The pandemic has hit small businesses hard — from non-essential businesses forced to shut their doors in April to less foot traffic in the months since. That’s why local small businesses — like the Chocolate Cellar — need your support more than ever this month.

By Billy Liggett

While most may disagree, chocolate shops were not deemed “essential” back in April when many businesses were forced to shut their doors at the beginning of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The months-long closure was the low point in what’s been a roller coaster year for the Chocolate Cellar in Downtown Sanford. The high point — a move from the actual “cellar” shop on Carthage Street to a street-level location a few doors down from Temple Theatre.

Owner Laura Phelps, her co-owner and daughter Carol and her general manager and son Gene are looking to end the year on a high note in what is a make-or-break holiday shopping season for many small businesses.

Lucky for the Phelps family, chocolate may not be essential, but it makes a great Christmas gift.

“Christmas and Valentine’s Day are our two big times of the year,” says Laura. “Valentine’s is more concentrated — there are a couple of really busy days — but Christmas is more spread out over the month. Chocolate makes great stocking stuffers [and gifts for co-workers], and we have boxes that make really cute hostess gifts. While holiday parties might not happen as much this year, chocolate is still going to be popular.”

The shopping season got off on the right foot locally on Nov. 27 and 28 — also known as Black Friday and Small Business Saturday. While the pandemic has meant and will certainly mean less foot traffic in local stores, downtown enjoyed nice, socially distant crowds over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. 

The Chocolate Cellar in downtown Sanford moved this year from its true cellar located on Steele Street to a more traffic-friendly street-level location on Carthage Street.

This is good news for Sanford as the entire country’s small businesses brace for the worst month. According to this year’s annual holiday survey performed by Deloitte — which explored the shopping behaviors and preferences of more than 4,000 U.S. consumers heading into the holidays — more than half of the nation’s shoppers are “anxious” about shopping in stores, though 49 percent say a vaccine would help them return to pre-COVID shopping habits.

Other findings in the survey: 

  • One in three shoppers say they are in worse financial positions than last year, and two in five are expected to spend less than last year because of concerns about the economy.
  • Shoppers are expected to spend an average of $1,387 per household during the holiday season, down 7 percent year-over-year.
  • Roughly 47 percent of shoppers were not planning on shopping “event” days such as Black Friday, Prime Day and Cyber Monday. About 62 percent planned to use online retailers for holiday shopping.

Meg Moss, executive director of the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce, calls it a “season of uncertainty” for local retailers.

“But as we have seen in previous eras, disruption can lead to innovation and opportunity,” Moss says. “Many of our local small businesses have pivoted their business model.”

Examples include restaurants who have switched to curbside pickup that began out of necessity when COVID-19 shut down indoor dining in April. She says Added Accents, one of several boutiques in downtown Sanford, started offering private shopping experiences by appointment, and Mrs. Lacy’s restaurant not only offered family-sized meals for take out, but it also “seized the day” and has made considerable upgrades to its interior. Smoke and Barrel, next door to Added Accents, also renovated during its downtime.

Christmas and Valentine’s Day are the busiest times of year for the Chocolate Cellar in downtown Sanford. Owner Laura Phelps says her store offers gift packages that make perfect gifts and stocking stuffers.

The hope is the need for gifts for children, friends, family, co-workers and teachers will outweigh the hesitation shoppers might have about venturing out. Sanford’s mask mandate is requiring all business owners, employees and shoppers to wear face masks while indoors — most downtown businesses already had strict mask policies in place before the city’s mandate on Nov. 23.

Moss says she hopes Sanford residents find a way to support Sanford businesses.

“Holiday sales can make or break their bottom line,” she says, pointing to statistics from the National Retail Federation that say 19 percent retailers’ yearly sales come between Thanksgiving and Christmas. “And let’s not forget that when you are shopping small and local, you are helping the owner pay their mortgage, pay for their daughter’s dance lessons and sponsor a Little League baseball team.”

For those who missed Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, there’s still “Super Saturday” — the last full Saturday before Christmas (Dec. 19 this year). It’s the day, Moss says, for last-minute shoppers who converge on big box retailers and small businesses in search of deals.

“Many retailers plan to offer promotional items, one-day sales, competitive pricing and extended hours to attract customers looking to check off those last few names from their gift lists,” she says. “Of course, this must all be done with COVID-friendly restrictions in mind this year.”


Growth in a Recession

The recession of 2008 did a number on businesses and industries in Sanford. Downtown Sanford was mired in a lull as well — empty shops were at a high while most of the economic growth in the city was happening to the south around the new WalMart Supercenter and, eventually, Southside Plaza.

