Downtown retailers work to bring shoppers back one year after COVID pandemic lockdown

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The COVID crisis brought retail in nearly every Chicago community to a grinding halt, but Chicago's downtown, which is heavily reliant on tourism dollars, was hit especially hard.

Now, retailers are working to bring customers back.

Mary Ann Rose's small business Mary Mary Gifts, just steps from Michigan Avenue, has been an eclectic staple for 14 years.

"We were really getting busy," Rose said.

But when COVID hit, her business was brought to its knees.

"People were coming in, and all of a sudden, they closed us down. And it was just like the bottom fell out," Rose said.

Rose said she lost 95% of her revenue in just those first few months of lockdown.

"You just can't get discouraged because when you have three days without a soul in here, you start thinking, 'what am I doing? There's only so much of my savings left," she said.

It's a story we've heard from retailers throughout the year: Michigan Avenue, State Street, and the Loop becoming ghost towns at the height of the COVID crisis.

"This time last year, we'd have about 1.3 million people on State Street during the week," said Michael Edwards, President & CEO of the Chicago Loop Alliance. "At the height of the pandemic, we had about 250,000 people, about 20% (of normal) which were essentially essential workers and people who live in and around the Loop."

"I think there were concerns that people wouldn't come back, they wouldn't come back shopping, they wouldn't come back to Michigan Avenue or Chicago, or that retail was dead," said Kimberly Bares, President & CEO of the Magnificent Mile Association.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Mag Mile Association said they've lost 30 first floor store fronts between Michigan Avenue and Oak Street - some companies put out of business. And that's not counting those leaving vertical malls, like Water Tower Place.

On State Street and the Loop, the Loop Alliance said at least 20 businesses were lost.

But people are slowly returning.

Last week, 624,000 people visited State Street. That's about half of a normal week's foot traffic this time last year, and pedestrian traffic was up on the Magnificent Mile.

"So a big surge," Edwards said. "Some of our stores are reporting the first positive revenue they've had year on year in 58 weeks."

"There are more people that want to go into the stores than the stores have capacity," Bares said.

As people continue to get vaccinated, retail experts expect those numbers to go up.

"What we know is that shopping fulfills much deeper needs for people than just acquiring stuff," said Dr. Chris Gray, Founder & Lead Behaviorist at retail consulting organization, Buycology. "There are emotional benefits people seek when they go shopping. Things like connecting with other people, adventure and discovery."

Just ask shoppers on the Mag Mile. They're not just out to buy things.

"Being stuck at home for three months of quarantine was kind of tough, so just being out seeing stuff we're used to seeing is nice," said shopper Brian Salgado.

"I'm looking for normalcy. I'm looking to be comfortable just being out again, feeling safe being out again," said Garrett Jones, also out shopping.

"I just love to shop. I mean, I'm glad to get to a store," said shopper Lawanda Walker.

However, Gray said successful retailers will welcome customers with a new normal.

Some of the things he said customers will be expecting when they walk into a store are mask recommendations and requirements, hand sanitizer available, clean pens to sign with, people visibly wiping commonly used surfaces down, and reassurance that social distancing will be enforced when inside.

"It may seem over the top, but it's about creating that association of safety. We take things seriously, and we care about you," he said.

That's something Mary Ann Rose dearly does as she adds more items to her new online store, a first time innovation during the pandemic.

"If anything, I now have a wonderful website where you can buy online," she said.

What she said will really help, is tourists coming back, but that will take vaccinations and time.

"Things will get better. You just can't look on the dark side. We will survive and Chicago will come out stronger," Rose said.
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