For meaningful gift-giving this holiday season, shop local and shop early. 

Yes, it's still October, but as major national retailers introduce holiday deals, Tucson's small business owners are facing a Christmas shopping season of unknowns. 

"It's really hard right now," says Autumn Ruhe, the owner of toy store Mildred and Dildred. "The stores that people love and want to be there, this is the exact right time that they need help the most, because they have been really hard hit. And it's not over. That's the hardest thing. It's not over yet." 

Uncertainty persists. 

Ruhe wonders if another outbreak of COVID-19 cases might force additional lockdowns, here or in places that will affect her supply chain. 

Tracy Conklin, the owner of Artemesia Soaps, Salts and Scrubs, has no idea what to expect out of a holiday shopping season lacking the markets she frequents. 

And Veronica Ramirez, the owner of Harley's Toys and Comics, worries about the lag time between when she orders products and when they actually arrive.  

"What we're trying to advocate for right now is that small businesses are still out there and still need support," says Thomas Barr, the executive director of Local First Arizona

Barr says the onset of the pandemic brought a surge of local shopping that has since dropped off. In that time, local businesses have set up online stores, developed a process for curbside pickup and introduced safety measures for in-store shopping to accommodate customers' comfort levels and public health recommendations.

"What we're encouraging businesses to do is have a plan for multiple avenues of revenue rather than relying on traditional revenue you may have had before — a great online store or marketplace, investing more in safe curbside pickup or delivery options," Barr says. "You're going to have to be flexible and adaptable as much as possible, so people have an easy way to shop." 

The good news? Entrepreneurs are all about creativity and flexibility. Now they're asking for the same from their customers. 

On Friday, Monsoon Chocolate Factory and Cafe posted on Facebook reminding customers to be patient and kind and expect shipping delays as the shop deals with supply chain disruptions and other pandemic-related stressors. Other small businesses have echoed those remarks as they deal with order times, supply chains and customer demand all impacted by COVID-19. 

"We would love if holiday shoppers could make an effort to plan their shopping earlier!" writes Carly Wilson, the director of sales and media for Monsoon Chocolate, in an email. "With the pandemic, it's difficult for retailers to make predictions on the holiday demand we can expect. The earlier advance orders are placed, the better we are able to make sure that we're able to meet demand, and that their orders are received on time!" 

Starting your holiday shopping earlier can also promote physical distancing — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies "going shopping in crowded stores just before, on, or after Thanksgiving" as high risk. Shipping companies, too, are apprehensive of the usual holiday surge in packages. According to a story by The Wall Street Journal, shipping companies are already or almost at capacity.

"I think sometimes, people are like, 'This is the one perfect thing I want to get for somebody,' and it's hard if it's not available," says Traci Bohme, the general manager of the outdoors gear store Summit Hut. "So the thing is to be excited and open-minded for what you may find for somebody." 

Robert Williams, an avid hiker, browses shirts at Summit Hut, which is benefiting from people wanting to be outside during the pandemic.

There's a demand for pandemic-friendly past times

Bohme says in the months of the pandemic, Summit Hut, with locations in Oro Valley and on Speedway, has seen customers who haven't stopped by in years. 

"They were taking a break from the outdoors," she says. "But now going outside is a safe haven for people." 

Tents and propane fuel, in particular, seem to be in high demand, Bohme adds. 

Like Summit Hut, independent book store Mostly Books, 6208 E. Speedway, sells merchandise that has seen an uptick in interest since the start of the pandemic.  

"It's a very interesting time for books," says store manager Jody Hardy. "Book buying right now is up, but independent book stores are still very much struggling. Book reading is up, but book store sales are down." 

The demand for books extends even beyond new releases to backlist titles. Hardy says if the store's distributor has books they want, she tries to order immediately —  otherwise they could be gone the next day. 

"If you see a book on our shelves, we encourage you to get that now," she says. 

POP! Figures on display in Harley’s Toys and Comics in the Tucson Mall, on Nov. 7, 2020.

If you love it, buy it

For several weeks, Mostly Books has been encouraging its customers to begin holiday shopping as soon as possible and pre-order any specific titles with fall publication dates. 

"A good portion of that is because many of the publishers decided back in March to postpone publication dates of upcoming books," Hardy says. "That was cool, but now they're all releasing in the fall on top of fall releases, and our printers are getting jammed."

Hardy says that after the first print run (the number of copies of a book printed at once) sells out, it takes longer than usual to get more copies. When "Midnight Sun," a companion book to Stephenie Meyer's novel "Twilight" came out earlier this year, it took four weeks for the store to get the second print run after the first sold out. 

