Michigan retailers worry COVID spike will keep customers away. Again.

Diane Rauser is excited about her holiday products at Sass, her store in downtown Adrian. But now she’s worried about a drop in customers that she fears corresponds to an increase in coronavirus cases. (Bridge photo by Paula Gardner)

Bright-red cardinals herald the holiday season at Sass in downtown Adrian, where a new line of pottery, tableware and wall art soon will fill displays in the gift shop. 

Owner Diane Rauser said she invested in the boxes of inventory because cardinals were her mother’s favorite bird, and they “brighten my heart every time I see them.”


But with her biggest revenue season still ahead of her, Rauser is getting nervous. Sales started out strong when the store reopened in early summer after a state-ordered shutdown due to the coronavirus.

More recently, as COVID-19 cases have grown in Michigan and reached levels that mirror the spring’s peak virus spread, the number of Sass shoppers has declined. 

“My biggest fear is not having any customers to buy it,” Rowser said of the holiday merchandise she’s bought for months.

And that comes with a bigger implication: “If I don’t sell it, I’m not sure I can stay open.”

Stores, restaurants and other consumer-driven businesses in Michigan have spent months trying to rebuild lost revenue since the pandemic surge last spring and work within state capacity guidelines to win customers back. 

Je Donna Dinges, owner of Margaux & Max in Ferndale, still hasn’t reopened her store since March. She remains concerned about the virus and spent the last few months building online sales for her resale boutique. She wanted to be looking forward to opening for the holiday season, which is fun for a fashion stylist. 

Instead, her customers are “very, very nervous again. I’m hearing people saying they are hunkering down.” Dinges’ store will remain closed into 2021, while she still sells through Facebook – including live videos to display her merchandise. 

Undetermined so far is how high Michigan’s virus case count will get  – and how far customers will curtail their in-person shopping, dining out and travel during this so-called second wave.

“A lot will be dependent on where general public sentiment will be,” said Justin Winslow, CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association (MRLA).

Business owners and industry experts “are very cognizant of the creeping numbers. We know that impacts public confidence,” Winslow said.

Michigan-themed items and local products are a big draw for Sass customers in Adrian. (Bridge photo by Paula Gardner)

Bad timing

This fall’s uptick in coronavirus spread was predicted for months. However, the escalation comes as many retailers are preparing for their holiday season, which may be their busiest months. National forecasts say holiday sales will grow about 1.5 percent this year to $1.14 trillion — more, they said, if consumers feel confident. 

And for restaurants that added capacity for outdoor dining in summer, the coming winter already threatens their viability. A recent survey by the MRLA showed that one in five Michigan restaurants may not survive until spring.

Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, said businesses had been focused for months on aligning their operations to rules set by the state. 

Now they “are getting used to the idea that cases are rising substantially,” Calley said. “Now we don’t know what the coming weeks and months will look like.”

While Calley said he does not expect another statewide shutdown, he is urging business owners to double down on making their businesses safe for employees and customers: masks, social distancing and hand-washing all help control the virus’s spread. Knowing that’s happening in a business, with other safety measures like enhanced cleaning, Calley said, can boost consumer confidence.

“I have confidence that business owners can do it,” Calley said. However, it will require an intensity “higher than what was required to keep it under control in previous months.”

Winslow agreed, especially as messaging from health officials increasingly warns of the risks of public places. One example is when Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s top health official, advised people last week to keep masks on in restaurants except while taking a bite or a drink.

Michigan’s restaurants have been the site of four outbreaks of two or more cases involving patrons, according to state data that counts 393 total outbreaks. Zero outbreaks affecting retail patrons have been reported.

Meegan Holland, spokesperson for the Michigan Retailers Association, said many of her members say customers have been comfortable about going into stores.

September was strong for Michigan’s retailers, based on a monthly survey by the Michigan Retailers Association and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s Detroit branch. On a 100-point scale, it climbed to 63.7 as fall started, compared to 48.1 a month earlier. Anything above 50 shows positive activity. 

Retailers reported more sales increases this year than in 2019, when the trade association’s survey came in at 42.7.

However, it’s unclear whether the new spike in cases will change results for October and beyond.

Either way, the spike in coronavirus cases coincides with a retail industry message to start holiday shopping early, Holland said. Shipping delays and supply chain disruptions mean that people who wait may not be able to buy what they want later in the season. 

