November 26, 2021

Behavior, federal help key to an economic rebound

S.N. Briere/ staff reporter

Linda Badman, of Moravia, asks Homer Men and Boys manager Rob Garrison whether he has a certain vest in stock at the store Monday. Although the retail industry has taken a hit during COVID pandemic, Garrison said the store has been holding up well.

Bev & Co. in Homer bustled on a recent morning with last-minute Christmas shoppers and people looking to splurge on themselves.

Businesses like Bev & Co. are still working through the coronavirus pandemic, trying to figure out ways to generate taxable revenue, something that New York has seen a significant loss of in most of its industry sectors, shows a report from the New York State Association of Counties.

“We shut down March 17 to June 1,” said Renee Neiderman, the owner of Bev & Co. “So, we suffered quite a loss of sales during that time. We had to lay off our employees. We called them back when we reopened.”

The pandemic-inspired recession hit retail industries — stores, restaurants, bars and the leisure and hospitality industry — harder than any other economic sector, the association reported. Taxable sales were down 28% from March to May and 9% from June to August. That’s nearly $34 billion in lost revenue statewide.

While larger companies will more than likely survive, smaller businesses face a tougher hurdle, one that relies on them adapting to people’s changed behavior and finding ways to get them through the door, said Steven Kyle, associate professor in applied economics and policy at Cornell University.

It will also take some federal help, too, he said.

TAKING A BEATING

The association of counties compared taxable sales of New York’s industry sectors in New York from March through August, compared with the same time in 2019.

It found many of the businesses that bring in large taxable sales did poorly during the pandemic and that other industry sectors were suffering — most industry sectors saw declines.

Early in the pandemic, between March and May, industries like travel accommodation, clothing stores, electronics, automobile and restaurants took hard hits. Travel accommodations saw a 84.9% decrease, automobiles a 43.7% decrease and clothing stores a 71.9%.

Some of the same trends continued between June and August. Travel accommodations continued to see a decline, down 77.6%, restaurants saw a decrease of 39.4% and clothing stores declined 39.5%.

“We will never make up this year what we lost,” Neiderman said. “People are still very careful and concerned about shopping. We follow strict cleaning procedures and there are never too many people in the store. We just have to write this year off.”

ANOMALIES

The pandemic didn’t affect Homer Men and Boys as much as other retailers, said store manager Rob Garrison, whose wife owns the shops known for selling Carhart, Levis, Columbia and more.

“I don’t think it’s affected us that much,” he said. More people have been coming at different hours of the day, including earlier in the morning.

“People are getting smart and saying ‘I want to avoid crowds,’” Garrison said. “They’ll ask us when is a good time to come in.”

Garrison said the store benefits because few others occupy its niche. It has also been advertising in the Syracuse and Binghamton markets, and getting customers.

GENERATING REVENUE

Of the industries in the NYSAC report, few made it in the black during the pandemic. But the retail alcohol industry did.

Taxable sales grew 25.8% from March to May compared to the same period in 2019. It was followed by a 24.6% increase from June to August compared with a year earlier.

Early on in the pandemic people were buying a lot of alcohol — specifically high-proof alcohol — to make hand sanitizer during a shortage, said Johnnie DeLorenzo, the owner of Groton Avenue Liquor Store in Cortland.

The run on the liquor stores in the beginning of the pandemic may have also been because people thought liquor stores might close, he said. But they didn’t, although as the pandemic has progressed the store has remained busy.

Perhaps, he said, people have been buying more alcohol because they don’t feel comfortable going out to bars or restaurants.

“I don’t think people are drinking more, but they’re limited on where they can drink,” DeLorenzo said. “We have people that do Zoom happy hour.”

BOUNCING BACK

But Kyle said bouncing back won’t be easy and it won’t necessarily be quick.

“The speed with which things come back is going to depend on the extent to which we have been successful preserving the businesses,” Kyle said.

However, preserving businesses may not be easy.

“Many of them rely on in-person shopping,” Kyle said. “All that’s gone and I think most in-person retail is suffering because people are afraid to go to the stores. The big ones — Target, Walmart, etc. — they’ll hold on. They’ll ride it out, but the small ones are gradually going under.”

Kyle said some businesses like movie theaters or restaurants may go away, but eventually come under new ownership.

“The problem with that is that takes time,” Kyle said. “That’s why the federal government programs have really tried hard to keep businesses afloat, number one, and workers attached to them through the Paycheck Protection Program so when they do get a vaccine and people do start wanting to go out again, they can start up right away.”

Changes like curbside pickup, delivery, online shopping or the push to buy local are all changing the way smaller businesses operate, but it may not be their saving grace, Kyle said.

“That will make a little bit of a difference, but not one to save those businesses,” he said.

IN THE MEANTIME

Businesses will eventually have to adapt to changing behaviors, but right now they need federal help, he added.

“What the federal government does matters a lot here,” Kyle said. “If we get strong federal stimulus after the vaccines are out there, we could see a growth spurt that will happen fairly quickly. If we don’t, then we could see this sort of initial growth. Where that goes after that depends on whether the federal government is supporting the economy and trying to get those people employed and trying to reinvigorate demand.”

Kyle said it will be interesting to see how businesses deal with the pandemic and economy.

“Once they do want to reopen, they’re going to want to get people in their door and they’ll have to use the usual marketing gimmick to do that, but if they’re flying in negative space already, the extent to which they can afford that is going to be limited. So it’s going to be a balancing act for a lot of those small businesses,” Kyle said.

Neiderman said she’s keeping her head high for the future.

“I am the eternal optimist,” she said. “I am praying that we get back to something we can call normal! I think people will continue to be more careful and we will never forget. I think we all just want to feel safe again.”