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Local businesses cope with changed landscape

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Lisa Dunlap Photo Stellar Coffee’s owner says revenues are edging up again and now are about 80% of normal sales.

Things are starting to look up again for Stellar Coffee, a popular Roswell business.

“I am optimistic now,” said owner Anne Baker.

She explained that sales hit a low of about 25% of usual revenues after state business shutdowns were ordered in March, but have now recovered to about 80%.

Stellar Coffee is just one of many locally owned businesses in the area hit hard by the coronavirus crisis.

In Stellar’s case, business was restricted for about nine weeks to take-out, curbside service or delivery, but Baker made several decisions and changes to survive.

While large businesses play an important role in any city, small businesses have been particularly affected by the pandemic and the health orders that restricted or shut down businesses. According to a 2018 U.S. Small Business Administration profile of the state, small businesses represent 99% of all businesses in the state and employ about 54% of workers.

Researchers who produced an April 2020 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research surveyed 5,819 U.S.-owned businesses with 500 or fewer employees to determine impacts of the coronavirus. One of the findings was that two-thirds of respondents had enough cash or liquid assets in reserve to cover two months of expenses, and many were anticipating needing some sort of financial assistance to get through the summer. By March, 1.8% had already closed permanently and 43% had closed temporarily.

The most significant financial losses are expected for businesses that traditionally rely on face-to-face services, especially those in hospitality and leisure-related industries. Overall, 72% of businesses said they thought they could survive a one-month shutdown and still be operational in December. But, if the crisis were to go on for six months, only 38% responded that they thought they would be open by the end of the calendar year.

The Small Business Administration emergency and relief loan programs were seen as crucial in keeping businesses open, but, at the same time, many respondents expressed hesitation about program requirements and eligibility.

Locally, some businesses made the choice to get the assistance. Others decided to shift their business models, try different product lines or rely on their own savings.

Here’s a look at how Stellar Coffee and several other Roswell-owned businesses are working to prosper in the months ahead.

Invasion Station

In some ways, the state public health orders came at a good time for Invasion Station, a retail shop at 600 N. Main St. that sells mostly locally made T-shirts, crafts, jewelry and curios, most related to aliens and the notorious Roswell Incident.

Owners Chuck and Gina Dwyer, who have a family connection to that 1947 Roswell UFO incident, had been planning a store expansion after a successful first year.

The state business shutdown orders on March 23 came at a time when they were ready to move forward with the construction work, which was permitted by the public health orders.

Finished about three weeks ago, the remodel of the former Texaco gas station has added large glass windows to expand the store by about 1,500 square feet. It also has placed an LED-lighted spacecraft on the roof. Both additions are intended to help draw traffic. That’s in conjunction with what existed before, the Roswell Incident-themed mural on the side of the building that Chuck Dwyer said depicts his grandfather’s eyewitness account of the event, and the aliens and spacecraft cutouts that provide photo ops for tourists. According to Dwyer, those images have been seen in many countries in the world thanks to social media postings by visitors.

As the owner of Allied Key and Safe, a family business since 1937 next door to Invasion Station, Dwyer and his wife, the owner of an insurance agency, are used to the ups and downs of business cycles.

“I wanted to open this for 20 years,” he said about Invasion Station, adding that business for him and his three employees was great until the coronavirus crisis began.

He said the cancellation of the UFO Festival is what will hurt the most and would welcome some other downtown event, but he is intent on staying open and said he thinks he will be able to do that with savings. One of his planned moves is to create an online store to generate revenues in another way.

He said he doesn’t expect that the state government can do much to help his business, but would like to see the city do more to attract tourists, especially those interested in the UFO and alien themes.

“If I were rich, I would put in a small alien-theme park,” he said, adding that right now, many visitors and tourists who stop by would like more to do at night or after visiting the International UFO Museum and Research Center.

He also said that he and his wife have made it a point to shop local when possible after the business shutdowns began and would like to see more people have that perspective.

Saddle Barn

The Saddle Barn Inc. is a small business at 1102 N. Garden Ave. that began in 1970 and, until recently, was locally owned. The wholesale manufacturer produces gear and apparel used primarily by rodeo competitors both in the United States and internationally, said co-owner Tracy Wright, who owns a retail operation in Arizona. Her Arizona store had been a Saddle Barn customer for years before Wright and Nancy Criss decided to buy the local operation.

