New year, same struggles: Reno small businesses fear post-holiday sales slump will be steeper in pandemic era
Tabu McKnight checks his phone. It’s 4:40 p.m. No missed call. It’s a Tuesday afternoon in early January and McKnight, owner of Tabu’s of Reno Barber Lounge, is starting to doubt the person who scheduled a haircut for 4:30 p.m. is going to show up.
“We’ve had a lot more no call, no shows,” says McKnight, staring out the windows of his downtown Reno barbershop. “And that’s been pretty hard. We’re a service-based business. Our livelihood is connected to people that come in and we provide service. But, if they don’t come in, then we can’t have our livelihood.”
Throughout the pandemic, McKnight, like most small business owners, has adjusted to a lot of changes. The shutdowns. The capacity limits. The masks.
But perhaps the most glaring reminder of how much business has changed since mid-March is when his phone sits in his pocket silent for long stretches throughout the day.
“Before the pandemic, it was at the point where I would just have to shut off my phone,” McKnight says with a laugh. “I can only cut so many heads a day.”
Back in the pre-pandemic days, McKnight, who opened his shop in 2015, was averaging 15 to 20 customers a day (or as many as 100 haircuts per week), from weekly and monthly regulars to walk-ins off the street.
With his barber chair and on-deck chairs consistently occupied, McKnight said he grew accustomed to lively conversations, spirited debates and loud laughs filling his shop.
“It was almost like a movie set — the atmosphere was electric,” McKnight says.
In the COVID era, though, the Reno barbershop is mostly quiet. The faint buzz of hair clippers and muffled chitchat are the only sounds filling the air. With appointments spaced farther apart, and the occasional no-show, McKnight said he’s seeing only about 10 clients per day.
“It’s real eerie to be in a quiet barbershop and not have that community and camaraderie,” said McKnight, noting his revenue was down at least 50% in 2020. “I still made my minimum per day, but I just didn’t have the surplus that I’m used to having.”
Looking ahead, McKnight is concerned revenue will be even harder to come by in January and throughout the first quarter. After all, many people who spent their discretionary money on holiday gifts likely don’t have haircutting high on their priority lists, he said.
With many downtown office buildings still dark or only partially filled with workers, Tabu’s of Reno isn’t getting the lunch-hour and after-work appointments it once did — and with many people working from home and doing job interviews via Zoom, the demand for a professional haircut isn’t growing anytime soon.
“In 2021, I think it’s even more dire,” McKnight said. “We’re still in the same situation we began of being in this place of uncertainty.”
SWEET TOOTHLESS MONTH
Tabu’s is far from the only small business in Reno-Sparks bracing for a post-holiday drop in sales and activity.
Take Dorinda’s Chocolates, a Reno-based operation that has been handcrafting chocolates since 2008. Thanks to Christmas, which typically drives strong year-end sales, the business saw its December 2020 revenue jump 35% compared to 2019, with its online sales tripling.
“I don’t think we’d survive through the year if we didn’t have December,” said Dustin Vance, vice president and COO of Dorinda’s Chocolates, which was founded by his mother, Dorinda Vance.
While the company generates roughly $30,000 in chocolate sales on an average month, December brings in up to $80,000, he said.
“December really carries us through the slow month of January,” said Vance, adding that he’s worried January 2021 may be even slower than usual. “Every year, people say, ‘New Year, new me,’ and they stop eating chocolate; no more sugar; no more sweets. It’s a huge hit for us pretty much the whole month of January.”
To help survive until early February, when sales rebound for Valentine’s Day, Dorinda’s Chocolates — which has retail locations on Riverside Drive near downtown Reno and in the Southcreek Shopping Center in South Reno — included 25%-off coupons (valid for use in January) with every box of chocolate that was sent out in December, Vance said.
“I think a lot of businesses try to do something in the month of January,” he continued. “But, January is slow no matter what. It’s slow for everybody.”
STAYING AFLOAT DURING ‘DRYUARY’
Just ask Black Rabbit Mead Co., a maker of cider-style meads with locally sourced honey, with a production facility and taproom east of downtown Reno on East 4th Street.
Launched in June 2019, Black Rabbit Mead saw its strongest sales to date last month despite its occupancy at the state-mandated 25%.
“A lot of people wanted to get out and support us and bought a lot of bottles,” said Jake Conway, co-owner of Black Rabbit Mead.
Like chocolates and sweets, though, many people enter a new year with plans to cut down (or cut out) their drinking in January and even February for some, a trend known as “Dryuary.”
“We talk with a lot of other brewery owners and people in the alcohol industry, and they acknowledge that when it comes to on-site sales, January and February are the hardest months,” said Will Truce, co-owner of Black Rabbit Mead. “Coming out of the holidays, they’re either tightening their belts and trying to be healthier or tightening their wallets to stop spending as much.”
In response, Truce said Black Rabbit Mead has been inspired to expand its non-alcohol offerings — from mocktails to kombucha — and continue to find new ways to bring people through their doors.
During the pandemic, the bar held “COVID safe” events, like trivia and bingo nights, and featured live music in the form of local singer-songwriters.
To that end, Truce said having someone on staff to serve as an events coordinator — in Black Rabbit Mead’s case, their bar manager — has been “one of the most valuable and wise decisions” they’ve made as a business.
“We find that people need more reason to come out than just to drink,” Truce said. “If you can create a safe event for them to engage with and inspire them to come out, that’s going to be for the best. But you really need somebody that’s dedicated to making sure it’s safe and figuring out all of the pragmatics of it and supervising it all. Part of the reason we’re able to financially get by is because of our events coordinator.”
All the while, Black Rabbit Mead is focused on expanding its distribution to bars and retailers outside of Northern Nevada, as well as offering direct-to-consumer sales outside of the state, Conway said.
The bar also plans to eventually start “a little pizza company” that centers on Northern European-style pizza, Truce added.
Like all businesses in the alcohol industry, Black Rabbit Mead is focusing on staying afloat until sales pick up on St. Patrick’s Day.
“Even if there’s not as many people drinking right now,” Conway said, “if we’re able to get into markets where people are drinking and they have an interest in mead, then that’s definitely going to help us grow as a company.
“And, hopefully, set us up for future success.”
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