The Survival of Speciality Shops

Olivia Hicks (May 20, 2020)

With a storefront showcasing an abundance of greenery, one Tacoma business symbolizes that growth is approaching amid economic uncertainty. While some local businesses in Tacoma have experienced severe economic loss, others have expedited expansion plans during the pandemic.

The Fernseed, a houseplant shop in the Proctor district, already had plans to expand to online shopping and delivery before COVID-19. However, the inability to keep the shop open to customers for browsing accelerated Fernseed’s e-commerce debut. The addition of nationwide shipping of “plant grams,” plants with a handwritten greeting note, and delivery of potted plants to the Tacoma-Seattle area broadened the business’ customer base.

“When COVID happened we had to shut our retail down really fast, and we decided to take these ideas that we had for what the e-commerce business could be and immediately just do them,” said Katherine Raz, the owner of The Fernseed, in a phone interview.

Raz emphasized that overall sales have decreased as the retail shop closed; however, the shop will continue to hire more employees and has plans to open a new warehouse on South Tacoma Way.

The possibility of expansion became clear following COVID-19. The rapid shift to e-commerce proved to Raz that the business would need more space and employees to continue online and storefront retail.

Fernseed is not alone in expansion. Crisp Greens, a salad restaurant, announced its plans to expand to a new location by the University of Washington Tacoma campus.

“It [the expansion] was already in the works for about nine months….The takeout numbers and community support made us think it was still a great plan,” Corie Cameron, the owner of Crisp Greens, wrote in an email.

While Crisp Greens has seen lower sales with takeout slower by about 30 percent, Cameron reported an increase in demand for take-out crisp meals.

Both specialty shops attribute consumer behavior to keeping their shops open during the outbreak.

“We saw a huge demand online. Obviously, driven by people’s desire to keep a small business functioning, but I think also because people are just interested in plants, designing their spaces and people are spending more time at home. We are uniquely and weirdly poised to take advantage of that,” Raz said.

An emphasis on limiting the number of customers who can enter the restaurant and additional cleaning has also attracted loyal patronage, according to Cameron.

While consumer behavior is at the top of the list, many factors lead to sustaining business expansion during a pandemic.

“Among them would be the ability to understand and adapt to market changes and to have the resources to change service delivery models,” Pat Beard, the business development manager for the City of Tacoma, wrote in an email. “One key [factor] has clearly been preparedness to use e-commerce technologies.”

Businesses, specifically in the hospitality sector, have evolved to offer takeout family-size meals and pre-mixed and sealed liquor. While several businesses are adapting, Washington state sales are down more than 70 percent according to the Washington Hospitality Association.

“The full-service restaurants have been the most negatively impacted. Before the shutdown their business models were not built for to-go nor were many of their menu items made to travel. This is the area where we fear the most permanent closures and bankruptcies,” Anthony Anton, the president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, wrote in an email.

While the hospitality industry has been the most impacted industry economically, Anton accredited the minimal increase in sales of a few operators to a strong customer base.

Another form of support for local businesses came from the state government. Gov. Jay Inslee created a $10 million “Working Washington Small Business Emergency Grant” program that allocates up to $10,000 to small businesses that have a maximum of 10 employees, according to the Washington State Department of Commerce.

However, the loan process is not possible for some businesses that lack credit history.

“There are expanded business loan opportunities at this time, coming from the local, state and federal government as well as some for-profit resources,” Beard wrote. “Anecdotally, we see some potential equity impacts associated with accessing these loans as business owners without experience of commercial loan processing or requirements ahead of the pandemic may be unable to provide the types of information needed to complete a successful application.”

Even as local businesses experience a drop in sales, several have donated meals to health care workers. Crisp Greens has donated 4,797 meals so far and has formed a new customer base of medical workers.

This new customer base combined with an already strong following is a defining factor in the ability for the business to expand in Tacoma.

“It’s such a small community despite being a major city. People here are fiercely loyal to what’s local and very willing to get takeout and tell their friends,” Cameron said.

Environmental Journalism student at Western Washington University — from Des Moines, Iowa