Local Businesses Get Innovative to Reach Holiday Shoppers


With the current restrictions on in-person shopping, many small businesses are finding new ways to reach customers this holiday season.

Now that Christmas is just around the corner, Northampton stores are used to being packed with holiday shoppers, but this year, these stores are using online alternatives to stay afloat.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in March, small, local businesses have been struggling to keep their doors open. According to a September 16 article by Anjali Sundaram for CNBC, “60% of closed businesses won’t be reopening.” Businesses that are still open, however, are going to do their best to avoid permanent closure.

A2Z Science, a local toy store located on King Street in Northampton, has been forced to expand beyond the small brick and mortar storefront and on to the world wide web.

André Boulay, co-owner of A2Z Science, told The Willistonian about how the store has handled the loss of in-person shopping.

“Prior to March, we did not have an online store, but we immediately knew that with reduced traffic in the store the only way we could survive is having online sales be part of that,” he wrote.

Receiving most of their sales during the holiday season, A2Z Science needs Christmastime shoppers to keep the business moving.

“Since we are a toy store, we rely on the bulk of our sales for the year to happen from the time between Thanksgiving and December,” Boulay noted. “We wouldn’t really survive as a toy store without those sales during this time!”

However, Boulay has found that local shoppers are doing their best to continue supporting the store despite this year’s tough circumstances.

“Thankfully, the community has definitely embraced shopping local and many people have decided to start shopping much earlier than normal. So, November in general has been much closer to a normal looking month for us compared to the rest of the year,” he said.

While online shopping will never compare to the in-person experience, complete with Yo-Yo demonstrations and neon lights, Boulay and his team have done their best to make the online experience as enjoyable and easy as possible.

“It’s hard to create a shopping experience like we have in the store, but we put a lot of effort into really organizing our produces online by category,” Boulay said. “Our customers have all told us they really enjoy their online shopping experience!”

Down the road from A2Z Science, The Baker’s Pin on Bridge Street has also entered the world of online retail. Specializing in kitchen goods and cooking classes, The Baker’s Pin receives business during the holidays, not only for gifts, but also cooking essentials.

Lisa Greco, owner of The Baker’s Pin, finds that the biggest difference is that holiday shoppers are focusing on specific items this year, instead of simply window shopping for the perfect gift.

“Although our customer traffic is way down compared to year over year numbers, yet our customers are focused on their needs,” she said. “[This] results in [a] direct customer who knows what they want and need rather than those who are just browsing.”

Similar to A2Z Science, The Baker’s Pin had very few items and experience online prior to the closure of in-person shopping, so Greco had to put in a lot of work to get the website up and running.

“Early in the pandemic when we had to lock our doors and serve our customers via curbside, I spent every waking hour of my day putting product on our website. We went from selling only cooking classes and a few items online, to selling almost every [item] available in inventory online,” Greco explained.

The Baker’s Pin also had the additional challenge of transitioning their cooking school to an online-friendly format. While the initial closure of the school was an enormous loss to the business, Greco and her team immediately found ways to teach online.

“Having lost a huge amount of revenue to our store with the loss of the school, we quickly invested in equipment and set up a recording/cooking studio for online cooking classes that we started in July and [are] currently scheduled through the beginning of April,” she said.

Even though online cooking classes are not nearly the same as in-person ones, both in terms of experience and revenue, Greco views it as a good way to stay connected during a challenging time.

“Although it doesn’t bring the same revenue in-person classes did, the whole effort is rewarding to our customer, as well as the school. It is a wonderful way for us to stay connected with people and talk about food and cooking with the greater community,” Greco said.

But getting online was just the first challenge these businesses faced. Throughout the pandemic, one company has continuously benefitted from all the online ordering: Amazon.

Alana Semuels, in a July 28 article for Time, wrote that “before the pandemic, Amazon represented around 4% of total U.S. retail sales. But with the new habits formed during the pandemic, UBS predicts that by 2025, e-commerce will make up one-quarter of total retail sales, up 15% from last year.”

This immense growth is leaving very little room for small and local businesses to thrive in online retail.

Boulay of A2Z Science finds that the hardest part about competing with Amazon is the fast shipping Amazon offers.

“Amazon definitely makes things hard for retail. Customers including myself are very much used to the ease Amazon’s shopping experience: low prices, and fast shipping which in many ways is not realistic for brick-and-mortar retail to always compete with,” he wrote.

The Baker’s Pin is facing a similar challenge in terms of shipping, but Greco believes her team provides superior service to that of Amazon.

“We’ve always had competition,” Greco stated. “But now our greatest struggle is supply chain and the race to get the product. Amazon, Williams Sonoma, and the like have a corner on inventory and allocation that small businesses [are] second tier.”

“How we get customers and keep them is a blend of service and assortment. We seek out the best product in each category and give customers options on price points,” she added.

While the combination of going online and then facing major competition, Boulay thinks the community will continue to support local businesses, ultimately allowing them to remain open.

“Our community recognizes that brick-and-mortar stores are the foundation of a healthy downtown and vibrant community and that without shopping local, we will most assuredly lose part of what makes living here so special.”

Boulay advises everyone to continue shopping as locally as possible, both to help preserve the local atmosphere and diversity within retail.

“Spending our money locally is something we all need to be aware of and actively do and I definitely see that our community is doing that,” Boulay noted. “And when the pandemic is over we definitely do not want the only retail operation to be Amazon and I have heard our customers say that which makes me feel optimistic that we can get through this together.”