Why Philly’s Black biz owners are optimistic about this holiday season

(Philadelphia Tribune photo)

By Ayana Jones

PHILADELPHIA —  Shani Newton has become accustomed to seeing people line up outside her Germantown-based boutique on Black Friday for the last six years. However due to the coronavirus pandemic, things were different this year and there was no line.

“Black Friday is usually our biggest shopping day of the year,” said Newton, the owner of Dolly’s Boutique.

Newton would often joke that she was “battling” major retailers like Macy’s and Walmart because her boutique drew droves of customers too. The shop specializes in women’s clothing and accessories.

Newton always opens the boutique early and traditionally serves her customers a hot breakfast on Black Friday. She couldn’t offer her customers breakfast this year because of coronavirus restrictions.

And while Newton didn’t have a large Black Friday turnout, she’s has a positive outlook for the holiday season.

“The holiday season is super important for my business and I know that I can speak for other small businesses as well, because whatever slack in business that you’ve had all year, you have an opportunity to make it up in the fourth quarter,” Newton said.

“I’m still optimistic about the holiday season. I think it’s going to look a little different than what I imagined. I’m going to have to push a little bit harder than I’ve already pushed.”

She has pivoted during the pandemic to offer concierge service, curbside pickup and delivery.

Newton’s business has been impacted due to coronavirus restrictions put in place by city officials because many people are opting to stay home.

“It’s tough. I’ve been through a lot of hard times in these 20 years that I’ve been in business – nothing like this – but I know that I’m blessed. I have a huge network of supporters that are kind of like no other,” she said.

Newton ended up closing her second boutique located in the Fashion District. Newton opted not to renew her lease, after the Center City-based mall was shuttered for four and a half months because of the pandemic.

Black Friday turned out to be a busy time for Jeannine Cook of Harriett’s Bookshop. A steady stream of customers visited the Fishtown-based store to purchase books and merchandise. Cook said it’s important for businesses like hers to be supported during this shopping season.

“For us and for many businesses like us we know that we are a vulnerable population of businesses,” she said.

“One of the studies that I saw said that Black women-owned businesses decreased by 40% as a result of COVID and to me that is a public emergency. That is something that is going to have a large ripple effect on generations if Black women are not being able to be essential business owners in a city like Philadelphia.”

Cook said the pandemic has caused her to change how she operates the bookstore. She had only been in business for about two months when the crisis struck.

“We’ve had to morph from being what we thought was going to be a really boutique-style bookstore into a very different version of what we thought we would be,” Cook continued.

“But this has pushed us to be innovative and forced us to think outside of box about how we wanted to engage the community,” she said.

Leon Scott, who owns Silver Legends, said he didn’t receive a lot of sales for Black Friday. He said the store doesn’t normally receive much traffic because people often head to the malls to shop.

“It’s been relatively quiet so far and the streets are dead,” Scott said Friday afternoon.

“Some of the other retailers that are friends of mine that I’ve spoken to, seem to be having the same kind of issues.”

Silver Legends, which is located at 2008 Walnut St., features a selection of silver jewelry and handbags. The shop reopened in September after being looted during the social unrest following George Floyd’s death.

Scott said the shop normally does well on Small Business Saturday, a national day established to support small retailers around the country.

“Small Business Saturday typically starts the ball rolling for me and I’m hoping that this year will be a productive one,” he said.

Scott said the holiday season plays a pivotal role in closing out the year on a good note.

“With things that are going on around the world, with this pandemic, you can’t count on anything for 2020,” he said. “Not to be pessimistic or anything, but we are praying for the best, but preparing for the worst.”

Scott said he’s stepped up Silver Legends’ web presence, in hopes of getting an increase in online sales for the holiday season.

Rashida Watson, who owns “The Silk Tent,” is hopeful that customers will show their support on Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. The pandemic caused her to cancel plans to celebrate the business’ third year anniversary this weekend. The shop, at 3860 Lancaster Ave., carries an assortment of jewelry, textiles and home décor.

Watson looks forward to interacting with customers during the holiday season and supplying them with gifts for Christmas and Kwanzaa celebrations. She has been using social media to engage her customers.

Watson said it’s been challenging to keep her business thriving during the pandemic.

“We’ve been fortunate to keep it going,” she said. “It’s hard but we’re still maintaining. We’re still trying to keep our doors open. It’s been very difficult. It does force you to be creative and inventive and coming up with new ways of survival.”

Ayana Jones is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared