Tuesday, November 30, 2021

For Pike Place Market and its vendors, COVID was yet another test of survival

Like many vendors at Pike Place Market, Scott Chang isn’t sure that business will resume its pre-COVID normal.

True, this summer brought welcoming crowds of tourists and locals to the open-air Seattle landmark. Sales are almost back at Si Lee Gardens, a flower business owned by Chang’s family, where they closed the picturesque Warren of the Market of stalls and shops before the pandemic.

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But there’s a more serious reason for Lee’s rebound: Many competing florists haven’t returned to the market, or are only here a few days a week. They are now sold at other outlets that don’t require the long commute to downtown Seattle.

Even Chang, for the first time, is selling some of his flowers elsewhere, partly as a hedge against future COVID-related disruptions.


“We’re never going to leave Pike Place,” says Chang, 36, of the place, which has hosted his family business since the 1980s. But the pandemic “was a big eye-opener that we had to look for other places.” Will be.”

Fifty years after Pike Place Market nearly collapsed in the name of progress, the giant institution faces another, even more complicated servitude.

Although many of the more than 500 businesses on the market saw solid sales this summer, visitor numbers are still well below their 2019 levels. Many vendors and farmers are still short on time, and dozens have not returned or are on the fence about returning.

“It’s really up in the air right now,” says Jim Johnson, owner of Olympia-based Johnson Berry Farms, a 22-year-old market stalwart who hasn’t returned since last fall.

Even many of those sellers who made it back have done so by relocating how—and sometimes where—they do business as they prepare for their second pandemic winter.

Collectively, this marks a turnaround for a reputable, eclectic retail community that was facing challenges before COVID, including labor shortages and competition from online retailers and farmer’s markets in nearly every city and neighborhood. spread was included.

Mary Bacarella, executive director of the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority (PDA), says that although Pike Place Market remains the area’s go-to source for a complete “meet the maker” experience, “we are not alone in this”. Can”), which owns and manages the 9-acre, 14-building complex. Bazar, Bacarella, “has to adapt.”

For Pike Place Market and its vendors, COVID was yet another test of survival

“He Took A Hit”

This face-to-face quality is, of course, precisely why Pike Place Market has suffered so deeply from COVID.

Tourists, historically providing nearly half of market sales, were absent even after the state reopened non-essential businesses in June 2020. Although loyal locals came out, overall visitor numbers remained at less than half their pre-pandemic levels in early 2021, according to data from the Downtown Seattle Association.

Fewer tourists meant fewer vendors, which in turn made the market even less attractive to visitors.

“From one summer to the next, it went from making hundreds of dollars a day to making dozens of dollars,” says Daniel Fleming, 48, a photographer and digital artist.

The entire market organization shrank. Revenue for PDAs, which charge some tenants a percentage of retail sales, fell from a record $22.6 million in 2019 to $13.2 million in 2020, cutting costs and laying off 15% of employees. “He took a hit,” says Bacarella.

Rachel the Pig embodies the Pike Place Market and the piggy bank for charity.  He has been on the Seattle market since 1986 and is the creation of Northwest sculptor Georgia Gerber.  (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

fight back

Recovery has been slow and has come through both top-down relief efforts and bottom-up individual enterprise.

For example, PDA has offered renters $3.7 million in rental assistance; The market’s fundraising arm, the Pike Place Market Foundation, offered approximately $700,000 in small-business grants. There were programs to help sellers apply for federal paycheck protection loans, promotional campaigns aimed at locals, and even TV commercials. And despite the loss and additional expenses, Bacarella says that PDA still has a cash reserve of $18 million and, as of August, has generated $11.6 million, which is expected to be $14.8 million year over year.

Meanwhile, individual businesses came up with their own customizations. At Sound View Café, Alex Amon, whose family opened the place nearly 30 years ago, completely re-engineered the menu, replacing many of the complex high-end items with simpler selections that “cost more to us.” were effective.”

At Cinnamon Works Bakery, owners Michael Ruegmer and Judy Beggs cut expenses by doing more work themselves – for a time, Judy handled all baking and sales alone. They also benefited from the patience of customers: During the pandemic, Judy says, “people learned to wait in line,” which allowed the bakery to operate with fewer counter staff.

