The coronavirus pandemic has not been unique to Scott County — but it hasn’t spared Scott County, either.
That means small businesses here, as across the state and the nation, have struggled to absorb the economic impacts of the pandemic. While the spring shutdown that was implemented in an effort to curb the spread of Covid-19 illness has long since ended, it has hardly been a return to normal for many retailers and independent business owners. Even if monthly sales receipts are mostly back to pre-pandemic levels, the gains haven’t been enough to absorb the losses from the spring. That means year-over-year revenue is down — severely, in some cases — for many retailers as they prepare for the traditional slow down that runs from the end of the holiday sales season until the first income tax return checks are mailed out by the federal government later in the winter.
The Scott County Chamber of Commerce is hoping the community will keep its small businesses in mind as it plans its shopping lists for the upcoming Christmas season. A strong holiday retail season will help offset the losses from earlier in the year, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Stacey Swann said, and in some cases could mean the ultimate difference between surviving the hard winter months that lie ahead and succumbing to an economy that has been weakened by the pandemic.
Shop local for the businesses
As a general rule, small businesses make up 49% of private sector employment in the United States. The percentage isn’t quite that high in Scott County, due to a smaller and less diverse economy in this rural community. But small, independently-owned businesses are still a vital part of that local economy, and most have felt the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has been hard for all,” said Michelle Owens, owner of U Name It Embroidery. “Since March, we have operated solely through social media and porch pick-ups, and most recently we have launched our brand-new website (unameitembroidery.com) to better serve our customers and ensure their safety during this time.”
The Independent Herald spoke to several business owners representing several different sectors of retail in Scott County. Most agreed that the coronavirus pandemic has been hard as they’ve been forced to adjust the way they do business.
Swann said that’s where the Christmas holiday season comes into play.
“They’re still trying to play the comeback game,” she said of Scott County’s small businesses. “People like the boutiques, they missed their entire tanning season because of covid. Here we are going into winter, and they missed their season. So they’re struggling. They’re selling t-shirts and hats and chapstick … just trying to pick up anything they can to make ends meet.”
Boutiques, of which there are several spread throughout Scott County, often provide unique gift ideas that cannot be found at big box stores or at a mall — yet they’re often out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Swann encourages shoppers to seek out those boutiques while Christmas shopping to see what they have to offer. Many — like Owens and U Name It Embroidery — are active on social media networks like Facebook, reminding potential customers of the deals they can offer.
Virginia Bruce is one of those business owners that is located a little off the beaten path, in relation to the heart of Oneida’s retail district. She owns South Fork Tack, on East 3rd Avenue west of Burchfield School. As its name implies, her store is a tack shop, but it offers much more.
Bruce said her business actually increased at the start of the pandemic.
“Walmart threw up the corral panels, limited the number of people in the store, enforced mask wearing, and nearly everyone was mad,” she said. “The ‘screw Walmart’ mentality took over. People were making a conscious effort to shop small and avoid Walmart. I made a valiant effort and offered delivery and curbside pickup. Folks would call, put in an order, and pay over the phone. They pulled up in the parking lot and I loaded their purchase into the back of their vehicle.
“There were times when I wept because I couldn’t believe how the community was making an effort to support my little business,” she added. “It wasn’t just my business; it was every business in this county.”
But then …
“Alas, Walmart took down the panels, masks fell by the wayside, and everyone rushed back to Walmart,” Bruce said.
It is that effort — going the extra mile for the customer — that small, independently-owned businesses are usually able to offer, not just at Christmas but throughout the year.
“Nobody cares about the wonderful people of this county quite like your small-town business owners,” Owens said. “We depend on you and we thank you.”
From her tack shop, Bruce makes it clear she’s not singling out Walmart as the bad guy. All businesses in the community are important, she said, whether it’s a big-box store or a locally-owned shop. “Whether you love Walmart or hate it, they employ local people and collect a lot of sales tax dollars,” she said.
But, she added, it’s up to shoppers to make sure independent businesses can survive alongside the retail giants.
“As a business owner, Walmart has a brilliant business model,” she said. “Everyone complains that Walmart eliminates small businesses when they build in small towns. (But) Walmart isn’t eliminating any businesses. Shoppers close small businesses. You vote with your dollars. When you choose to do all your shopping at big box stores, you are responsible for closing small businesses.”
Shop locally for the community
One of the key points of any shop local marketing campaign is the community involvement of independently-owned businesses. While the large, corporate stores are often owned — and, sometimes, even managed — by people who are not from the local community and have no investment in it, independently-owned businesses are often members of the community their shops are located in. And they are the ones who invest in the community.
Swann points to K-Nails and its owner, Nick Nguyen. He isn’t native to Scott County, but he has embraced Scott County as Scott County has embraced his business. He has been at the forefront of a number of charitable efforts that he’s orchestrated through his business, and he continues to donate food for those who need it, and masks for those who can use them — even though his government was forced to close by the government in March and did not qualify for relief funding.
“People like Nick,” Swann said, “he lost that income for several weeks when he was closed down. He didn’t get to make that up. His customer base is back now, but he didn’t get that money back. He lost his income, and here he is trying to give away food.”
Whether it’s Lorenzo Garcia at El Rey Azteca, Dan and Michelle King at RaeZack’s, or any of a number of other small business owners in Scott County, the locally-owned businesses are the ones who support everything from youth league sports to scouts.
“When you’re sitting in a school gym or at ball fields, do you ever look around at the signs in the gym?” Bruce asked. “Or do you ever think, ‘Oh, I need to do business with them?’ Those businesses have spent their money to support those kids. The big box stores aren’t doing that.
