Many small businesses in Alaska rely on summer tourism to get through the winter. But after a season of cancelled cruise ships and low visitation, retailers in Sitka are turning to holiday sales from local customers to help them make it through.
It’s 2:00 in the afternoon on Black Friday, and downtown Sitka is hopping. Masked shoppers dance awkwardly around each other inside small storefronts. They’re taking advantage of the first of two city-sponsored tax-free days, meant to encourage residents to shop locally this holiday season.
“It’s been very busy,” says Mary Majeski, who runs The Totem, a gift and fabric shop. Retailers along Lincoln Street echo Majeski’s sentiment, including Jill Scheidt, who owns the quilting shop Abby’s Reflection.
“We’ve had constant traffic,” she says. “I got here a little early, and we even had people pulling on the door before we were open.”
It’s a welcome rainstorm of shoppers after a months-long drought brought on by the pandemic. Sitka did get some tourism this summer from independent travelers and in-state visitors, but achingly absent were the 200,000 plus people projected to disembark from cruise ships, ready to purchase souvenirs.
For artist Elizabeth Faulkner and other members of the Island Artists Gallery, the summer is when they make the bulk of their income.
“Probably four months out of the year we don’t make our rent — each individual artist. Then, four months of the year we make a little extra, and then four months out of the year, in the summer, we do six to eight times over,” she says.
This year, sales were down about 85 percent, Faulkner says, but so far, only one couple has left the cooperative because they couldn’t make their rent.
The gallery has adapted to survive by turning down the heat and relying on volunteers to run it instead of a paid staff member. The business also received CARES Act funds to set up a website for online sales. And like many local businesses, they’re hoping Sitkans choose to shop local over the holidays instead of turning to big online retailers like Amazon.
“Events like today are making it so that we can get our rent paid,” she says. “And then we’re looking into what 2021’s gonna bring and feeling confident that we can creatively figure out ways to be here and support ourselves as artists.”
What the 2021 season will look like is still a mystery. Chamber of Commerce executive director Rachel Roy says the Chamber is working with the state and cruise ship industry to create protocols that could make a 2021 season possible. But much of it is out of their hands. They’re also marketing to independent travelers, and asking locals to help keep their main street alive.
“I think it comes down to the heart of supporting each other in our community and getting us all through this,” Roy said in a phone interview. “I don’t want to see my neighbor having to move out of their home because they lost in their business.”
A few businesses will close up shop when their leases are set to renew in January, Roy said, but for the most part, downtown businesses are hanging on by being adaptable and creative. For Sitkans who are concerned they’ll risk virus exposure by shopping downtown, many businesses have provided their virtual options in one place for the Virtual Sitka Art Walk happening this month.
“I know that many folks are really trying to put a strong effort into making those sales and being available to customers in all those different ways,” Roy said. “You know, a phone call, or a delivery or an online sale, all of those different options so that they can sell the items that they have here on hand.”
Business owners like Jill Scheidt, who owns the quilt shop, say they’ve even had business coming in online from people out of state. Right now, her online sales are supporting her brick and mortar location, which is the opposite of normal.
“The internet sales have been just crazy. You know because people all over the United States have been stuck home and they start thinking, well we were gonna go to Alaska, let’s see what’s there, oh a quilt shop,” she says. “And so I’ve had lots of really strong internet orders on my website.”
Sheidt’s also had a bump in sales from local crafters who are stuck at home and from people buying fabric for mask masking. But it doesn’t make up for the losses she had this summer. She’s hoping tourism will return next year in full force, but that’s still uncertain.
“I just don’t want to live in a world where everything you buy has to be online,” Scheidt says.
“We don’t want to lose our main street.”
Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.