Survey says: buy it here, local businesses need a lift

The results offer a glimpse into an increasingly dire situation for at least some island businesses.

After receiving the results for the Vashon Chamber of Commerce’s third survey of Vashon businesses since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Cheryl Lubbert, the Chamber’s president, has a simple message for islanders: Buy local.

The Chamber, representing more than 200 members of Vashon’s business community, is now being run as an all-volunteer organization by its board after staffing cuts happened in March. The cuts, Lubbert said, were made because of the cancellation of events that supported the Chamber’s operating budget.

Still, in the past six months, the Chamber has upped its game, revamping its website and hosting frequent online webinars, roundtables and Zoom meetings for its members.

In September, the chamber’s next webinar will tackle the thorny topic of how businesses should respond to COVID cases in their workplaces — a timely topic given that two employees of Vashon’s Chase Bank branch recently tested positive for the virus. According to Lubbert, Vashon’s Emergency Operations Committee suggested having the webinar on this topic.

The Chamber has also partnered with Vashon’s Emergency Operations Committee in a number of other ways, including the distribution of re-opening kits and PPE to local businesses, vetting of resource materials pertaining to the pandemic now listed on the Chamber’s website, and by sharing data collected from three surveys aimed at taking the temperature of how businesses are coping in the ongoing era of coronavirus.

Lubbert shared the raw data of the latest survey with The Beachcomber, providing a glimpse into a situation that is becoming increasingly dire for at least some island businesses.

“These are such hard times for everyone both personally and professionally,” said Lubbert. “Anything people can do to seek out local resources really helps support our community.”

Addressing the temptation by islanders to buy with the click of a few buttons through Amazon and other online retailers, Lubbert urged locals to pause before purchasing, and consider if what they wanted could be found locally, instead.

“It might actually make the difference between somebody being in business next year,” she said.

The Chamber’s latest survey received 60 responses, and according to data, 38 percent of the respondents said they were worried about paying their bills in August and beyond.

Fifty percent of restaurant owners reported that they were serving significantly fewer meals per day, compared to pre-pandemic times, despite easing of restrictions on in-person dining in recent months.

Most businesses reported a significant drop in revenue.

Twenty-three percent of the respondents said they had lost a quarter of their revenue (versus last year’s revenue at this same time). Another 11 percent reported losing half their revenue, and 15 percent said they had lost 75 percent. For another 11 percent of the respondents, the loss of revenue had been 100 percent.

Only 15 percent of the respondents said their revenue had increased.

Lubbert, when asked about the divergence of responses, said that she suspected that some businesses, including those selling real estate, groceries, gardening and nursery supplies and home improvement services were among those now experiencing some increased business.

Those related to tourism and entertainment, she said, had taken the hardest hit.

“If you’re an event space, you probably have lost a lot of revenue,” Lubbert said. “The same things we are seeing on a national level, we’re seeing on a local level: businesses that rely on events, gathering, and social activity are doing worse.”

The Chamber’s three surveys have contained many of the same questions so that the Chamber can track the longitudinal impact of the pandemic on island businesses.

But the most recent survey, Lubbert said, had posed a new question.

It asked members for feedback on an idea that has gained traction on social media in recent months, and also been discussed at Vashon Community Council meetings: closing Vashon Highway to car traffic between Bank Road and Vashon Theatre to traffic and re-imagining the town core as a pedestrian mall.

For Lubbert, the responses were eye-opening.

A little fewer than half of the respondents — 46 percent — said they were very supportive of closing the street to traffic for a long weekend, but only 26 percent were very supportive of making the closure permanent. Thirty-five percent of the respondents said they were not at all supportive of the idea of permanent closure, and 68 percent said they believed such a move would not increase their sales.

Lubbert said she thought it was important to include the question.

“We should always ask and get data from businesses,” she said. “[A pedestrian mall] is a very good idea and lots of towns have done it, but we aren’t every town — we have special circumstances.”

She also pointed to a comment section on the survey that showed that “the people who are against it are really against it,” though she added the caveat that not all island businesses had responded to the survey.

Multiple commenters worried that the move would draw tourists to Vashon — a prospect that was not desirable in COVID times — and that social distancing would be difficult if streets became crowded.

Respondents also voiced concerns about traffic problems and lack of parking near their businesses.

“People are willing to put up with traffic inconveniences for a special event,” one commenter wrote. “But the problems in doing this on a permanent basis are huge.”

“This would literally kill my business completely,” another wrote.

In another comment section, respondents detailed in detail the specific ways that the pandemic had impacted their business, providing a litany of COVID-era economic woes, including decreased revenue, lost clients, and mounting bills.

On a brighter note, 86 percent of those who responded to the survey said that masking and social distancing compliance by both their employees and customers had been good in their places of business.

Lubbert praised the business owners for their work in keeping Vashon masked and socially distanced.

“They are having to police the situation, and in some cases, it impacts their revenue,” she said. “They deserve a thank you for all the effort.”

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