Downtown Colorado Springs Feels The Weight Of A ‘Make-It-Or-Break-It’ Holiday Shopping Season

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Bryan Oller for KRCC
Shoppers walk down Tejon Street in downtown Colorado Springs on Black Friday.

Since the first known case of COVID-19 in El Paso County was discovered in March, there's been a patchwork of rules and regulations around the state. It’s a difficult ever-changing and evolving dance that tries to balance public health with economic stability.

Even Santa himself can't avoid the waltz of coronavirus measures.

"I'm wearing a face shield to help prevent the spread of my breath, and we have the plexiglass between us and the people who are having their photos taken," said Santa Tim.

The Pioneer County Office cabin in Old Colorado City, not far from downtown Colorado Springs, is festooned with traditional garland, big red bows and frosted windows. A nutcracker statue and an elf assistant stand by for Santa Tim as he takes photos with kids.

"Children are children and they want toys just like any other year," he said.

But it's not just like any other year.

Bryan Oller for KRCC
Santa Tim in Old Colorado City near downtown Colorado Springs wears a plastic face shield as part of his coronavirus precautionary measures. A piece of plexiglass separates him from the kids he meets. November 28, 2020.

It's a very different sort of holiday season, and for retail, it could mean big problems for small businesses that typically rely on the busiest time of year.

Black Friday is traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year and kicks off the holiday spending season. In downtown Colorado Springs, the ice skating rink was full — a positive sign — but there were only a handful of shoppers out at the time.

When asked about how the day was going, Carrie Baker, co-owner of downtown boutique Terra Verde, jumped straight to how well they were managing customers and social distancing.

"We're being careful about capacity, so we can be at 50 percent capacity,” she said. “So it seems to be OK, we haven't had a line yet, so that's good."

Bryan Oller for KRCC
Carrie Baker, co-owner of Terra Verde boutique in downtown Colorado Springs, keeps count of the number of people inside the store to ensure they remain at capacity limits. Black Friday, 2020.

As for sales, Baker said they've been consistently 25 percent down over the course of the pandemic. When they closed in March for seven weeks, Baker said they spent time building an online store.

"We were never online before," she said. "When we closed in March, we spent the whole time getting everything online and ready to go and so we're a little more prepared right now if things have to change for us. We feel a little bit more prepared than we were then."

Baker admitted she's scared, but the community has been amazing, everyone from businesses supporting other businesses to word of mouth advertising from their loyal customers.

"This isn't about sales only," she said. "It's about people. And so we have to make all the right decisions for the people in our community and the people on our staff. Just… hopefully it'll be over soon."

Other downtown retailers are making similar adjustments. Laurel Prud'homme of the nonprofit Downtown Partnership said retail shops entered the holiday shopping season anywhere from 25 to 45 percent down in sales. 

"Holidays are always a make it or break it time for retailers, and this year, it's not just make it or break it for the season, but it's having to try to recover what they've been through for most of 2020."

Bryan Oller for KRCC
Ice skaters take to the rink in Acacia Park in downtown Colorado Springs. Black Friday 2020.

Everything the local small business owners are doing is about meeting their customers where they are, “especially at a time when they're also being told, 'we want you to stay home and stay safe.'"

To Dirk Draper, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corporation, it’s an all too familiar tension.

"When the scope of the pandemic became evident in March and early April, we went looking for an owner's manual of how to respond to it, and we couldn't find one," he said.

Draper has heard from a lot of people "who want to do the right thing but are concerned about what they can do, what is safe and what's acceptable." Business owners are holding their collective breath.

Adaptability is key, said Draper. So is the willingness of the shopper to think about this season a little bit differently. 

"Think creatively and break some molds and do some things that are different to help keep our businesses in business," he said. "I think about businesses I'm going to patronize in a year from now, and that's who I'm spending my money with now to keep them in business through these tough times."