Devin Patterson in Marrakesh Leather sells custom belts at Pike Place Market.  The stand is from 1971.  (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Like retailers everywhere, many market sellers found ways to rely less on face-to-face sales. “We’ve definitely upped our game online,” says Devin Patterson in Marrakesh. Leather, a market presence since 1971. The business saw online sales from 5% of total sales to around 35% today pre-COVID.

For sellers with little or no online presence, PDA hosts how-to webinars by some of the web-savvy vendors in the market. Jeweler Twyla Dill of Twyla Dill Design teaches sellers how to “build a Shopify website from scratch,” she says.

But some sellers also found ways to reduce their dependence on the market.

To “help lift the slack” in sales, Linden-based Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards increased sales to 16 other regional farmers markets, many of which were thriving despite Pike Place’s struggles, says co-owner Richard Holmquist.

For Seattle artist Dan Gregory, a day-seller for nearly 19 years, the strategy of the pandemic was to open a gallery nearby for local artists, which now accounts for 20% of their sales. “Because of the Covid unknown, I didn’t know where the market was going, where the economy was going. I felt that if I had my own storefront, I would have a little more control,” he says.

Artist Dan Gregory rushed to set up his stall at Pike Place early in the morning.  He has been a Destel seller for almost 19 years.  (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

the new normal

On Saturdays in early October, Pike Place Market seems to be as busy as ever. The street and the stalls were crowded and noisy. Face masks aside, it could have been 2019.

But there are differences. Thanks to a brief cruise ship season, visitor numbers are still only about 75% of their 2019 levels at the beginning of October.

And although most of the market’s 222 restaurants, shops and other brick-and-mortar tenants have returned, only 69 of the 96 farmers and 147 of the 186 craftsmen had returned by October 6, market officials said. All told, the trading community of the market is still down about 15% from 2019.

Some of the absences reflect pandemic-related steps by vendors; But they also reflect long-standing challenges.

For some old sellers in the market, the pandemic was a good moment to retire. Vicky Clark Raphael, a 66-year-old jeweler at Shoreline, has operated a day stall for more than 40 years. Though she hasn’t returned since the pandemic, she had planned to stay until 70, but is now unsure. “This whole COVID reality has made things so challenging that it is time to decide what to do,” she says.

A wall in the upper post alley is covered with posters and miscellaneous art.  The stairs lead up to Rachel the Pig at Pike Place Market.  (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

For other vendors, the challenge has been to find enough employees to run a stall the entire time. Some say they can’t pay employees enough to bring them into town. Others say that the work, which typically requires installing and tearing down hundreds of pounds of products and equipment every day, leads to higher turnover.

“It’s really hard to find someone who’s going to be there for more than a few months,” says Nicholas Gerber, 24. Sweet Things destines for Honey Farms and Herban Farms and has seen many farmers struggle to find and keep market staff.

Nicholas Gerber runs a daytime stall for Sweet Things Honey Farm at Pike Place Market.  (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

“There’s a Magic Number”

Before COVID, PDAs and vendors faced increased competition from online retail, increased farmers’ markets, and better local produce classes in some grocery stores. The PDA was responding by helping sellers get online, and launched satellite farmers markets at South Lake Union, City Hall and Virginia Mason – and even set up a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. With the produce boxes done.

As the pandemic recedes, PDA is looking to expand those efforts with a local delivery service and more Web support for vendors, as the market awaits the region’s tourism sector’s full recovery.

But given how quickly pandemics can change, Bacarella says, the main strategy is to remain resilient enough to adapt. “I mean, we were very confident because we were going into the summer — and then with the new Delta version, we all had to pivot again,” she says.

For some sellers, especially those facing a labor crisis or concern over spotty sales, that pivot could mean moving away from the market – at least until tourism fully recovers.

“At the end of the day, there’s a magic number you have to build up to justify being there,” says hazelnut grower Holmquist. As long as the sales and visitors in the market are trending in the right direction, he is planning to enter the market.

Others are still trying to figure out their magic numbers. Jeweler Clark Raphael knows that summer’s strong sales have seen many sellers guarantee nothing for him or the other sellers who are still waiting in the wings.

If she wants to see if Pike Place Market still works for her, she says, “we basically have to go out there and try.”

For Pike Place Market and its vendors, COVID was yet another test of survival

Coverage of the economic impacts of the pandemic is partly written by Microsoft Philanthropy. The Seattle Times exercises editorial control over this and all of its coverage.

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