January 15, 2021
Business has been good — if not better — for some local enterprises, despite pandemic
Matt Benoit

Pet supply stores are among businesses that are seeing increased online sales during the pandemic; above Vivian Boggs, assistant manager of Bellingham’s petStop, restocks shelves.

photo: Amy Nelson © 2021
January 15, 2021
Business has been good — if not better — for some local enterprises, despite pandemic
Matt Benoit

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The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every part of society by changing the way we interact, work, play and shop. 

The hard numbers on the economic effects on businesses aren’t all in yet but, according to Kevin Hoult of Western Washington University’s Small Business Development Center, “broad sales tax data available now seems to indicate that small businesses are losing ground at the rate of 15-25% where box stores and grocery [stores] are increasing by similar amounts.”

Sales tax collections have decreased slightly which means that the economic impacts of the pandemic are “painfully disparate,” said Hoult. “Small business appears to be suffering the most and recovery in that sector is anything but certain.”

For many restaurants, tourism and recreational businesses, the effects have been a drastic reduction in revenue. But not all businesses are struggling during the pandemic, as some have seen upticks in business as people navigate the “new normal” nearly a year into the pandemic. 

“Pets, pet supplies and pet care businesses are literally overwhelmed with demand,” said Hoult. “The same is true in the appliance, home and garden, outdoor recreation, bicycle/motorcycle/ATV, and home remodeling and repair sectors.”

As individual earnings follow sector trends, some people face long-term unemployment and homelessness, while other spend as much or more than before.

Bicycling in the time of virus

One industry that is bustling, especially in the bicycle beacon of the Pacific Northwest, is bike shops. 

At Jack’s Bicycle Center in Bellingham, the store had one of their busiest years ever in 2020. 

Ryan Askey, one of the store’s mechanics, has worked at the store for 10 years. Askey calls it a “perfect storm” for the business, which saw increased sales and repair work despite continuing inventory issues. With gyms either closed or limited in capacity, and with many kids not attending school in-person, more people either purchased new bikes or dusted off old ones for some outdoor exercise and recreation. 

Jack’s was so busy this summer, in fact, that Askey said their service department was faced with up to three-week waiting times to have bikes repaired and returned to customers. 

“We don’t usually see that,” he said. 

Overseas factory closures, inventory shortages and higher demand are ongoing issues, Askey said, but Jack’s employees have been staying busy and getting paid. Some employees were even working six days a week instead of the usual five. It’s been, he said, kind of surprising. 

“In March, I went from thinking I might be losing my job, to being as busy as I’ve ever been,” Askey said. 

Cozy at home, with pets and plants

Purple flamingos are there for fun — what else? — as part of My Garden Nursery’s efforts to create a welcoming atmosphere for COVID-era shoppers. (Amy Nelson photo © 2021)

At Bellingham’s My Garden Nursery, a similar situation occurred for employees. 

Except for several employees who chose not to work at the indoor-and-outdoor garden center out of health concerns, no one has been laid off or had their hours cut, said owner Jenny Gunderson. An influx of customers have come in looking for flower and vegetable garden accessories, house plants, and various other products. It’s the local example of a nationwide uptick in people trying to make their home lives a little greener. 

 “It’s very humbling to be in a business that held its own last year,” Gunderson said. “Tons of new gardeners came out because of the fact that they couldn’t go anywhere. So they had more time, and they had a desire to connect with nature, I suppose, to help to try and feel better about all the crud.”

My Garden Nursery stepped up early in the pandemic with rigorously-enforced social distancing protocols while preserving their fun atmosphere. The store contains numerous purple flamingoes (including an 18-foot-tall figure standing prominently over the East Bakerview Road entrance) and a beloved cat named Mr. Dilly Pickles. 

“I think we created an environment where people could feel comfortable shopping, and still enjoy not just the plants, but also the fun that we offer when people come in to shop,” Gunderson said. 

Some local pet stores are also seeing brisk business. At Bellingham’s petStop store in Sehome Village, assistant manager Vivian Boggs said online sales have been up substantially since the middle of 2020. Big sellers include enrichment toys meant for a pet’s mental stimulation, and it’s not hard to imagine that — with so many people stuck at home — owners are probably getting something out of the toys as well. 

Stay-at-home delivery dash

Viking Foods, a Bellingham-based food delivery service that contracts with around 150 restaurants, saw its business increase practically overnight when Washington State’s stay-at-home order was first enacted in March. 

At Viking, customers place restaurant orders through their website or over the phone with employee dispatchers. Those orders are then given to drivers, who deliver them to customers. 

Tanner Moyer-Parsons, general manager for Viking, said the pandemic led Viking to hire more delivery drivers, who serve as independent contractors for the company. Many found themselves working longer and more frequent shifts, Moyer-Parsons said, and the number of restaurants contracting with Viking also increased by at least 15 in Bellingham alone. 

Viking found itself busiest during the initial lockdown from March to June 2020, Moyer-Parsons said, setting new records for daily order numbers about every weekend. A shift to Phase 2 during the summer, along with good weather, provided outdoor and in-person dining opportunities that slowed the number of orders before picking up again in the fall. 

“We’re definitely still much busier than we were this time last year,” he said.