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'You think of giving up the business': Retailers recoup amid COVID-19, student absence

Underground printing, one of the UNC apparel and sportswear stores on Franklin Street, on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020.

After months of being shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, local retailers say the decision to reopen, especially with rising cases and uncertainty about UNC students returning this fall, has not been easy. 

Holly Dedmond, the retail manager of Chapel Hill Sportswear, said before the virus hit, the business was having a good year. But with the exodus of people from town, she said, business has been drastically affected.

“Of course, last fall, we had a great football season," Dedmond said. "And even though our basketball team didn’t live up to what most Carolina fans wanted us to be, we still had a lot of games on Saturdays. We were having a good spring.”

Chapel Hill Sportswear has been open since May 9 for in-person shopping, which Dedmond said most shoppers were comfortable with, even preferring in-store shopping to curbside pickup. Nonetheless, she said, it has been a slower summer than ever.

Alana Loken, the brand manager of Shrunken Head Boutique, also said this spring has brought a concerning lack of business. 

“There’s way less people who have a drive to be in Chapel Hill,” Loken said, “The traffic in this town is way slower.”  

Both managers mentioned that the lack of summer sales is because of the lack of programs. UNC’s sports camps, summer school and new student orientations have all been canceled or moved online.

Matt Gladdek, executive director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, said this retail plight has stretched back as far as March, when students left for a spring break that turned into a five-month absence from the town. 

“UNC has been basically out of session since the beginning of Spring Break,” Gladdek said. 

Since then, Gladdek said the lack of shoppers in town for big events, like Commencement and Mother’s Day, have also hurt local retail. 

Looking forward, Gladdek said that the prospect of having a limited or nonexistent football season looms over Partnership retailers. 

“Even though the games aren't played on Franklin Street, business booms on those days,” Gladdek said. 

Dedmond said the return of students and football is essential for her business's recovery. 

“We need the students to be back in the fall if at all possible," Dedmond said. "We need the students back on campus and we need football to be played."

Drew Chellani, owner of Classic Carolina, said his store was shut down for three and a half months before reopening in mid-June.

He said weighing profit with safety concerns, the decision to reopen was not easy. 

"It’s very hard to know that you’re not able to pay your bills," Chellani said. 

To battle possible customer concerns, most businesses are offering the same safety precautions: sanitizing hands inside the store, requiring masks for staff and visitors and encouraging social distancing.

Gladdek also mentioned the state-recommended “Three W’s” — wearing a mask, washing hands and waiting 6 feet apart. 

Of course, not all guests are able or willing to comply. Chellani noted that, on his first day reopening Classic Carolina, 21 out of 25 customers did not wear masks. When he tried to enforce mask wearing, he said, some customers left. 

Following county and state mask mandates, Chellani said customers without masks are no longer allowed in the store.

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Masks aside, Gladdek noted that the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership has provided a myriad of aid options to businesses, including a weekly email about where to find financial aid, outdoor dining furniture for restaurants and a recent proposal to the Town Council about extending the sidewalks downtown to accommodate more people outdoors. 

Chellani said he is excited to see students return back to campus, and the business they may bring. So far, however, he said revenue loss due to closure has been devastating. 

“Sometimes you think of just giving up the business,” Chellani said.  

For a list of businesses currently open, visit this link, courtesy of Experience Downtown Chapel Hill and the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership.

@DTHCityState |