SHREWSBURY — Karl Sachs, owner of Sachs Jewelers on Route 9, spent the early days of the pandemic like most of us did: at home and plugged in.
“We shut down, basically locked up everything, and watched the news,” Sachs said. “We watched Gov. Baker’s conferences every day, and as the country shut down — we’re involved with several jewelry organizations — we sat in on many Zoom meetings, had discussions about how we were affected, what insights we could gain, etc.”
And while business has bounced back since his store reopened June 8, Sachs noted that he essentially lost a quarter’s worth of revenue.
Just down the street at Papa’s Hardware, however, it was a different story.
“This year’s going to be a banner year for us,” said Fred Betti, owner of the hardware store and also an industrial supply company. “The hardware store just went cuckoo. Our business will probably double from last year.”
COVID-19 locked down both Central Massachusetts’ economy and its people in late March. But just as the virus affected patients with varying severity, it had a similar impact on local businesses. Some deemed essential were allowed to stay open and did very well. Others closed temporarily or permanently.
These different experiences are reflected in interviews with a sample of local businesspeople along Route 9.
“It was different for everybody … every business is different in this pandemic,” said Jay Thomas of Thomas Auto Parts and vice president of the Lakeway Business District Association.
“Being in auto parts we were considered essential business. Home Depot, grocery stores did well,” Thomas continued. “As far as restaurants or businesses that weren’t essential, they got killed.”
Howard Grossman, who redeveloped Spag’s into Lakeway Commons, described it as a “tale of two cities.”
“One half of the center, the parking lot was pretty much full all the time, with all the Whole Foods shoppers,” Grossman said. “The other half was all the smaller retail and restaurants, and it was empty because all were closed.”
But none of the businesses interviewed said the first few weeks of the pandemic were good.
“Think in the beginning when it all started, people were very panicked – they weren’t spending money,” Thomas said. “Things just stunk because people were concerned about their own financial situation.”
Michael Tomaiolo, owner of Atlantic Poké restaurant in Lakeway Commons, agreed.
“It felt like we were hitting the brakes, then it slowly started like it was coming back,” Tomaiolo said.
But for some businesses, things turned around as new opportunities arose.
Betti, for instance, said business picked up dramatically as soon as Papa’s was able to stock personal protective equipment and began offering curbside service.
“We went from thinking we were going to have to lay people off to not being able to get people to come in and work,” Betti said. “It went really quickly from one end of the spectrum to another within a three-week span.”
Thomas said the stimulus checks helped his business.
“With people working from home, they had that extra car that they had time to get fixed – they could be without a car,” he explained. “I think the stimulus money really helped people.”
And Tomaiolo said that being able to “pivot” to emphasize certain aspects of his business helped. For instance, he said that his restaurant was able to quickly transition to curbside pickup and delivery because it had already incorporated online ordering and relationships with delivery vendors such as Grubhub.
“We, from the beginning (of the business), set up a lot of the functions of the business to be a takeout model,” Tomaiolo said. “Have we made big changes? Absolutely, but we weren’t trying to develop it all during COVID.”
And perhaps the biggest “pivot,” as Tomaiolo described it, for businesses was a renewed vigilance about cleanliness.
“We were not even letting vendors go in, spraying every package outside. We went to the absolute extreme to keep staff and customers safe,” Tomaiolo said. “I feel like a lot of customers because they knew how much we care about cleanliness and serving customers safely, they gave us their trust, especially in the beginning of COVID when things were closing down.”
At Sachs, a bottle of hand sanitizer greets every customer at the door, and portable plexiglass partitions provide an extra layer of protection for mask-muffled consultations on engagement rings, stone settings and more.
“We try to make people as comfortable as we can and secure as we can,” Sachs explained. He laughed. “We had a pile of masks outside too, but people kept swiping them.”
But interestingly, Sachs said that businesses aren’t the only ones who have changed due to COVID-19: Customers have, too.
For instance, he said that customers are more thoughtful, willing to spend more for quality (especially since their big weddings have been postponed or canceled), and more cognizant of the benefits of shopping small and having a meaningful experience with their shopping.
“I think people are a little bit more patient, a little bit more grateful, and people that didn’t shop small before that discover you or discover us, and are like ‘Wow, didn’t know I could get that kind of service, get treated like that,’ ” Sachs said.
“Even though people are also spending money in big-box stores, they’re getting used to and like the idea they can go into a small store and get help rather than fighting the crowds in the big-box store,” Betti said.
And although their experiences during the heart of the shutdown differed, both Sachs and Betti said that people are spending their money on more permanent and meaningful things like their homes and on jewelry.
“In times of uncertainty, people draw on things that are more important to them – their own relationships, their homes… it’s the same thing with jewelry,” Sachs said. “People are more prideful in personal possessions that have more meaning, are passed down, and they are more interested in personal things, or creating new things.”
“I know about jewelry and I know about people’s behavior and relationships,” Sachs continued. “And I think people are hunkering down, investing in themselves and their personal relationships, and that’s good for the jewelry business.”
Of course, all of those interviewed were aware that things could change. A vaccine could be developed; an outbreak could provoke another shutdown.
“All things remaining the same that we don’t throw any more grenades into the economy,” Betti said. “Everything’s predictable as long as things are getting better … if it unravels for a second time, I think that it’s going to be a lot worse economically.”
But several of those interviewed offered lessons learned from the pandemic that could help them if the virus roars back.
“I think the key is having a long-term vision of your tenants, your business,” said Grossman. “We were fortunate to have a lender – obviously we have a mortgage too – ready and able to work with us and knew the long-term priority was to keep our tenants viable, not hurt them. I think it’s communication, working together, and understanding that keeping good tenants is good for you as well.”
Tomaiolo said constant monitoring, and a willingness to quickly adjust, are necessary.
“You have to constantly evaluate your business and business model,” Tomaiolo said. “You also have to be willing to adapt to change as it happens. A reluctance to change in business is kind of like shooting yourself in the foot.”
Betti said he has learned to better trust his business instincts.
“I was a little hesitant at first to swing for the fence and buy 10,000 of this item because I might need it further down the road,” Betti said.
And he vowed to continue the popular customer-service options such as curbside pickup.
“You gotta give the customer what they need, and that’s unbelievable customer service,” said Betti. “Anyone can sell products.”