"That's crazy long," Hardy says. 

She suggests pre-ordering upcoming releases from Janet Evanovich, J.K. Rowling and Barack Obama, among others, ASAP. 

Ruhe at Mildred and Dildred, 2905 E. Skyline Drive, says shopping early is a good idea to pre-empt any coronavirus-inflicted delays. 

"I'm very concerned that after a certain point if someone was looking for that purple bunny that was over here, that we just won't be able to get it," she says. "Whereas normally, as long as we're on the ball, we can get a pretty quick turnaround." 

On top of everything, Mildred and Dildred intends to move into a new, larger location in November. The store's new location will be at 1725 N. Swan Road, with the La Encantada location potentially open in a limited capacity, but not the full store, Ruhe says. 

"I've already had customers say they're shopping for Christmas, and I do think that's probably wise," she says.

Veronica Ramirez, owner of Harley’s Toys and Comics at Tucson Mall, warns that inventory is no sure thing this year. “If I do run out, I can’t guarantee when the other cases will come in. All I know is, I have these right now.”

Ramirez, the owner of Harley's Toys and Comics in the Tucson Mall, echoes the advice to buy gifts the first time you see them. Orders she has placed on Baby Yodas and other Star Wars items, for example, have been seriously delayed in arriving. 

"If you don't get it now, it might not be here later," she says of store inventory. "If I do run out, I can't guarantee when the other cases will come in. All I know is, I have these right now." 

Spread some holiday cheer early this year

Whether you choose to shop online or in-person, shopping early puts some cash in the pockets of small business owners sooner rather than later. 

"In a normal year, we make about 30 percent of our year in December," says Ruhe at Mildred and Dildred. "So it would be nice if that was spread out a little bit more, especially because this year has been so tough." 

Autumn Ruhe, owner of La Encantada’s Mildred and Dildred, breaks down empty boxes at the store’s new location, 1725 N. Swan Road. The store’s new site will open later this month.

Barr with Local First Arizona says many businesses are still anticipating the holiday shopping season to begin in earnest Thanksgiving weekend. 

"But what will be missing are the major festivals and events that small vendors rely on to sell goods..." he says. "So we're encouraging people to not forget about those kinds of businesses, and rather than shifting shopping to big boxes and online companies, do some research." 

In the last nine months, online marketplaces and business directories have sprouted through Startup TucsonFourth Avenue Street Fair, Blax Friday and others. You can also give gift cards to favorite local restaurants or small businesses offering services and experiences. Barr suggests putting together gift baskets full of local goodies. 

Conklin of Artemesia, makes almost all of what she sells and says she always expects business to be slow in the summers, but March and April and now September and October have been challenging. 

"Shows are my bread and butter; that's what allows me to buy all my supplies and things..." says Artemesia's Conklin. "I usually do three shows and all of them have been canceled, and I have no idea what to expect. I'm hoping for the best. I'm still making my popular things, and I'm hoping that people will shop local." 

When customers shop early, it helps her gauge the popular products she needs to keep in stock. She also has a create-and-take option, where customers can make an appointment and then blend their own bath salts, masks or scrubs. 

"I'm trying to keep everything clean and keep people safe," she says of her brick-and-mortar store operations at 6538 E. Tanque Verde Road. "It's just such a new and different time. Every time you think you know what's going on, you get thrown a curve ball. That's what's kind of freaking me out."

Still, Conklin says she has had customers drop in just to buy something to support her. 

"That's so valuable," she says. "I can't even begin to say how much that helps. And it keeps me going and keeps my morale up." 

Hardy with Mostly Books says that the book shop received an outpouring of support at the beginning of the pandemic, and while customers have continued to shop faithfully, the store hasn't been able to bring back its full staff yet. Sales are down, says owner Bobbe Arnett. 

"We've hit the point where we appreciate every sale," Hardy adds. 

Nicole Carrillo is the owner of the boutique pet groomer Rosie's Barket, 7960 N. Oracle Road, where she sells cute goodies for your dog and has DIY wash stations. Carrillo points out that you're also likely to find more meaningful gifts and experiences when you shop locally. 

"I should be a commercial for Pop-Cycle," she says, referring to the eclectic gift shop on Fourth Avenue. "I think if I want to spend my money picking something out for someone, I want it to be thoughtful. I just don't want it to be stuff ... When you look at Pop-Cycle, it takes someone so much time to learn how to make jewelry or a card or paint or draw." 

It's a win-win. 

"We love our community," says Bohme at Summit Hut. "And anything people can do to keep it going for local businesses is so important. We offer things that you can't get other places, and just trying to keep that spirit alive is really important." 

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