The current economic downturn — the COVID-19 recession — has led to more than a third of the world’s population being placed on lockdown at some point during the year. It led to 16 million jobs lost during a three-week span from March to early April, and in May, the country had its highest unemployment rate (14.7 percent) since 1941 (the end of the Great Depression).

With Love Boutique and High Cotton Couture joined downtown Sanford’s growing roster of small boutiques — both opening their doors during a global pandemic in 2020.

Sanford and Lee County, however, have been spared from the worst of it. From August 2019 to May of this year, four major companies announced their intentions to locate in Sanford or expand their current operations. Bharat Forge, Audentes Therapeutics and Through6 clothing manufacturers will bring with them 629 jobs and a $282 million investment. Pfizer’s gene therapy expansion will mean 300 new jobs and a $500 million investment. And two major housing developments — Galvin’s Ridge in the Deep River area and Laurel Oaks in south Sanford — will mean roughly 1,600 new homes and a boost to the county’s population.

And downtown Sanford has seen growth in 2020. While there have been casualties — Cooper’s Restaurant shut its doors in July — downtown has seen an overall surplus with three new businesses and the Chocolate Cellar’s relocation. With Love Boutique and High Cotton Couture both opened on Steele Street this year (joining the Purple Poodle, which opened in late 2019, to add to the area’s growing list of small clothing boutiques), RISE entrepreneur grant winner Jan Smith opened Seva Yoga above the Back to Dirt Bike Shop on Wicker Street.

According to Kelli Laudate, director of Downtown Sanford Inc., all of these businesses have adapted to COVID-19 restrictions to get by or succeed. The boutiques, she says, have benefited from online sales and private shopping experiences.

“Jan had the opportunity to grow her business through the summer offering outdoor yoga classes to create a safe experience for her customers and now, she offers classes with six people or fewer to allow plenty of space to flow,” Laudate says. “Charlie Storm [owner of Back to Dirt Bike Shop] is finally beginning to get bikes back on the floor after a fantastic summer of low stock as people were longing to be outside.”

Maggie and Luke Cranford started the process of opening High Cotton Couture in early 2020, when the pandemic wasn’t a thought. By the time they opened their doors in August, masks and COVID restrictions were the norm and have become their standard operating procedure.

“From a business perspective, we were concerned with the economy’s response due to the pandemic,” says Luke Cranford. “We knew this new venture would prove challenging, especially with the mounting stories of small businesses having to permanently close their doors. But overall, it has been amazing.”

With Love Boutique and High Cotton Couture joined downtown Sanford’s growing roster of small boutiques — both opening their doors during a global pandemic in 2020.

Maggie Cranford says their business has benefited from support from Central Carolina Community College Small Business Center, DSI, the Sanford Area Growth Alliance and the RISE program, which took 12 local entrepreneurs on a weeks-long business management course this year.

“The outpouring of love and support from within our community has been fabulous and very humbling,” she says. “Our customers and our fellow small businesses have truly been a blessing. It has been a great first few months and we are excited for what’s to come.”

Rebecca Love Pedley, owner of With Love Boutique, says 2020 has presented several challenges since she opened her doors in August, but she counts herself among the blessed for having her business and her health.

“The first few months have gone well thanks to the amazing support of this great community,” she says. “December is typically the peak selling season for boutiques and should be the highest percentage of sales for the annual year. I’m super excited for the first holiday season at With Love. It’s my favorite time of year, and I can’t wait to experience it with this wonderful community.”

Phelps and her crew at the Chocolate Cellar have also been impressed by the community support in Sanford. She’s also grateful for the partnership her shop has developed with their neighbors at Temple Theatre. Before COVID-19, Temple foot traffic meant big business for the little shop around the corner. While shows have been sparse and purposely small since their move to Carthage Street, Phelps is looking forward to the day when big crowds leaving a matinee swing by her shop for an after-show treat again.

“I’m excited for when that will finally happen,” she says. “Temple theater is a great resource for Sanford, and they’ve been an incredible asset to us.”

It’s no coincidence local business owners have all credited the community for keeping their heads above water during the pandemic. Laudate calls small businesses the backbone of any community and says $68 of every $100 spent at a locally owned business is reinvested in the community (versus $43 with larger retailers).

“Small businesses help to create a sense of community, offer customer service that is tailored to the consumer’s needs and, in turn, the money small businesses add back to the local tax base then supports our school systems and other infrastructures,” she says.

“Most importantly, shopping small helps support someone’s dream — the dream to bring goods or services to the community they love.”

The Chocolate Cellar — at its new location on Carthage Street in downtown Sanford — offers several gift packages and holiday-wrapped chocolates this month.