“The first summer that I owned my shop, the neighbor kid came and asked to sponsor his ball team,” she added. “I’ll be honest: It was a lot of money for me, at that time. I only said yes because he was a neighbor and I knew that I might be the only one who could help him. After that, I had one person besides him thank me for that. The coach of his team came in and thanked me — never a parent. I think every coach of every team should make it a point to tell parents, ‘These are the people who support us and we need to support them.'”
Swann made it a point to commend local banks for their support of small businesses in Scott County during the coronavirus pandemic. All of them stepped up to help out financially. And, she added, those businesses survived the initial shutdown. Now the next two holidays — Thanksgiving and Christmas — are their time to shine.
“A lot of these businesses will live off their Christmas sales,” Swann said. “In January, everybody will have spent their money for Christmas and until those income taxes start coming in, people don’t have money. So businesses have to have a healthy holiday season to make sure they have enough to make it through the winter months. There are people who think, ‘If we don’t make it through our Christmas sales, we won’t make it to January. We’ll have to lay people off.'”
Shop local for your health
It sounds a little corny, perhaps — and not in the least because it’s no secret that coronavirus cases are surging in Scott County. But, even still, there’s less of the virus here, in the local community, than there is in Knoxville. And in these unprecedented times, it is literally safer to shop at home than to shop in larger cities.
As the nearest urban area to Scott County, the progression of the pandemic in Knoxville has been closely monitored. When Scott Countians head out of town to shop, it’s usually to Knoxville.
Swann said the easiest and most effective way to avoid being exposed to coronavirus and carrying it back to Scott County is to simply forego a trip to Knoxville in exchange for a trip to a local shop.
That’s where the extra services offered by Scott County’s small business owners come into play — things like the online shopping and the porch pickups offered by U Name it, or the curbside pickup offered by South Fork Tack.
“I don’t know how many people want to shop in other communities right now,” she said. “You don’t know what you’re being exposed to when you leave our community. At least here, we know what the situation is. And I think that helps keep people in Scott County.”
It’s a common misperception that the best Christmas gifts are an hour’s drive away — in the malls or the large department stores. In fact, the most unique gifts can often be found in small businesses. Sometimes, it’s things that shoppers ordinarily wouldn’t even think of. Scott County’s small shops include things like chalk paints for art projects, repurposed antique furniture, Western wear, and much more. At U Name It, any item can be custom embroidered for an individual touch.
“Head over to unameitembroidary.com and pick out a perfect gift for your loved one,” Owens said. “We depend on you and we thank you. Let us personalize something for that special someone in your life this year.”
Bruce has transformed South Fork Tack from a shop that carries saddles and feed into a space that is chock full of unique items. One that might be the furthest from most people’s mind is water. Customers can rent or buy a water dispenser, and Bruce sells the five-gallon jugs of water that are used to refill the dispenser.
“I deliver once a month, or they can pick them up at my shop,” she said. “It makes a great gift. I have someone who bought their dad a machine for Fathers Day and the kids take turns buying the water.”
The water dispenser is just one gift idea.
Shop local for the kids
It’s no secret that schools are hurting, financially, due to funding shortfalls that have been created by declining sales tax revenue on the state level.
“They got some CARES Act money but that hasn’t filled the gap,” Swann said. “With our tax structure, the schools are one of the first ones to profit from taxes. That’s just how it is. So it’s all about giving back to the schools.”
The formula is simple: the more people who shop in Scott County, the more sales tax revenue that will be collected and returned to Scott County. And a dedicated percentage of that revenue goes to public education. That means more money for things like textbooks and school buses and salaries for educational assistants. Without funding, schools will have to retract services that are currently offered to students.
“Shopping local allows our tax dollars to stay here in Scott County,” Owens said, “and it also allows our small businesses to invest back into the community.”
For now, at least, tax revenues are actually up in Scott County. That’s mostly because people are shopping online during the pandemic — and online retailers are now required to collect sales taxes, which are divied up by the state based on the buyer’s county of residence.
So, a shopper who might ordinarily travel to Bass Pro in Sevierville to buy fishing gear, or to JC Penney at Knoxville’s West Town Mall to buy back-to-school clothes, who is now shopping online to avoid exposure to coronavirus, is seeing his sales taxes benefit Scott County rather than Sevier County or Knox County.
“That’s what we want to encourage people to do,” Swann said. “If you’re not going to shop with independently-owned businesses, at least shop online so we can capture the sales taxes. Either way, you’re going to be paying sales tax. But if you’re shopping online Scott County will get its share of those taxes, instead of it going to Oak Ridge or Knoxville if you’re shopping the brick and mortar stores over there.”
The bottom line
The statistics for shopping local haven’t changed. Only 10% to 15% of box stores’ revenue is returned to the local community, whereas 50% to 65% of small businesses’ revenue stays in the community. Local businesses pay taxes that help fund and support schools, parks and service workers.
But what is unique this year is the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and the effect it has had on the small businesses that are the backbone of this community.
“Now more than ever, U Name It is counting on both our loyal customers and those who might’ve never shopped with us before to trust us with special gifts during the holiday season,” Owens said.
It’s a small effort that could go a long way.
“I can only speak for my own business here,” Bruce said. “I don’t have something for everyone, but come and look. Visit our small shops. Every small shop in this town has neat, unusual items that would make great gifts, whether it’s Christmas or a birthday.
“Even if you don’t buy from a small business, at some point someone you know could be looking for something and you can tell them, ‘Oh, she has that at South Fork Tack!’ Or at Phillips Merle Norman, or Plateau Drugs, or The Beautique.”
Christmas, they say, is more about giving than receiving. And for Swann, that’s what this particular Christmas, in the difficult year of 2020, is especially about: giving back.
“How many of these small businesses stepped up, gave prizes away, and tried to encourage people when all of this hit?” she asked. “They just tried to be an encouragement to this community. And now, during the Christmas shopping season, we can do our part to help them in return.”