Judith Oster in front of her store Caravans in the Grove Arcade. Credit: Judith Oster

While every small business is suffering due to the coronavirus lockdown, Asheville’s boutique apparel stores face their own financial and operational challenges. 

In an industry that relies on foot traffic, they must adapt to remote operations to weather the state-mandated closure of their brick-and-mortar locations.

The downtown area – the crown jewel of Asheville’s tourism industry – is not only feeling the financial ramifications; it’s facing an identity crisis as well. Its image is quirky, independent and small. Of the 222 businesses that responded to a 2018 survey of the Asheville Downtown Association, 116 said they employed fewer than 10 staff members, according to Meghan Rogers, executive director. 

“We are the foundation, we’re the image, we’re what you get, the mom and pop [shops],” said Judith Oster, the owner of Caravans on 1 Page Ave. in the Grove Arcade. Caravans first began in Rockland, Maine, in 1996 and found a new home in Asheville in November of 2012. Loyal customers help, but tourism provides the backbone of revenue. 

Judith Oster

Judith Oster in front of her store Caravans in the Grove Arcade. Credit: Judith Oster

“We do have a local following, but, for the most part, we really benefit from the weekend trips from Atlanta, Charlotte, the day trippers or weekend trippers,” said Lexi DiYeso, who owns the Hazel Twenty boutique at 16 Patton Ave.

With few out-of-towners visiting Asheville and polls showing that Americans would rather stay home another few weeks than risk a second wave of the pandemic, boutiques have virtually no choice but to go digital so customers can browse from the safety of their homes.

DiYeso has had a website since she opened in May of 2018. But she estimated that online orders accounted for only two percent of Hazel Twenty’s total sales before the pandemic hit. 

“Now I’m having to pivot to 100 percent selling online, and everybody else who has [had] to close their doors is doing the same thing,” she said.

Daniel Areyzaga, who has co-owned Charmed Asheville at 46 Haywood St. with his wife for about a year, closed two days before the state-wide mandate was issued. He had been working on a website before the pandemic hit and was able to get it running shortly after his store closed. 

“I don’t want to call it a silver lining, because it’s certainly not one, but this situation did provide us with the opportunity, the motivation, and the time to get this up,” Areyzaga said.

Daniel Areyzaga

Daniel Areyzaga and his wife Nickie, co-owners of Charmed Asheville on Haywood St. Credit: Daniel Areyzaga

Other boutique owners have been unable to make the transition as quickly.

Brooke Pollock, owner of Frock Boutique at 4 Battery Park Ave., said that, as a “tiny store,” she relies on day-to-day interactions with customers.

Frock has been around since 2008 and previously operated without a virtual shop. The process to get a website live took about a month, Pollock said. In the meantime, she relied solely on social media to drive sales.

Oster said customers had been asking to browse electronically since the first iteration of Caravans in Maine. She always refused, thinking the impersonal nature of selling from behind a screen took away the “exclusivity and customer service” of her store.

“It just loses something,” she said. “It took a pandemic for me to finally concede to opening up an online store.”

Now that her operation is up, she said, it has helped cover the cost of rent but hasn’t created any profit. For local boutiques, these new digital connections are a Band-Aid, not a solution.

“With social media, it’s a necessary evil to be on there,” Areyzaga said. “But you’re not going to end up saving a business by posting four times a day on Facebook or Instagram.”

Some landmarks are still operating without a digital presence at all.

Alan Levy, the owner of Gentlemen’s Gallery at 66 Haywood St., describes himself as “old-school.” His store has been an Asheville institution since 1989.

Now, Levy’s main source of business comes from a loyal following that calls him and requests photos of merchandise. He then ships the clothing to their homes, and they are able to return anything that doesn’t fit right.

However, selling online erases his specialty – his personal service and fashion direction.

“After 31 years, you build a rapport with the public,” he said. “What we do is we make you try things on, I direct you, and I listen to what direction you’re looking to obtain.”

