Small Businesses Of All Stripes Pivot To Try To Stay Afloat During COVID-19

Apr 21, 2020

Fargo Skatepark & Skateshop in DeKalb needed to pivot. Their shop was temporarily shuttered and their income slashed in half. But, even with stay-at-home orders, skateboarding itself isn’t outlawed.

So to stay in business -- and stay true to the DIY feel that runs deep in skate culture -- they started building and selling ramps so social distancing skaters can practice in their driveway.

Ariel Ries is the owner of Fargo. She says someone even installed one in their kitchen.

But Ries decided the ramp business needed a creative touch.

“I want to make a jingle. And for some reason, I want to have like the year, make and model of this car [in it],” she said.

That’s right, a jingle.

They’ve ramped up their digital presence with YouTube skating tutorials for kids that can’t come in for lessons and offer skate merchandise raffles on Instagram. Sometimes they even toss a roll of toilet paper into an online order.

“It's so funny because people are placing more online orders and they're like, ‘Throw a roll in!’” said Ries.

Her main goal: Just keep her employees paid. She’s also applied for small business relief like the Paycheck Protection Program. It’s a federal loan part of the new CARES Act.

Bo Steiner is the Illinois district director for the Small Business Administration. He explained the program:

“If the business owner uses at least 75% of the proceeds of that loan on payroll, and payroll expenses and keeps their headcount consistent, then that loan can be up to 100% fully forgivable, meaning that it is paid off by the federal government,” he said.

Ries says, like many small business owners, she’s still waiting for approval.

Cindy Abel said this is the most difficult time she’s had as a small business owner. She’s been grooming dogs for 50 years and had a storefront for 30. She’s the owner of Canine & Abel Dog Grooming in Rockford and Pecatonica.

She’s spent the last few weeks calling clients, canceling and trying to reschedule through an uncertain future.

Abel and her two employees filed for unemployment. Luckily, her landlord waived rent until they’re back to work. Now she’s figuring out what exactly her loan options are.

“I don't want to apply for too much. I don't want a lot of debt. I want to try to save my business with as little debt coming out of this as possible because we're all going to have it,” said Abel.

Even when her doors reopen, Abel said she is concerned it’ll take time for business to return to what it was. Hopefully, she said, there’ll be plenty of dogs who need cleaning.

“My work is gonna be cut out for me then, literally. It's gonna be crazy, but I look forward to getting back to work. I'm not ready for this retirement stuff!” said Abel.

Carolyn Chin is the co-founder and proprietor of Books on First in Dixon. She said books are the perfect tool for a pandemic.

“You could read it and so it's entertainment. And then if you really had to you could use it for cleaning. You could use it for food. It's a good source of fiber. And you can use it for fuel,” said Chin.

She said their sales began to plummet right before the stay-at-home order.

Chin said Books on First sells books but, in the Amazon age, people come for the experience. They sit around drinking coffee, talking to each other and perusing shelves.

That’s not possible right now. So some are buying books online, while other loyal customers are finding new ways to support them. One family asked if they could walk by and have her show them puzzles through the front window.

“They're like literally doing window shopping!” she said.

Chin’s also applying for government relief programs. But she said the application for the Paycheck Protection Program has changed several times, which makes it more complex for her and her banker.

“It's terrible. It's really difficult, which I understand because everything is being rolled out so quickly,” she said.

Chin is also trying to get disaster loan assistance through the Small Business Administration. Those approved can get an up-to $10,000 advance, which Steiner says started to roll out April 10.

Chin said she’s glad to help provide some solace during this time. She said people are buying everything from history to self help and fiction. Kids’ books are a big seller too since they’re all learning from home.

“People are trying to deal with their own stress, trying to deal with anxiety. But I think escapism is kind of big, you know, fiction, all fiction is pretty safe,” said Chin.

Illinois shelter-in-place orders extend at least until the end of April. And the federal small business relief funding recently ran out of money until Congress can pass another plan.

But even as they try to stay afloat, Chin and the other small business owners -- from books to dog grooming to skateboarding-- say what they miss most are their niche communities: the dedicated customers and friends.

Editor's Note: Books on First is an underwriting partner of WNIJ.