Yes, COVID-19 is or was (take your pick!) the great disruptor for retail. But many retailers found a silver lining on that cloud with new habits, and the amazing boon of the same (or greater!) sales in fewer hours.
Bottom line? More Fun is now at a permanent 11-7.
"And sales are stronger than they've ever been," Stoltzfus says.
"Most of our customers are still working from home and as such have the ability to run out to buy comics at any point," Brower says. "And we're making more money than before the pandemic. Will we eventually move back to our regular hours? Maybe? It all depends on the patterns of our regulars. But I tell you what, I sure have gotten used to this new schedule and I sure do like it."
Back at More Fun, Stoltzfus’ employees like it too.
"Being open 11-7 allowed us to move full time staff to four 10-hour days instead of five 8-hour days, and my staff loves it," he says. "Two extra hours isn't much difference, but a full third day off makes a huge difference in peoples’ ability to relax and recharge on their weekends."
Of Stoltzfus’ three stores, one each is more comics-, toys-, or games-focused. Gaming, previously shut down during COVID, is back, but proceeding with caution.
"Right now we’re back at full capacity," he says. "We’re not pushing the events super-hard, but we had a lot of locals who wanted to play. I maintained a mandatory mask policy in my stores longer than most did in Texas, and let me tell you, it led to some great 1-star reviews. But for in-store gaming, we’re now masks-optional because local ordinances requiring masks have been pulled away and it’s a tide that’s too much effort to fight."
The More Fun players have helped the process themselves.
"We have a close-knit group, and everybody has been pretty cool about it," Stoltzfus says. "If someone was worried about possible exposure, they would voluntarily pull back and let everybody else know to get tested. We have some customers who have small children or elderly parents in their immediate orbit, so they’re a little more concerned, and they’re taking a longer wait-and-see. But people are generally very excited to get back together in person again."
"We have not restarted gaming yet," Haines says. "The restrictions have lifted enough that we are allowed to do events now and Wizards of the Coast has allowed events to happen and so on, but I still feel I have to figure if this is the right thing for the community. I don’t want to be a place where people get COVID, my staff will have to work later to run events, and so on."
Haines’ staffing largely mirrors what’s happening at More Fun.
"Even at Christmas, when we expanded our hours, those later hours were almost nothing," she says. “If you can’t sell anything between 7 and 9 at Christmas, there’s no point in being open late. We’re open ’til 6 now, and only one of my stores is open seven days a week. The others are only open five days. And it hasn’t changed my sales. We’re getting the same amount of sales with fewer hours and lower overhead."
Haines is looking to restart in-store gaming in the summer, and is curious to see if it comes roaring back.
"Yes, we broke habits, and the habit used to be, ‘Come on down Friday night, we play Magic,’" she says. "Well, a bunch of people stopped. How many people are ready to come back? It could be a whole rebuild."
"And I'm thinking of extending hours!" says owner Steve Anderson.
Gaming is driving hours at Borderlands Comics and Games in Greenville, South Carolina.
"We added a second game night, and now we are open ’til 10 p.m. Thursday and Friday," says owner Robert Young. "We usually have both gamers and comic customers with off-cycle work schedules coming in during those hours. Those hours may expand even more over the next few months. We will continue to listen to our customers and adjust to their needs as always."
"Currently, we’re down about 50 staff-hours per week, and that shortage means we're less able to move a lot of projects forward, like doing some interior remodeling projects, getting our warehouse more operational, and so on," Field says.
But Field also says his customers have adjusted to the store’s shorter hours very readily. He sees the same work-at-home, pop-in effect that Patrick Brower has seen in Chicago. And since so many COVID relief fund checks were spent on local businesses, that’s created a new customer habit as well.
"The love many are continuing to show for their favorite locally owned small businesses is wonderful," Field says. "So grateful!"
For more on how retailers have adapted to COVID-driven changes in the environment, see "Game, Comic, and Hybrid Retailers on Staffing").