COPING WITH COVID: Small businesses find ways to thrive – Effingham Daily News

Posted in Tattoo Shop on Oct 23, 2020

Prima Torbeck had only been in business a few months when the coronavirus pandemic put lives and businesses to a screeching halt.

Torbeck owns Heartland Health Food Store in Effingham. She bought the business last year and reopened it that November.

As an essential business, Torbeck kept her doors open but admits opening a business before a pandemic is tough. The unprecedented circumstance changed the way people shopped in her small specialty store. Rather than spending more time in the store perusing the aisles, customers were shortening their shopping trips.

People's priorities shifted. They went from shopping whole store to just wanting one item, she said.

Their habits changed also, according to Torbeck. Torbeck had stocked her store with an alternative coffee creamer before the pandemic. Then drinking habits changed as people were either off work or working remotely, and drinking less coffee than they normally would working at the office or during a commute.

People's work habits, daily routines changed, she said.

Torbeck suddenly found herself with inventory that wasn't selling.

My business took hit big time, she said.

On the other hand, as consumers looked to boost their immune systems and live healthier lifestyles in an effort to stave off the virus, Torbeck experienced a boost in sales of vitamins and supplements. However, her other inventory of hard-to-find healthy food items weren't flying off the shelves.

Torbeck says her Effingham store is unique.

We have a lot of really cool stuff you have to go to big cities to get. We have such a big allergen section. It's all here under one roof, she said.

In addition to moving inventory, Torbeck was also struggling with keeping employees.

So, she applied for and received money from the Paycheck Protection Program, which Congress approved to provide aid to small businesses. The program has provided $520 billion for 5 million businesses, most of them small. While the lifeline allowed her to maintain two part-time employees, the restrictions prevented her from purchasing much-needed items for the store, such as a new commercial blender to make the smoothies she sells. Still, Torbeck is grateful for the program despite its limitations.

It was a stopgap. It was a good short-term fix, she said.

Sales at the store have been declining since June, when Torbeck said she had a steady flow of business.

Torbeck has tried new marketing strategies to draw customers. She hosted Farmers Market vendors at the store before the market's delayed opening in downtown Effingham.

Torbeck also found a way to draw out-of-towners and interstate traffic as people began to travel more. Google Street View allows customers to take a virtual tour of her store and the service has drawn RVers, she said. She also had worked on the store's website and got a newsletter going.

We're constantly trying to come up with stuff, she said.

But as Torbeck closes in on the one-year anniversary of her store in November, she is still not sure what the future holds. Torbeck received a Small Business Association relief loan and will have to start paying it back this month. She said more PPP money would help as Congress continues to stall on another stimulus package.

Torbeck considers it a success that her business is still open when others have closed or are closing,

I know if we had to close down during the lockdown, I wouldn't be open today, she said.

JoAnn Dittamore had to apply for a PPP loan when her 20-year-old business was forced to close its doors during the statewide shutdown. The federal money allowed Dittamore to keep three part-time employees at her Effingham store, Country Peddlers. The money also helped cover rent that amounted to thousands of dollars a month.

Pictured at Country Peddlers, from left, are Lainee Stewart, RyLee Dittamore, Isley Martin, JoAnn Dittamore and JoLene Fulk.

The closure also forced Dittamore to look at other avenues to sell the plethora of antique and craft items that has expanded to clothing boutiques in more recent years.

Dittamore turned to a new marketing medium Facebook Live. Employees had dabbled in the platform before the pandemic, but ramped up promoting items on it when they could no longer do so in person. Dittamore credits the strategy for keeping the business going and keeping it solvent. It also helped reach a new group of customers out-of-towners.

Dittamore said business has been good. She attributes that partly to flea market events the business started a couple of years ago and picked back up after COVID restrictions eased.

Pictured at Country Peddlers are JoLene Fulk, JoAnn Dittamore and RyLee Dittamore.

Our flea market has helped a lot. People were so ready to get out and do something, she said.

Jason Hendrix and Nicki Asberry opened their Effingham business, Broughton Tattoo Co., on Oct. 1.

Broughton Tattoo Co. owner Jason Hendrix poses at the new Effingham shop recently.

Hendrix was able to open the Effingham shop without loans, and the artists who work there are independent contractors. Hendrix is part of a trend of small businesses serving a niche market that are opening for the first time during the pandemic. Square, a company that helps companies process credit card payments, said one in three of its new clients in the second quarter of 2020 were new businesses.

Hendrix is no stranger to opening a business. He is the owner of Mouse Town Tattoo in Mount Vernon.

Still, when asked if he had any reservation about opening a new business during a pandemic, that depended on when during the pandemic the question was asked.

If you would've asked me during shutdown, I was more worried, he said.

But after reopening his other shop, any doubt Hendrix may have had about timing quickly dissipated.

When we opened, it was insanely busy, he said. We added two other tattoos and another piercer at other shop and were still busy.

Hendrix said the decision to open a business now arose out of a need in the area for tattoo artists to have a shop to work out of locally. As Effingham has grown, so has the clientele.

The guys here have a solid clientele, he said.

Traditionally, Hendrix said the busiest time for his Mount Vernon shop has been tax season, so when the Mount Vernon shop reopened, it was like tax season.

I think anytime people get their taxes back it's the busiest time of year. Stimulus I think helps, he said.

Hendrix is not sure how long the artists will stay busy, noting November is usually the slower season. But he isn't worried.

I don't know how it will work this year, but we plan for all that. We'll be able to survive all that, he said.

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COPING WITH COVID: Small businesses find ways to thrive - Effingham Daily News

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