Travers and Laurie Mahan

Travers and Laurie Mahan with shop dog Bella inside their south Tulsa menswear shop.

Despite closing its doors for six weeks, Ribbons owner Lisa Delametter says 2020 was a good year for her 36-year-old store. 

“We never had a zero day,” Delametter says from behind the counter of her Brookside gift and women’s and children’s clothing boutique. She posted items for sale on social media, allowed for curbside pickups and even conducted business over text message. She says when she reopened on May 1, “Customers were so deliberately concerned about supporting local.”

Delametter says her team gift wrapped and delivered a lot of baby and birthday gifts throughout the spring and summer. She believes personal service, an established customer base and strong inventory will be necessary to last beyond 2021.

Menswear retailer Travers Mahan agrees.

“One thing that sets the small business brick-and-mortar apart is personalized service and the little, special touches you only get by walking into a brick-and-mortar,” Travers says, referencing his eponymous shop’s complimentary alterations, Saturday shoe shines, special in-house shopping events and private shopping appointments. 

“We’re in the service business; we just happen to sell clothes,” adds his wife and business partner, Laurie Mahan.

The past year was tough for the 28-year-old business Travers Mahan, 8146 S. Lewis Ave. (in the Plaza Shopping Center). “We lost a lot of business at the height of our spring inventory,” says Travers, who was at the south Tulsa storefront every day to take orders over the phone, fulfill curbside pickups and sell gift cards.

Overall, traffic was down 60% in 2020 as a lack of events, weddings and travel all hindered his customers’ shopping needs. The tailored clothing part of Mahan’s business was hardest hit. “But it’s not just here,” he says. “I belong to an advisory group out of New York. They’re all in the same boat.”

Right now, three-fourths of the shop is dedicated to athleisure, casual, weekend and business-casual attire. As he plans buying for the fall 2021 season, he is taking everything into account.

“It remains to be seen what the lifestyle changes are or will be,” he says.

For Delametter, when she put out her new sparkled attire perfect for a New Year’s Eve celebration, she was wary of how it would do. “It made the store festive,” she says with a laugh, “but people did not buy it.” The past year she saw a resounding uptick in sales for loungewear and pajamas — an area Ribbons, 3525 S. Peoria Ave., is known for — but knows that won’t last forever.

“Because of movies, TV and the awards shows — those drive fashion — without those the fashion isn’t changing,” she says. “We miss that.”

At J.Cole Shoes, located at 9930 Riverside Parkway, owners Jennifer Combs and Nicole VanEngen agree that working from home meant a huge athleisure and loungewear business. “Slippers and sneakers were everyone’s go-to shoes,” they say. “We ended up with a pretty good fourth quarter and had we not been shut down for five weeks, we would have been up for the year.”

According to the National Retail Federation, 98% of retail is made up of small businesses. Shopping trends in 2020, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau, reflect home and garden, food and beverage, and nonstore retailers (online-only) showed an 11-22% increase in sales, while gas stations, clothing and accessories stores, and restaurants and bars were all down 16-28%.

While commerce continues, owners and managers must conduct business in a safe manner for both customers and staff. “It’s a balancing act of how to stay in business, but do it in a socially responsible way,” says Ryan Fleming, owner of the 36-year-old Fleming’s Comfort Footwear,  5914 S. Lewis Ave. Creating a safe shopping environment means limiting the number of customers in his store at a time, asking people not to touch shoe displays, spacing out chairs and quarantining shoes for a few days after someone tries them on. 

Fleming received calls from customers and shoe reps during the closure of the spring, and he is hopeful for what 2021 will bring.

“We’re still way off from where we used to be. It’s understandable, but you can’t compare your numbers to last year,” he says. “You can’t do that to yourself.”

He’s not letting 2020 overshadow what’s going on — he bought new styles, more color choices and continues to beam positivity to keep his employees excited, which translates into a positive store vibe, he says. 

Combs and VanEngen, whose 14-year-old business continues to feel the support of its longstanding customers during the pandemic, say customer service is of paramount importance to their mission, and it’s imperative to shop at businesses committed to the community.

“It’s important to support local businesses and put more of our money back into our community where we live and our kids go to school.”

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