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Denim Retailers Share What Has Helped During COVID-19—and It’s Not the Government

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Though trillions of dollars have gone into COVID-19 relief initiatives, small businesses aren’t relying on the government for support during these unprecedented times—and it’s not because they don’t want to. It’s because they feel the government has failed them.

“You really see the priorities of your local government during times like this,” said Jeff Garza, owner of Foxhole LA, the Los Angeles-based vintage denim boutique and repair and customization shop.  “We don’t like to rely on any type of loan ever, because that means we need to pay someone back, but we would appreciate a small grant to help us through this crisis,” he said.

For Garza, a government-issued grant is a reasonable request for small businesses struggling as a result of a pandemic out of their control. Funds could help businesses pay for utilities and rent—which are no small fees for Foxhole’s Sunset Boulevard location. But grants aren’t always easy to come by, unfortunately.

“We have been Foxhole for nine years, and it is so sad to work so hard and save your hard-earned money just to have a crisis that’s not in your control clear out your savings,” he said. “Small businesses like ours get barely any help. You see chain restaurants and big businesses get millions of dollars, and we barely got an email back a few months later from the Small Business Association.”

David Shelist, owner of The Denim Lounge in Chicago, is equally disappointed in the government’s support.

“You can tell [people in the administration] have never owned a small business,” Shelist told Rivet. “Small business loans given out by the government don’t benefit small businesses—they benefit my employees and landlords.”

Shelist highlighted a major oversight in government support, calling out a lack of incentive for paying vendors—an issue that’s become rampant in the industry in the past few months. Reports of retailers refusing to pay suppliers or asking for massive discounts and extended payment terms to protect their business are plenty. With proper government support, some companies may have been able to avoid these situations, he said.

However, other small business owners have been able to make do with the support they’ve received—but remain cautious of the future.

“We are grateful to have been eligible for some federal assistance during this trying time, which allowed us to support our people and team overall in a way that would have been very challenging otherwise,” said K.P. McNeill, Imogene + Willie business partner. “We certainly hope that what we have received is enough, and it feels like that should be the case. Still, like everyone out there, we have a great deal of uncertainty about how things are going to evolve moving forward and the attached long-term economic impact.”

And it’s not just the government that could provide support during these trying times. When it comes to keeping a small business afloat during a global economic crisis, assistance must come from all sides.

Business owners were grateful for the generally positive experiences they’ve had with their stores’ landlords—while some continued to demand rent payments, others responded with empathy. One of Shelist’s landlords allowed him to delay payments until the store reopens.

McNeill also highlighted understanding and supportive landlords as a saving grace during the crisis for Imogene + Willie’s Nashville, Tenn.-based shop and warehouse and California-based sewing and production facility.

“We have very strong relationships with each of our landlords and know that they are there for us,” he said. “We’ve been able to keep each of these locations productive in their own ways to mitigate the need to worry about where the rent is coming from.”

Owners agreed that while the pandemic has caused extreme financial uncertainty, it has also spurred  them to ramp up their digital efforts—a move that will likely pay dividends in the long-term. The Denim Lounge used this pause to create a “full-blown” website in just two weeks; Imogene + Willie doubled down on digital efforts that were initiated before the coronavirus. Meanwhile, Foxhole made online shopping more accessible for its consumers.

“We humbly feel that we are by no means experts in this regard, but we hope that other small businesses like us will have the ability to stay the course,” said McNeill. “Brands that can find and tell their own authentic story, make high-quality sustainable goods, and have excellent customer experience have the opportunity to grow stronger through these challenging times.”