Sales-tax receipts tell the tale, as does customer foot traffic: Small retail businesses in the Highland Lakes are bouncing back from the COVID-19 crunch that began with stay-at-home orders in March. In fact, the turnaround started in late spring as urbanites sought refuge in small towns and locals shopped at home.
Cheryl Westerman’s experience is an example. She went from thinking she would go out of business to moving her 670-square-foot specialty shop, Ms. Lollipop Parties Fun & Games, to a larger space just a block away on Main Street in Marble Falls.
“I’ve really had a great summer,” said Westerman, standing in her now 4,000-square-foot shop filled with novelties, toys, candy, Christmas and Halloween decorations and costumes, and, of course, ice cream. She saved her business by adding services such as gift baskets at Easter and gift wrapping.
“I hadn’t ever done give baskets before, but I thought that was something I could do during COVID,” she continued.
Midge Dockery has heard similar stories. The Marble Falls Economic Development Corp.’s business development coordinator recounted how several business owners told her that sales this past summer were among the strongest. One shopkeeper told her a recent Monday seemed more like a Saturday.
It’s not just Marble Falls.
“I see a lot of people out walking along the streets in town and shopping,” said Briley Mitchell, executive director of the Llano Chamber of Commerce.
One thing Mitchell noted was how many Llano residents were staying in town to do their shopping instead of heading to other locations.
“People in Llano, they don’t seem to be traveling to shop this year,” he said.
That’s not the case for people from other areas, Mitchell added. He has noticed an increase in out-of-town visitors, which has helped boost the city’s economy.
“I think people in the bigger cities are just looking for a place to go, to get out of the bigger cities,” he said. “Places like Llano are where they’re coming.”
“We’re close enough to Austin and that area where (people) are making a day trip,” she said. “They’re looking for someplace they can get outside, walk, and do some shopping. They come here to just get away, get a break.”
Marta Stafford, owner of Marta Stafford Fine Art on Main Street in Marble Falls, has also seen an uptick in business.
“On weekends, it’s amazing,” she said. “They’re coming from all over — Wichita Falls, Corpus Christi — and especially from Austin and San Antonio. It’s a nice drive to get out here, and it’s such a beautiful place. They just want a different experience.”
As an art gallery owner, Stafford’s business isn’t essential under the governor’s orders. The gallery was closed longer than others and she lost business.
She found an upside, however: the artists.
“Artists thrive in isolation, so they’ve been working and creating,” she said. “For me, that’s been great because I’ll have so much more art for the gallery. And, I’m in this for the long haul.”
The August sales-tax data from Marble Falls indicates that even full-service restaurants, which were specifically hit hard early on in the pandemic, are coming up for air. The sales receipts were just 0.47 percent above the same time last year.
“But, it’s the first time in a long time they’ve been zero or above,” said Marble Falls EDC Executive Director Christian Fletcher.
For several months, full-service restaurant sales were below, often much below, previous years’ performances.
Some of the earlier extravagant sales numbers demonstrated in home improvement and home decor sectors are starting to moderate a bit. The jump in home improvement sales in the beginning of the pandemic Fletcher partly attributes to visitors staying at their vacation homes for longer periods than usual. While here, they started fixing up their homes and yards.
At Lollipop’s, Westerman mused a bit at how she not only made it through since the pandemic started but was able to expand. Part of it was innovation and marketing. She posted videos to Facebook about her new gift baskets, and orders came in. Even after her regular business began returning in earnest in the late spring and through the summer, Westerman continued to offer gift wrapping, another new addition to the business.
Keeping her doors open came down to one important thing in the end, she said.
“I thank all my customers for keeping me in business and helping provide more fun, which is what this business is all about,” Westerman said. “This is a happy place, and I think with everything that’s going on, we need more happy places.”