Lupe Oftedal and Martin Oftedal run Bebe O’s Vintage Boutique in the Tower District. The pair has had to adapt to increased interest in online shopping. Photo by Frank Lopez
Written by Frank Lopez
For the Central Valley, summer is the time for trips to the lake, grilling by the pool and visiting malls and shops for a little window shopping and trying on new outfits.
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, that summer tradition has escaped us this year.
Despite the myriad of new health and safety protocols imposed on businesses, and apprehension from the public to risk exposure to the virus, clothing retailers have seen a rise in sales in past months.
According to Statista.com, retail sales of clothing accessory retailers grew by 105.1%, rebounding from heavy declines in February and March.
Things are a bit different with online sales however. Adobe Analytics reports that daily online apparel sales fell 15% in June compared to May. Also, after months of apparel price drops, online apparel prices increased 2.7% in June compared with May.
Local clothing stores have been seeing fewer customers since the lockdowns were announced in March, but they are doing what they can to keep the lights on and stay in touch with customers.
Top Drawer, a women’s clothing and gift shop in Fresno at Palm and Bullard avenues, started doing curbside pick up after the reopening of shuddered businesses, but it was a challenge, said Owner Jane Saunders.
“It’s not like a quart of milk where you just ask for it and we take it to you and you drive off,” Saunders said. “There are a lot of choices in the store, and people want to see the choices.”
Saunders said right now is an important time for people to shop local. While it may be easy to sit at home and order items online, the tax dollars aren’t staying here.
Should a customer try on an item of clothing, Saunders takes it off the rack to quarantine for 24 hours. Because Top Drawer is not a major apparel store, the rules are a bit different for them.
Because Saunders is close to her customers, she lets ones who cant decide right away to take clothes home to try on. Most of the time the customers will buy the item.
There has been an increase in sales online, and while foot traffic in the shop did go down, Saunders said she has been seeing more customers come back in as they begin to feel safe once again.
“People are out and people want to get out, but they just want to go where it’s safe,” Saunders said. “If could go to a restaurant, shoulder to shoulder, for an hour — without a mask on — you can shop at a small business.”
The owners of Bebe O’s Vintage Boutique in the Tower District did what they could during the shuddering of “non-essential” businesses in March to keep up with the bills.
Lupe Oftedal, owner of the used clothing shop and her husband Martin Oftedal who handles purchasing, closed shop after the first lock down orders but continued to operate out of the building to sell online.
There were some issues with the city, Lupe said, with the shop getting warnings to shut down, but the Oftedals made the case that they weren’t open to the public — that it was just them two selling online.
Martin said that the inspector would need to check with city attorneys to consider the situation.
Not being able to afford fines from the city, they started selling online from their home.
The shop was taking in donations during the lockdown, as other places were not accepting donations due to the fear of spreading the coronavirus, with the Oftedals not wanting anything to go to waste.
When dealing with used and donated clothes during a worldwide pandemic, Martin said they took extreme care to mind their health and that of customers.
“We did curbside pick up. We are really conscious about cleaning things,” Martin said. “If they came in a plastic bag, we’d wipe the bag down before we even brought it in the shop. We’d clean everything before we distributed.”
Though Bebe O’s did have an online presence before the virus hit, with Martin saying they would hit around $1,000 a month from online sales, after the shut downs, the shop went to strictly online sales until they were allowed to reopen.
The temporary shutdown of the store front pushed the Oftedals to commit more to their online presence, with them branching out from online merchant platforms including Ebay, Mercari, and Depop, to Instagram and Facebook as well.
Martin said that an increased online presence has helped with sales.
During the lockdown, the shop was delivering items to customers. Martin would drop off a package at a customer’s front door and text them a message to verify drop off.
Even after “non-essential” businesses were allowed to reopen, Lupe said there was a considerable wane in the amount of window shoppers and people coming into the store to browse casually.
“Going online helped us out by making sure we are taking care of our customers. A lot of people need that shopping therapy, especially when people are stuck at home. It’s not fair that Target and Walmart can stay open,” Lupe said. “We wash everything and clean it, and if somebody wants to try something and they don’t want it, we put it in quarantine. We wipe everything down. We make sure they use a sanitizer before we leave. If we can persevere this, there is nothing that could stop us.”
Though the Oftedals try their best to keep items on their social media pages, the appeal of a vintage store is walking in, browsing around and finding a particular item. That is less likely to happen with more people staying home.
There was also less business after rising infection rates and the second shut down of non-essential businesses including bars. That and restrictions on restaurants left the Tower District a virtual ghost town.
Martin said that travel restrictions have also dampened revenue. Every summer there is an influx of customers from other parts of the world that stop by the Central Valley, and that clientele is gone this year.
Instead of customers coming in to the store to see what new items have arrived, they would rather wait until they see something they like online.
The trend seems to be national, with online shopping platform ThredUp reporting in its annual “Resale Report” that with more people stuck at home and cleaning out their closets, consumers are seeking bargains from home.
According to the report, online secondhand is set to grow 69% between 2019 and 2021. The broader retail sector is expected to shrink by 15%.
With the loss in revenue, the Oftedals lost their health insurance and were struggling financially, but Lupe said that through their faith, church family and community, they were able to carry on.
Lupe said they are anxious for things to go back to normal so they could continue their fundraising efforts. This year they had to cancel their fashion show that raises funds for the American Cancer society.
“We don’t see our customers as customers—we see them as family and friends,” Lupe said. “We are very tight knit and are always helping those that need something. Right now, the business community is really trying to stay together. One way or another we are going to make it.”