The Sky Isn’t Falling: Part 3
The coronavirus pandemic and resulting shutdown has thrown the U.S. economy into turmoil and led to record numbers of unemployed.
In this new column, Hamodia will speak each week with the representative of a different industry, to discuss the effects of the coronavirus on their business.
This week, Hamodia speaks with Aryeh Rosenfeld of Los Angeles who is the owner of two retail stores: Family Fashion, which sells clothing for women and children, and The Wear-House, which sells paper goods. He also manages a third retail store, The Hat Box.
What’s in Store?
Both your stores, Family Fashion and The Wear-House, have been closed since mid-March.
Right. And the city was very strict. Early on, even after I closed, I figured it was OK to allow a single customer to come in at a time by appointment. But city officials once saw a customer leaving the store and came in and warned me that this was also illegal. I did not realize I could not even have a single customer [come by] appointment.
So now your stores are completely closed.
Yes. Even before the government closed all stores, business was already slower than usual. Once the government started banning large gatherings, and people knew that the coronavirus had come to LA, people weren’t shopping as much. But when they closed the stores, my business came to a complete stop.
I’m on social media group with frum owners of 30 women’s clothing stores on the East Coast. They all basically came together to discuss what’s going on. But business has been dead.
I’m the only frum hosiery store in LA. These products are essential. I don’t know why we’re not allowed to stay open. It may not be “essential” to keep buying regular clothing. But tights get ripped; women need to buy new ones continuously. Hosiery stores should be considered “essential” and allowed to remain open.
What has your business model been since you’ve been closed?
I’ve had to go from being a brick-and-mortar store to pushing online sales and phone and fax orders, and delivering them to people’s homes.
Starting Friday, May 8, people [were] allowed to pick up their own orders curbside, but they still may not enter the store.
How has the shutdown affected your employees? Are they hourly workers or salaried? Have you had to lay them off, or are they helping you with the online orders?
My three employees are all hourly workers. They decided on their own, early in the pandemic, even before we were officially shut, not to come into work. But I would have had to lay them off anyway.
So you are taking care of all the online and phone orders yourself?
I take care of it with my wife. Online orders are very minimal.
Shopping as a whole has come to a standstill, even online. This is what all the store owners on my social media group are saying as well. People are holding onto whatever money they have, and just don’t have funds to shop. At the store I manage, The Hat Box, there are also few phone orders; basically, it’s only people who are making bar mitzvahs.
So it’s creating a big problem, both for us retailers, who are stuck with tons of inventory that was or was not paid for yet, as well as for wholesalers, who are desperate also — both because past orders weren’t paid for, and because nobody is making new orders now. Usually, a week after Pesach, the Jewish wholesalers have their trade shows, where they start showing us the new merchandise for the fall season. In a normal year, I’d be in New York now to pick out the fall merchandise, because they’d begin manufacturing it now in China. But of course, this year’s frum trade shows have been canceled.
The regular trade shows have been postponed to a week before Rosh Hashanah, but we frum retailers can’t go to trade shows then, because that’s the busiest season and it’s too late for us to start doing fall orders then. Usually we get the fall line in in August, before people begin their shopping for the Yamim Tovim.
So as things stand now, when the frum women go shopping next fall, what inventory will they be seeing?
Right now, we retailers are debating whether we can put away our current excess inventory for next spring and summer.
As for next fall, nothing has been picked out, nothing has been ordered. I’m not sure what the answer to that question is. I don’t think anybody knows.
Do you have fall inventory left over from last year?
Everyone has some leftover stuff; stores may try to sell that.
Now that you have moved to phone and online orders, what percentage of your typical revenues are you earning?
I didn’t really have an operating website before the coronavirus. I started the website recently. I am currently earning 2% of the revenue I was making previously.
Did I hear correctly?
Yes. 2%. My parnassah is completely out the window. I don’t have money to pay the rent on my store.
How has the landlord reacted?
I happen to have a frum landlord. He is understanding of the situation; he is nice about it.
Things have been very tough. When this pandemic hit, I was doing construction on my home, so any savings I had are used up. There’s never a good time for a pandemic, but this hit at a particularly bad time for me.
I am expecting to personally receive, I think, $4,400 from the federal stimulus bill, but I haven’t gotten it yet.
My stores’ business is 98% gone. I have another business. A friend and I rent cars on two car-sharing apps — Getaround and Turo — but that’s been dead, too, because most users were tourists, and nobody is traveling now.
All our income now, besides the 2% of my store revenue, comes from my wife’s teaching paycheck.
Otherwise, there is nothing. I am holding my breath and hoping that people will order online.
When did you open the website?
It’s a few years old, but it was never really operating. I started pushing it after Pesach.
Recently, a nice woman in the community put together a flyer with the phone numbers and websites of the local stores, urging people to support us.
Why do you think online sales are so much lower now than your usual sales?
The vibe that I am getting from the other retailers is that people are just not shopping.
Is it also because they are not aware of the website? Or because people prefer to shop for clothing in person?
The site is getting views — on any given day, there are 700 people on the website. People definitely prefer to shop in person for clothing. But right now, people seem to be holding on to their money. A lot of people are out of work.
Also, I think people are afraid to buy things now because they’re scared of touching things that anyone else touched.
Do you think that once people are forced to buy online, they’re just used to going to Amazon?
No, they’re not buying frum clothing on Amazon.
Once this pandemic completely passes and everything’s back to normal, in what ways will your industry be changed permanently?
Everyone’s talking about a second wave of the virus in the fall. I think that retail’s going to undergo a very big change.
As much as things were going online before, I think that this may bring, in a profound way, the end of retail brick-and-mortar stores.
In this pandemic, have there been any silver linings for you?
From my perspective, it’s nice to see that all these 30 frum retailers came together as a group. It wasn’t just “what can I do for myself,” but people were being supportive of each other, discussing things and giving each other suggestions.
The main silver lining about all this is for sure the fact that it slowed everyone down, and everyone got “stuck” — in a good way — being with their family all day. I’ve never spent so much time with my wife and four children.
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