DiYeso said the pandemic’s timing created a “perfect storm of terrible.” For many retailers, January and February are slower months in which they build up inventory and prepare for shopping surges. Typically, Hazel Twenty would have profited from back-to-back weeks of spring break travelers throughout March and April.

“By March, I’m sitting pretty heavy on inventory. It’s just kind of the nature of the beast,” said DiYeso. “Then I get two weeks into my good March, and I have to shut it down.”

Barbara E. Kahn, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, noted that small boutiques typically sell their excess inventory to chains like TJ Maxx. In the current climate, that is no longer an option.

Small business owners tried to offset the financial burden by turning to federal aid packages. Levy and Oster said they were accepted for the first round of the forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loan.

But DiYeso and Pollock were denied.

“To get turned down and then see that all these big corporations got the money that was supposed to be earmarked for the small business, it’s just so frustrating,” said DiYeso, who furloughed her 14 part-time employees. “It’s like ‘Hey, just kick us while we’re down.’”

For appeal, Kahn said that retailers should consider switching up their inventory to accommodate the new reality of working from home. She added that activewear stores like Nike are still faring pretty well.

“One activity you can do is go for walks, and you need shoes for that,” she said.

Vincent Quan, a professor of fashion business management at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, agreed that the demand for leisurewear has increased as a result of the pandemic.

“Our time spent in home versus in the office has changed,” he said. “So your clothing requirements have changed, and are going to [continue to] change.”

In addition to comfortable clothing, some stores hope to stock up on more practical items.

Areyzaga said his suppliers are currently shipping stylish masks to Charmed Asheville. He is already selling a couple on the website for $12.99.

“We’re certainly not here to capitalize on coronavirus, but at the same time, you are seeing people looking for masks,” Areyzaga said. “If we have a shop that sells fashionable items, masks may be one of those things.”

The salience of masks might not be just a temporary change. Kahn said it could affect attire for years to come. 

“As masks become part of our everyday apparel, how will fashion address this?” she asked.

In some ways, it already has. A recent article in Vogue highlighted the “87 Cloth Masks to Shop Now” from high-end brands like Rag & Bone and J. Crew.

“Why not create a mask that looks a little hip and cool that still meets the safety requirements?” asked Quan. 

He added that “as long as you meet the requirement of proper coverage,” designers have many options for creative face masks.

However, he said the business of fashion masks is a “very fine, grey area.” He warned retailers to “tread carefully” to avoid comparison with brands that are donating masks. Quan suggested that small boutique stores consider mask giveaways to bring clients in the door and alleviate safety concerns after re-opening.

Like the future of fashion itself, the future of these individual boutiques hangs in the balance.

“As small businesses, unfortunately, we’re taking it the worst,” Areyzaga said. “No one’s giving us a break on rent or expenses or utilities, and we’re trying to find a way to keep our employees.”

“For stores that were not doing well before all this happened, this is surely not good news, and might accelerate their bankruptcies,” Kahn said. “For stores that were hanging on and people really were supporting them, maybe this is just a bad year and they can eventually recover.”

Despite the strain, determined owners are gearing up to return to work. Gov. Roy Cooper hopes to open more of the state starting May 9th as part of a gradual three-step plan. The first step includes phasing back in commercial activity, such as shopping.

“I think what we’re moving towards is doing May 9th and absolutely complying with CDC [health and safety] regulations,” Oster said. “You come in, if you don’t have a mask, I will give you one.”

Levy said he also purchased Clorox wipes and face masks to use once he is able to re-open Gentlemen’s Gallery. He predicted that business will gradually bounce back, first from the local shoppers, and then from the tourists.

“I see a slingshot effect,” he said. “Not to the level of what it was, but I think it’s going to be very positive.”

Sara Frazier is a graduating senior from Boston University’s College of Communication, who now lives in Leicester.