One concern for Michigan-based stores is that people will turn in still greater numbers to online shopping, which increases its market share every holiday season. In 2020, it could reach $196 billion, or about 18 percent of all U.S. sales.  Home delivery also increased during Michigan’s stay-at-home order in the spring.

“We are hoping that people keep getting more comfortable with going into a brick-and-mortar store and doing their holiday shopping,” Holland said. 

The National Retail Federation predicts that U.S. consumers will spend $997.79 each on gifts, decorations and food during the holidays.

Keeping a significant share of that among stores based in the state is important for businesses, their employees and state tax revenue, Holland said. She’s encouraging retailers to offer home delivery and build an online presence so that they can be active if people choose to stay home during the second wave.

Restaurants, meanwhile, are looking for any way to maintain dining capacity as coronavirus cases climb. Some want to invest in plastic glass to add barriers between tables, and the MRLA is hoping the state will allow an exemption to social distancing space requirements for restaurants that do that. Others are reminding customers about expanded carryout options, including cocktails to go.

“The uniform reaction is that the anxiety increases as you see [coronavirus] numbers that look a little more like spring than last summer,” Winslow said. 

The worst thing that could happen in the troubled industry, he said, is “decreased consumer participation.”

Rauser restocked Michigan-made food after the economic shutdown for COVID-19, when she had to throw away a lot of expired items. (Bridge photo by Paula Gardner)

Tough decisions

Rauser, the Sass owner, has boxes of new merchandise stored under her displays, and she hopes soon to bring it out for holiday shoppers. 

Creating displays and finding fun items to sell are among the joys she finds in running her store, which she recently moved downtown. 

She received two grants this year, including a $5,000 matching grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. A second one replaced $3,000 worth of computers. And her landlord cut her rent by 50 percent.

Still, she said, “I’m very concerned. I make most of my money at Christmas.”

Many shoppers used to come to the store when they visited the Croswell Opera House across the street. It will remain closed until early 2021. A nearby tea room, which had relied on bus traffic to the theater, also closed.

Many of her shoppers are older, which Rauser thinks may be a factor in declining traffic: People 70 and older face more risk of death from going out in public during the coronavirus. 

Before the second wave, she’d changed some of her inventory to more items priced at $20 or less, “so people who are worried about finances could still come in and get Christmas gifts.”

She also started a “new attitude” display in her front window, filled with items that –  unlike some more blunt slogans elsewhere in the store – convey what she called “kind thoughts.”

Rauser said she will know by January if she can keep the store open. Now she wakes up every morning, wondering if the number of shoppers will continue to fall.

“I don’t know what it is,” she said. “All of a sudden, there’s no traffic downtown.”

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Nat Pernick
Mon, 10/26/2020 - 8:33am

Let's get rational and objective. I am a pathologist and business owner for 40 years:

1. To have a strong economy, we need to control the COVID-19 virus. No experts believe otherwise. That means we have to follow the standard procedures outlined by the Governor, even if they are annoying to us.
2. It is difficult to fight this virus when the President of the United States is delusional about the virus and provides dangerous edicts and proposals that are being followed by many.
3. The business community has to speak with one voice and indicate that it will follow the science, even if there is short-term hardship and even if it offends the President and his followers.
4. The Governor has likely been wrong on some smaller matters, and it is OK to disagree on them, but business leadership should reaffirm that, overall, her approach is correct.

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 2:05pm

Nat, you are absolutely correct, but let's be honest, sycophants like Shirkey and Chatfield are just as bad as Trump. They fought the governor every step of the way merely to fight. They offer no solutions. Instead they promote BS like herd immunity, without regard to all the people their inaction will KILL. They are the exact opposite of ProLife and Christian principles. They protest for more in-person church and more guns.

Support Science
Mon, 10/26/2020 - 2:22pm

My doctor takes tremendous precautions to protect her staff and patients, but the patients are putting off/cancelling appointments because they don't trust the libertarian/republican anti-maskers spreading germs attending rallies, sending their children to schools. Medical clinics like all businesses are suffering greatly. Patronize businesses that you trust support science before they go out of business forever!

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 8:37am

If Republicans in the House and Senate get their way in pushing to remove restrictions and remove mask requirements, I will be avoiding in-person shopping like the plague. Masks and restrictions not only keep people safer but they make those of us who actually believe in the science behind their use are more willing to shop at places that require masks. New Zealand has successfully eliminated COVID by listening to the experts who said aggressive lockdown measures, mask requirements, testing, and contact tracing are necessary to get the virus under control. Here in America, we have too many people who would rather have the virus eradicate the most vulnerable in our population and "open the economy" than to take simple precautions; even though opening things too soon just leads to more closures and more cases.

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 1:22pm

I think people should not be leaving their homes right now. I think they are lying about the death counts being way down in proportion of the infection rate being way up. Instead of loosing restrictions they need to hold business owners and customers liable alike. Murder is murder no matter you is doing it.

Matt R.
Mon, 10/26/2020 - 1:31pm

Biden wants to shut the country down nationwide opposite of trump. This is the only answer we can sort everything out next summer. People have been living loosely for to long everyone should have a little money saved especially if your rich. I am on disability so I have no extra money but if I can make it you can too .

Praying for Wisdom
Mon, 10/26/2020 - 2:10pm

I'm a business owner who is struggling, but I have to agree with you. I too don't want to support businesses because people are being so reckless, not wearing masks, social distancing, etc. We are heading toward a perfect storm, a catch22, with new cases exploding. All our previous sacrifices were in vain. Trump is trying to fire Fauci instead of listening to him.

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 8:58am

Per Mr. Calley, as quoted above, " urging business owners to double down on making their businesses safe for employees and customers: masks, social distancing and hand-washing all help control the virus’s spread."

Yes - this. Short Term: I continue to patronize businesses that have these common sense measures in place and enforce them in order to keep customers & staff safe. While I also send e-mails and letters to the to the businesses who do the right thing to thank them for that, in reality it all about the money. I spend more money there to support them. I refuse to patronize businesses w/out safety measures.

Long term: Businesses that think this deadly plague is a big joke, please realize that many people have have very long memories. Once we have a vaccine, there are MANY others just like me who will never spend another dime at a business which currently flouts masking & social distancing practices.

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 9:39am

What part of Trump pretending COVID-19 disappeared helps any of us? It only helps him get reelected based on the culmination of four years lying. Trump employs scorched earth defeat tactics as he loses the election. A scorched-earth policy is a military strategy that aims to destroy anything that might be useful to the enemy. Any assets that could be used by the enemy may be targeted, which usually includes obvious weapons, transport vehicles, communication sites, and industrial resources. It's no different than Sadam Hussein setting the oil wells afire before his defeat. Trump will destroy our economy and multitudes of lives before he leaves.

Wed, 10/28/2020 - 10:23am

It doesn't help him get reelected. In fact, polling shows that support for Trump decreases in places where COVID cases and outbreaks are increasing.

Bottom line is he doesn't care about us, HE had COVID and it was no big deal for HIM so therefore it's no big deal for everyone. Nevermind the empty seats at dinner tables or the people who are now suffering with long-term health complications because of COVID, he got better and that's all that matters. He's treated the country like he's treated his businesses, used for personal enrichment and then ran into the ground.

George Hagenauer
Mon, 10/26/2020 - 9:55am

Hopefully the anti-maskers have a lot of money to spend because a lot of the rest will probably stay away this winter if the spike continues. Thanksgiving for us will be sadly for 2 people instead of the usual 12-18 - a number of the people usually come from out of state so that is other lost income for the state. Probably the weirdest part of this is that the Republican party, formerly the party of business, are the leading the charge that will most likely take down the sections of the Michigan economy this year.

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 2:19pm

But will they really care when they have Whitmer to blame? I think not as it has been obvious from the very start that limiting the spread of the virus as much as possible was key to the economy. Yet, some are inexplicably uninterested.

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 10:39am

I feel bad for the disinformation campaigned concerning covid that has been run on the simple minded, those that have a lack of understanding of real science (of facts not hyperbole) , who refuse to read statistics or observe what is really happening around them (meaning reality) .
The facts do not bear out the panic and fear over any of it. How will they keep their charade going after this years cold and flu season when people realize having a cold virus won't kill them and the same amount of people who do get sick and die because of underlying health related conditions are the same as they were last year and the many years before that.
Unfortunately by that time, the simple minded will have destroyed the economic environment in which we live and joblessness and depression will be the new self made democrat talking point.
As I read one person commented on another article, "liberals are really a miserable people" I say, "unless they are out there hurting someone for their own self-aggrandizement they can find no happiness." but it is a fleeting moment feeling with no real satisfaction to accompany it. And so they live in that cycle.

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 1:14pm

All people like you care about is supporting your family. You do not care that everyone is going to die from this at some point!

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 2:07pm

Julio, "Disinformation"? People are dropping like flies all over from this killer disease! We don't need to look at stats to know this! It is a fact that trump wants us to ignore. And I also dont believe it to be millions worldwide but billions.
We also don't know even if you have no symptoms or get over this that it may still be debilitating 10, 20 or 30 years down the road or even cause birth defects.
THERE IS JUST TOO MUCH WE DON'T KNOW! Biden has a plan and if it means you have to give up the almighty dollar to save even one life it is worth it!

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 2:15pm

Julio, on behalf of the 230,631 people who died in the US from Trump's incompetence, I beg to differ.

Not Julio
Mon, 10/26/2020 - 2:50pm

And you're an authority on facts and science? BTW, not everyone who has decided to try and do the best they can to stay safe is a "liberal." Conservatives like the idea of breathing too. Here's a fun fact about the science of Covid. It's not just those with underlying health conditions who die from it nor are young people immune to it. Another fun fact, it's aerosol born and can travel beyond six feet so imagine being in a restaurant with everyone in an enclosed, low ventilated space?

Agnosticrat 2.0
Tue, 10/27/2020 - 7:08am

I would like to see people who don’t wear masks forced to sign a waiver that says they will not receive medical care for COVID 19 over someone who does.
Would you sign?
I’ll bet not!

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 11:26am

Masks, social distancing, hand washing, and enhanced cleaning - how about ventilation? HEPA air purifiers? One of the risks of the colder weather season is people being indoors in enclosed spaces. As Michiganders, we should be able to stand simply opening a door or window periodically to exchange outside air for inside air where potential Covid-19 laden aerosols are floating around (and possibly building up). They're doing this in Germany.


Mon, 10/26/2020 - 2:17pm

Open the windows in Michigan during winter?

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 11:55am

If they would stop trump and his crooks out of mich and stop all his hate rallies were he spreads the virus the infection rate will drop!!

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 4:35pm

I read that a lot of the new cases in Michigan occurred right after the schools and colleges opened. At one local high school, the majority of the cases were within the cheer and pom squads. Walking past a high school, I would see these youngsters practicing, and during a break, all would gather together to look at each others phones. Colleges are the same with their parties. University of Michigan just locked down all undergrads to reduce the spread. You can guess that parties played a big role in all this.

And as with all things in life, things change as time passes. Amazon and other delivery services a good substitutes for anyone who doesn't want to go to a store. Perhaps all the retail outlets should make sure that whatever they sell is available through a delivery service. Businesses are finding out they can do just fine with workers working from home. What used to be a short term assignment to home is now turning into a longer term assignment as employees are also getting to enjoy the benefits of not having to drive to an office.

What's going on?
Mon, 10/26/2020 - 2:00pm

I wish my landlord cut my rent by 50%, but grateful for the 20% discount after tremendous negotiations.

James T
Mon, 10/26/2020 - 6:18pm

I'd be happy to shop at these stores if they won't harass me about wearing a mask. It is very clear that their intended effects are psychological, not physiological. Across the US, increased mask usage simply does not correlate with reduced 'cases' or deaths. If people think they do, they've just cherry-picked a subset of data to suit their pre-suppositions. The preponderance of scientific research prior to April 2020—and it hasn't actually changed since—showed that universal masking would not be an effective measure in combatting a viral respiratory epidemic.

What has changed is political will and media emphasis. Masks have become a symbol of allegiance to a specific worldview. The left (for lack of a better term) is trying to use the government in matters of conscience, forcing others to fear what they fear, believe what they believe, act as they act.

So how can business owners expect me to support them if they won't stand up with us for our community's constitutional freedoms? I don't want us to continue suffering death by a thousand cuts. For quite some time, I have been far more concerned about the peoples' panicked state of mind and their responses than of the virus itself.

BridgeMI reporters, have you made any honest attempts to find out how many people aren't going out because they are scared of the virus vs. avoidance of masking/distancing regulations? Or maybe it's because they've lost their jobs and have no disposable money to spend. It seems no one in the mainstream media is willing to touch those questions with a 10 foot pole.

Wed, 10/28/2020 - 10:30am

It absolutely correlates with a reduction in cases.

Here's a study from the CDC showing mask usage and social distancing caused a significant decrease in the number of cases in Arizona: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6940e3.htm

Here's another study showing the efficacy of masks: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7191114/

Here's a study showing that some fabrics are just as effective as surgical masks: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7263076/

The list goes on and on. Stop spreading outdated facts and misinformation.