The business shutdown orders caused it to close its doors and furlough its employees, but some funding from the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. and the Church on the Move enabled it to shift to making fabric face coverings, an operation considered essential. That allowed it to bring back the 15 employees it had laid off. The business also hired two temporary workers to focus on the face masks.

“We sold about 5,200 and we donated about 500,” Wright said. “That little bit of cash flow really makes a difference on whether we can keep our doors open or not keep our doors open.”

The company also was able to get the Payroll Protection Program loan and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

She is now seeing the resumption among some suppliers and the return of some smaller events in the United States, although without spectators, and hopes that means business will improve now.

She said she hopes that government assistance for small business will be available a few months from now, as well.

“I hope there isn’t a second wave, but they keep (saying) there might be, come wintertime,” she said, “and we need to do everything we can to prepare for that. The uncertainty right now of where your business is going to be down the road is a little troublesome.”

One way they are trying to get business going is by offering customers discounts and free shipping, waiving of minimum orders, free shipping and introducing a new tack line and a new catalog.

“We are just going to try to find ways to make it easier for our customers to get back into business, too,” Wright said.

Once Again

Consignments

Many people who know Molly Boyles link her to Main Street.

Her consignment store at 207 N. Main St. had been at that spot for 13 years, and Boyles, who bought the business in July 2004, is an active and visible board member of the MainStreet Roswell organization.

It came as quite a shock to some, then, when Boyles had to make the decision to close her store.

She said the business shutdown orders and a lack of response from landlords about negotiating rent discounts or deferrals were the “final straw” that made closing necessary, which also meant she has laid off her one full-time employee and three part-time employees.

Now she is operating her business completely online, although she has a site she uses for a photo studio and shipping and packaging site.

The business has a website (onceagainroswell.com) and public and “VIP” Facebook sites, where Facebook Live sales are now held, but is also a merchant associated with other retail sites such as eBay, Mercari and Poshmark.

She said that if there is a silver lining to what happened, it is that it has moved people more quickly to online shopping and showed more merchants that their businesses can operate that way.

“I think online shopping, even for my business, can be a successful business plan,” she said. “The use of the internet and the many sales channels … can help my business thrive.”

Boyles has long been involved with online sales, once serving as a certified eBay training assistant, and now she is willing to help other businesses transition to online if they are interested.

Still, she remains open to the idea of another physical store at some point, and said she definitely would prefer a downtown location.

While she said she didn’t think the low-interest loans and grants were right for her, she did see their value. She also said that the “shop local” awareness and promotional campaigns now being done by the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. and the Roswell Chamber of Commerce are needed and would like to see other such efforts develop. She also encourages people to frequent the “Shop Small Roswell” Facebook site set up by local restaurateur Kerry Moore and to reach out to any local business that is struggling.

“When you are shopping with your small stores, your locally owned and operated businesses, … more of those dollars stay locally, which means it adds to the tax base,” she said, adding that those tax dollars support road repairs, public safety and other local services and projects.

“When they (large chains) buy their supplies, their money is being spent out of state, or even out of the country, so the money doesn’t circulate as many times in our community and does not generate the GRT (gross receipts taxes) needed,” she said.

Stellar Coffee

The first weeks of the shutdown in March were a “scary prospect,” said owner Anne Baker, who has owned the business since April 2014.

“I did have to take immediate action to help sustain my business,” she said, “to keep cash flow from going out of my business.”

That included cutting back on operating hours, reducing employee hours by about half and taking on some work shifts herself. Some employees had to apply for unemployment to make up for the missing hours, she said.

After three weeks, she received the SBA Payroll Protection Program loan so she could bring back her employees. While the dining room was closed, she and her employees repainted and made some changes to improve the look of the dining area.

Business also began to pick up as loyal customers continued to order food and beverages for take-out or delivery, so that sales were back up to 80% of their usual levels by a couple of weeks ago.

But typically about 30% of sales are from tourists, which is still not anywhere near normal levels.

The time has required adaptations, she said. The business has invested in drink carriers and containers more suitable for take-out and in specialized cleaning services to ensure proper sanitation. It also has increased its social media presence.

“It is a new world,” she said. “It is a new format that we are getting used to.”

Business Assistance

For small businesses seeking information about available loans, grants or technical assistance available, possible resources include the U.S. Small Business Administration and its network of Small Business Development Centers (www.sba.gov), the New Mexico Economic Development Department (www.gonm.biz.), WESST (www.wesst.org).