San Clemente shops struggle to survive during the COVID-19 shut-down

Avenida Del Mar downtown shopping, near the beach. (Connor Hedges/Lariat)

Shops and boutiques in San Clemente continue to combat the challenges of the shut-down of non-essential businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Del Mar St. in San Clemente resembled a ghost town. Shops were dark, abandoned and closed until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down nearly all locally operated businesses that were deemed non-essential.

“Some people just don’t understand that our only source of income is this small business so it may not be essential to them, but it’s certainly essential to us,” said owner of Rocket Fizz, a soda pop and candy shop, Evet Sahakian.

With the warmer months approaching, owners of small shops were hopeful for more business to come to San Clemente after the usual slower after-Christmas months. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck and Governor Newsome chose which businesses were essential and non-essential, many small businesses were left concerned and worried.

“We’ve definitely faced a lot of stressful and frustrating days throughout this, but our amazing fellow business owners on Del Mar, have been nothing short of supportive. We are all in this together and the sense of community has definitely kept us going,” said Sahakian.

San Clemente, having its family-like feel, banded together during this hard time to make the small world of Del Mar feel a little more at ease. Many of the boutiques on Del Mar were in contact with each other after hearing the sudden news.

“We were asked to close mid-March with other San Clemente boutiques on Del Mar and we were in contact with each other and decided to close together,” said owner of the Del Mar St. based boutique, Kith and Kin, Lisa Zimmerman.

Kith and Kin had just opened less than a year before the shut-down, making it one of the newer stores on Del Mar. The small boutique hit the ground running last summer, with its grand opening being at the end of June 2019. The store expected the arrival of the warmer months to bring more shopping traffic, instead the quarantine brought the store to close its doors until May 8, when the boutique was told they would softly open.

“We were told we could softly open May 8. Softly opening meant curbside. I really didn’t see how that was going to work, so I let customers shop in our store with masks,” Zimmerman said.

Curbside pick-up is a common way that stores are being told to operate with the new COVID-19 challenges. Curbside pickup presents itself as a safer alternative than shopping inside stores, but it removes the therapy of shopping that really contributes to the culture of Del Mar St, San Clemente.

With the challenges of the new COVID-19 procedures, many stores are changing their routines and creating a new normal. Many of the stores on Del Mar are practicing safer shopping, cleaning and are strategizing new ways to run their store.

“We will be limiting capacity, social distancing, wearing masks, and sanitizing after each person leaves the area. We will provide touch-less transactions and checkouts and will have new restocking procedures in place after any try-ons. We also are implementing commercial cleanings regularly,” said owner and curator of Swirl Boutique, Lisa Landers.

Small stores have also had to come to the difficult decision to let go of employees because of the financial obstacles that COVID-19 has presented small business owners with.

“We initially had to lay off employees until we were able to receive our paycheck protection program loan,” said Landers.

Employees are also having to adjust to the new COVID-19 procedures that are in place for safe shopping. Many new regulations and health recommendations are in place in order to combat the exchange of germs.

“We are reinforcing illness prevention procedures with our team members as recommended by the medical community, including frequent handwashing, avoiding contact with your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands and avoiding close contact with people who are sick,” said president of Salt Life, Jeff Stillwell.

Although employees of not only retail but also restaurants, grocery stores and more are now by law encouraged to wear a face mask, the law does not force customers to do the same.

A response in a Orange County press release, “though the regulation issued by the Board today does not apply to customers, County Health Officer Dr. Nichole Quick continues to strongly encourage residents to wear face coverings while engaged in essential activities outside the home.”

Store owners and managers have been encouraged by the shutdown to find new ways to sell products and continue their business without being able to open their doors. Many shops have had to develop a stronger online presence in order to provide customers with an online shopping experience.

“We expanded our online presence and continued to add new inventory on the website and social media throughout the shutdown,” said owner of Beach Company (Del Mar), Alison Northrup.

Because many of the stores thrive off of in-person boutique style shopping, online shopping was a difficult change for their target market. With the experience of shopping in person on the quaint street of Del Mar, stores were left with huge financial hits.

“Sales were down 80% in March and 81% in April because of this,” said Sahakian.

The shutdown has contributed to a great amount of loss not only financially but also a loss of connection with the community. Del Mar, being one of the biggest tourist attractions in San Clemente not only attracts visitors, but also locals. Locals frequent the street for gift shopping, dining, retail therapy, or even just to walk the street and enjoy the ambiance of the community of Del Mar St.

“It was our spring break time of year for locals and tourists, so we got hit very badly. We rely on spring break, summer and Christmas seasons to keep the other months afloat,” said Sahakian.

Without the traffic of customers on Del Mar street due to the COVID-19 shutdown, small boutiques and shops on Del Mar St., San Clemente were forced to overcome and adapt to the new world of mask and social distancing.

“Once the shutdown is over I will go back to business as usual because I think this is blown way out of proportion. If a customer feels more comfortable wearing a mask then I will be respectful and wear mine,” said Zimmerman.

Owners and managers of the small boutiques on Del Mar are slowly beginning to open up after the soft open announcement on May 8. Like many other businesses evolving to appease the COVID-19 new rules, small businesses are faced with new challenges. Stores are now looking into the unknown of the future of shopping locally.

“Our store is back open normal operating hours and our town has really come together to support each other, shop locally and aren’t living in fear and for that, we are most grateful,” said Sahakian.