be reflected in exemptions reported to the city.
Reyes said during hunker-down, both regular customers and first-time shoppers took advantage of free shipping. Orders went out to Arizona, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Connecticut and Texas as well as locally.
Other operators similarly said they had far-flung customers.
Online sales to locals are tougher to quantify, Singletary said, because sales tax would simply be collected by a business and remitted to the city as is done with in-person sales.
While it’s hard to tell for sure, Singletary said the numbers available suggest the online sales surges shared by business operators who spoke to the Empire may represent a local trend.
Still not normal
Business operators uniformly said growth in online sales did not come especially close to making up for the lost sales overall.
“It definitely helped, but compared to where our sales are normally, it’s definitely not close to normal,” Kitchin said.
Reyes said business is down 50% overall when compared to that time period last year, and adjusting to that meant letting go of two employees.
Sealaska Heritage Store did not have to make any cuts, but it was unable to add seasonal employees, Hanson said.
Similarly, Trickster had to cut staff and close its Juneau doors to ensure its survival.
“The cost of operating a retail shop is infeasible at this time,” Worl said. “We are fortunate that we now don’t have a monthly shop lease commitment currently dragging our finances down. This allows us to search for a new shop when the time is right. Like everyone else we don’t know how long the pandemic will last and its effects on tourism, business and economy. We feel that when the time is right and the opportunity exists Trickster will open a new larger retail space in downtown Juneau. This is our home. We are patient. We aren’t going anywhere.”
When business does eventually return to a more normal level, business leaders are hopeful that the new levels of online business persist.
“I definitely believe online shopping will continue to be a part of our business,” Reyes said. “We still had many guests that have been in since we reopened May 15 mention they didn’t know we were offering online shopping, which surprised me, but we are telling everyone that if another COVID wave happens, we will be ready and we will focus on our online sales and free delivery.”
• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt