Written by Kylie Ross Sibert

NORFOLK, Va. (November 23, 2020) — Over three quarters of local small businesses in Hampton Roads have experienced a negative impact on their business due to the pandemic, the latest Retail Pulse from Retail Alliance reports. Of those who responded, a quarter are extremely pessimistic about holiday sales this year, predicting at least a 15% decline versus last year.

Furthermore, COVID-19 has caused 1 in 5 stores (21%) to shut their stores at some point during the pandemic. Of those, 4 out of 5 had to close for 15 days or more.

Chart: COVID-19 Retail Pulse Closure of Business
Chart: COVID-19 Retail Pulse Length of Closure

“Small businesses are really struggling this holiday season,” Kylie Ross Sibert, VP Communications at Retail Alliance said.  “This vital last quarter is already upon us and unfortunately the pandemic is pushing consumers to be more cautious about going to brick and mortar retailers. Although retail sales nationally have seen growth these past few months, this was a result of increased online sales, and not necessarily a sign of recovery for small businesses.”


Our survey asked what local retailer sales were currently (early November) versus prior to the pandemic (before March). More than four out of five (84%) reported that their sales were less than pre-COVID-19. One in 10 (11%) had dropped to less than 25% of their pre-COVID sales and 1 in 5 (23%) dropped to 25-50% of pre-COVID sales.

While many companies are hurting during the coronavirus pandemic, some small businesses are seeing lots of new and returning customers. These are businesses that help people socially distance themselves from others and retailers that enable people to relax, exercise, garden, play games, feel safe, and eat and drink at home. In our survey, 14% of local businesses had experienced more than 100% of their pre-COVID sales.

Chart: COVID-19 Retail Pulse Sales vs Pre-COVID


The majority have received some form of financial assistance, through PPPs, EIDL, grants, loans, etc., with only 1 in 5 not needing any financial assistance. Eight percent have not been able to secure any financial assistance at the time of the survey. Two in 5 (43%) anticipate needing additional financial support over the next 12 months.

Chart: COVID-19 Retail Pulse Financial Assistance
Chart: COVID-19 Retail Pulse Future Financial Assistance


Having already endured hardship due to the pandemic, the outlook for this holiday season is also looking bleak for retailers. A quarter predicted they were going to decrease at least 15% in sales vs 2019’s holiday season. Nearly 7 in 10 estimate (67%) sales will be flat or decrease from last year.

Chart: COVID-19 Retail Pulse Predicted Holiday Sales


“Local retailers differentiate themselves from larger retailers by focusing on customer service and providing an experience that meets and exceeds customers’ expectations,” Ross Sibert commented. “Throughout the pandemic these store and restaurant owners have had to adapt their operations to introduce new practices and expand existing ones to accommodate consumer’s safety concerns and new expectations for service, such as buying online and picking up in store, delivery, curbside pickup, etc.”

Many of these services have taken significant investment but have proven to be popular and successful, with many local business owners indicating they may become permanent fixtures in their operations. This will assist in providing shoppers a better experience throughout the holiday shopping period.

Curbside pickup, buy online pickup in store (BOPIS), delivery, e-commerce store, and safety protocol were all areas that are staying permanently.

Chart: COVID-19 Retail Pulse Operational Changes

“They are doing all this while absorbing losses in revenue, adopting safety protocols, limiting shoppers in stores or closing dining rooms in restaurants, keeping stock on shelves due to issues with supply chains and difficulties in sourcing materials, and reduction in staff,” she said. “This is an incredible amount to handle on your own or with a staff of one or two people.”


E-commerce sales have seen explosive growth in the past few years, but many local businesses had not introduced this into their business model prior to COVID-19 (59%). Ross Sibert stresses that e-commerce does not fit all businesses.

A third (33%) of those who did not have e-commerce prior to the pandemic have since launched an e-commerce site, obviously recognizing the need to subsidize their in-store sales with online availability. Of those who already had an e-commerce offering prior to COVID-19, half of them (51%) expanded their online offerings during the pandemic.

Chart: COVID-19 Retail Pulse Existing E-Commerce
Chart: COVID-19 Retail Pulse Launched E-Commerce
Chart: COVID-19 Retail Pulse Expanded E-Commerce


For those who have an e-commerce site, over a third have seen an increase of 15+% in sales since March. Very few have seen any decrease in sales. Currently, online sales make up on average 21% of overall sales among our small business owners.

Chart: COVID-19 Retail Pulse Growth in E-Commerce


Retailers will have a lot to iron out in the coming months with their retail operations. Those that have shown agility and adapted their operations will be better situated to deal with the uncertainty of the season and have a better chance of success.

Along with needing to introduce new services to accommodate consumer’s need and wants, they also have other significant challenges to overcome. Cash flow, limited advertising and marketing budget, and customers’ safety concerns, were all significant challenges to local businesses.

Chart: COVID-19 Retail Pulse Challenges

“Although the survey findings give a picture of uncertainty and pessimism, these local business owners aren’t giving up the fight,” Ross Sibert said. “But performing well during this holiday season is critical to the future of their businesses.

“The original financial assistance has already been used and the government has failed so far to renew its pandemic-related support to both consumers and businesses, which padded pockets and buoyed employment. This may result in sales over the next few months disappearing, especially if the pandemic continues to surge.

“It’s also critical that consumers support our local businesses. These local businesses are the entrepreneurs who bring innovation, diversity of products and services to our neighborhoods, as well as local and distinctive character to our town centers and main streets. If consumers don’t support them now, they won’t be around to enjoy in the future.”

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 About Retail Pulse Survey

Retail Alliance’s Retail Pulse survey was conducted in early November with 93 small businesses (retail, restaurant, services) across the region.

Business Classifications and Sizes:

  • Retail (apparel, garden center, florist, boutique, resale, jeweler, antique, specialty store such as health food, chocolate, etc.)
  • Services (auto repair, spa, hairdresser, dance studio, coaching, massage, etc.)
  • Restaurant (coffee shop, cafe, brewery, winebar, winery, restaurant, etc.)
Chart: Retail Pulse COVID Survey Business Type
Chart: COVID-19 Business Size

About Retail Alliance

Retail Alliance is a non-profit trade association serving the interests of local retailers in Hampton Roads since 1903. The organization promotes and supports the healthy growth of retail businesses and trade through their buy local app, LOVEVA, education, advocacy and member benefits. www.retailalliance.com