By Shelby Rowe Moyer | Pictured above: The Cornerstone Shop, by Julie Eisenhardt
It seems 40-some-odd days of self-quarantine is enough to make locals and Illinois tourists spring out of their homes the second it’s lifted.
Just days after Gov. Tony Evers “Safer At Home” order was overturned by the state Supreme Court, Lake Geneva was bouncing with activity, most of which came from across the border, where Illinois is still in lockdown.
Many Lake Geneva businesses have reopened, and three long-time business owners say the coronavirus-induced shutdown is unlike anything they’ve experienced as retailers, including the 2008 recession.
Second generation owner of Main Street’s Allison Wonderland, Christopher Springer—whose parents opened the Lake Geneva storefront in 1982—says they adapted to the shutdown with curbside pickups. He noted the toy store’s longevity in Lake Geneva as a saving grace during that nearly two-month period when the store was closed to foot traffic.
“I really feel for the new small businesses here,” he says. “(Clientele) takes time to build, and we had an advantage because we’d been around for so many years. We’ve seen second and close to third generations now of families that support us, and it really helped us during the times we couldn’t physically open.”
Now that Allison Wonderland is open to customers, Springer says staff are taking extra precautions to ensure merchandise is clean so customers can safely shop. He said they strongly recommend customers wear masks but, because many families come in with small children, they’re not requiring it.
The footprint is spacious enough that people can make a loop around the store without bumping into others, however, he says if it does get too crowded, staff will likely ask people to wait outside until a few customers have filtered out. Springer says they’re also asking customers to only handle an item they’re really interested in. If they put a product back, he’s asking that they set it on the floor at the bottom of the shelf, so a staff member can clean it before it’s returned to its proper place.
Hot ticket items at Allison Wonderland have been puzzles and educational-type toys that will keep kids occupied, while also stimulating their minds, he says.
If there’s a silver lining to the shutdown, Springer says, it was that it gave them time to build an online store that will grow as time goes on and allow out-of-area customers to shop with them year-round.
Karin Bennett, co-owner of the Cornerstone Shop & Gallery reopened the 10,000-square-foot brick-and-mortar retail store on May 14. Prior to then, Bennett came up with creative ways to serve her customers, including a “shop by numbers” display, so customers could still window shop. Bennett says, if customers requested it, staff would also walk around the store with the customer via FaceTime or send photos for customers to peruse.
Like Springer, Bennett is also taking additional steps to make customers and staff feel safe. A door greeter welcomes people through its Broad and Main street entrance—the other entrance is currently only being used as an exit—and is offering hand sanitizer and encouraging people to wear masks. For those that don’t have one, the shop is offering disposable masks and asking for a donation, with all proceeds being donated to the Lakeland Animal Shelter. Roughly 30-35 people are being allowed in at a time, less than the usual foot traffic numbers this time of year, Bennett says.
Maintaining a retail company during COVID-19 has been a game of creativity, and though Bennett says they had customers during the shutdown, sales were down about 90%.
“It’s definitely impacted us,” she says. “Not only because of a loss of revenue, but we also lost some of our employees that aren’t comfortable returning.”
Some of what’s selling well right now has surprised Bennett. She thought clothing sales would plummet, but that portion of the store has been doing really well—maybe because it’s a little something that brightens people’s moods and makes them feel good about themselves, she surmises. Customers have also been seeking baby gifts and gifts in general. Home décor is a big part of what the Cornerstone offers, but fewer were buying those items during the shutdown.
Mid-May is when Bennett orders the bulk of her merchandise for the year, and the virus caused her to carefully look at the list and adjust her sales expectations for the year.
Haberdapper men’s clothing store on Broad Street was completely closed during the “Stay At Home” order. Co-owner Steve Monticello says that even if they’d been able to stay open, the manufacturers they work with were shut down.
“Some companies that I’m working with that are shipping out of New York and New Jersey aren’t shipping until later,” he says. “Tommy Bahama, for example, is coming from Seattle, and that was another area that was hit hard, and the product is just sitting there, waiting.”
Haberdapper reopened on May 16, after a deep cleaning and placing markers on the floor to help customers visualize the six-foot social distance recommendation. Sanitizing stations are available for customers, but Monticello says he isn’t asking customers to wear masks, “because of the aggressive pushback” that he’s heard about it.
Luckily, Monticello says, April and March are the slowest months of the year for Haberdapper. Had the shutdown happened now or a month from now, it would have been a lot more devastating for the business.
His only fear going forward is that “this event has/will catapult my older clientele into more online shopping… They were resistant [to online shopping] before, but may be more open to the idea with these ‘new normals.’”
While the past few months have brought unique challenges for the retail community, each of the business owners we spoke to are expressing optimism and hope for a successful summer season but acknowledge that it’s a game of wait-and-see.