For those of us who live in places under government orders to shelter at home — more and more of us, as time goes on — it’s difficult to know where, and how, to buy things. Essential businesses remain open, but business owners, employees, and consumers alike are rightfully worried about their safety and the safety of others. People who are able to work from home can order in groceries and feel safer as a result, while the people who work to fulfill those orders remain exposed to risk. Many Americans can’t opt out of public life, but for those who can stay home, there’s a certain endless hand-wringing over how best to obtain the goods we need and want.
One option — curbside pickup — has emerged as something of a moral middle ground, allowing small businesses to keep employees safe(r) (and employed) while meeting customers’ demand. For most shops, this means that orders are placed by phone or online, packaged up, and either put into customers’ car trunks for them or, in more pedestrian cities like New York, set outside for pickup. (Obviously, specific pickup methodology varies store to store.) And while the risk of contracting COVID-19 from a package may not be zero, so far experts seem to agree that it’s a much, much lower risk than interacting with people.
WORD Bookstores, in Brooklyn and Jersey City, closed its physical stores a few weeks ago, before the official order to close. At first, the company offered a walk-up window at the Jersey City location, according to co-owner Christine Onorati, but WORD gave that up “real quick,” she says. Now, the stores offer only contactless pickup at both locations — though that may change, depending on government restrictions and employees’ sense of safety.
“Every order has to be paid ahead online or on the phone,” says Onorati. WORD asks customers to call when they’re on the way, and their orders are placed on a shelf outside the store before they arrive. “We don’t want our staff to have to deal with anybody.” Currently, WORD’s staff is limited to the very few who are able to get there without public transit. Other employees process online orders from home. “We’re trying to keep as many people employed as we can,” she says. “It’s getting harder and harder.”
Precycle, a bulk grocery store in Brooklyn, wasn’t set up for online orders prior to the pandemic, but owner Katerina Bogatireva patched a system together to keep her essential business operational while minimizing risk. “For me, as a business owner, my first priority was to keep my employees safe,” she says. That means no in-store business and no delivery either, as the latter would require her employees to travel around the city. The decision to close the store came after the first wave of panic buying, says Bogatireva.
“That one last weekend before everything was shutting down, we were all working 12-hour shifts because people were buying so much food,” she says. “It was very uncomfortable, and I could see fear in everybody’s eyes.”
The pickup system allows Bogatireva to put space between the store’s employees, who come to work around 11 a.m. to assemble orders, which can be picked up between 4 and 7 p.m. — though she hopes to expand availability with a new site. “We’re working on implementing an online ordering system that’s automated, so people can pay online as well, but it takes time,” she says. “Because we’re a grocery store, there wasn’t a platform for us to use, so we had to adapt something that’s geared toward restaurants.”
Tom Hyland, the co-owner of Gowanus Wine Merchants in Brooklyn, also finds pickup the best available option for the time being, though Gowanus also offers delivery via Drizly. He and co-owner Rick Lopez closed up shop shortly before the official stay-at-home order, though he’s fuzzy on the exact day. (“Dates are so odd now,” he says — true.) They keep the gate up, and posted signs explain that customers can order online or by phone, even from just outside the store. “Sometimes people come to the front door and don’t understand why they can’t just open the door and have me take their card,” he says. “But that’s just one more thing to keep us both safe, so I have them call me.” From there, Hyland or Lopez will talk through the store’s options depending on what the customer is looking for.
“If somebody’s a little more wine savvy, and really knows their stuff, and they say, ‘I like old-world wines, I want to spend $30, I like a dry red,’ I’ll grab a few bottles and come to the front window,” he says. “I’ll go, ‘This one’s $21 from Italy, this one’s $30 from France.’ That’s what we do anyway when they’re in here.”
Hyland’s business has a small staff even in normal times, and he recognizes that he’s lucky to be able to keep things running this way. “We’re able to generate enough business to pay our rent for the time being,” he says. “I feel very bad for bars and restaurants, because those are our brothers and sisters in the wine-and-spirits world.”
Small-business owners I spoke to say that customers have been profuse in expressing gratitude not just for the products offered but the limited social contact these exchanges provide. “It feels like the community is desperate for that connection, that feeling that they have a person on the other end of the phone, and they can order something, and we’ll put it out for them,” says Onorati. In her case, she says, parents are particularly grateful. “A lot of parents are desperate for stuff for their kids,” she adds. “We’re all going slightly insane, me included.”
Bogatireva says her store is one of few grocers to offer the pickup option, and customers notice. “A lot of customers have been extremely appreciative, because it makes them feel really safe not going inside the store and touching everything other people have touched,” she says. “I think it gives them peace of mind.”
Though business certainly isn’t as good as it was pre-pandemic, Hyland says his shop has even seen new customers. “Our presence online has grown, and it was a happy coincidence that we really got the online delivery system going just around when this happened,” he says. “Our regulars are very appreciative, too.”
If any good can come of this pandemic, Onorati hopes one piece will be an increased appreciation for small businesses like hers and the efforts they’ve made during this time. “Maybe after this disaster, people might have a little more of an affinity for their communities and how small businesses are an essential part of those communities,” she says.