Local businesses experience surprising surge during COVID-19 pandemic

Aug. 24, 2020

By Andrea Van Essen, for SiouxFalls.Business

While many businesses were rocked by upheaval for months and still are trying to recover, some are proving they’re not just resilient but also potentially pandemic-proof.

Those that offer outdoor recreation, ways to travel in relative isolation and the chance to treat yourself appear to have found a formula for increasing revenue in spite of COVID-19.

Here’s how they’re doing it.

Cycling surge

As COVID-19 descended on South Dakota, Spoke-N-Sport owner and president Chad Pickard had a decision to make.

He had met with other bicycle retailers in a peer group, and the discussions left him with uncertainty: Some shops were seeing huge upticks in sales, while others were closing.

“For that first week, we were thinking we’d probably have to close, the mayor was talking about restrictions on movement, and we were nervous,” he said. “But within the next week, we saw that wouldn’t happen.”

The shop’s numbers were already up because of the warm spring weather, and Pickard said he back-ordered as much as he could.

“The only thing that kept us going and saved us was having this heavy stream of bikes coming in,” he said.

People were clamoring for bicycles and not just locally. Spoke-N-Sport’s online sales took a huge bump, Pickard said, with shipping to large metro areas across the country such as Minneapolis and Portland, Ore.

Between sales and service, the store got so busy that it closed for a few days just to get caught up on service, shipping and inventory. Kids’ bikes were some of the first to sell out.

“With organized sports being postponed or canceled, gyms being closed and kids back at home, I’m imagining parents’ conversations with younger kids being like: ‘Hey, go do something. Go anywhere but inside these four walls,’ ” Pickard said.

“Our most common phone call is, ‘I need a bike for my 13-year-old,’ and we just cringe because they’re so hard to find.”

Spoke-N-Sport has had to adapt, from managing limited inventory to making health and safety adjustments such as limiting the number of customers in the store, wearing masks and temporarily pausing bike-fitting appointments.

“This is hard for all of us, but our customers have been absolutely phenomenal,” Pickard said. “They’re very appreciative of the changes we’ve made and our willingness to be flexible.”

Cool comfort food = escape

When Bruce and Pam Bettmeng opened up their B&G Milkyway shops for the season in early March, they thought they were going to be in for a long year.

“We opened as scheduled, but we didn’t know what the mandates would be, if everything would be shut down or if people would even want to come out,” Bruce Bettmeng said. “We were really concerned.”

The Bettmengs own and operate B&G’s West 12th Street and West 41st Street locations and franchise out the other shops. As it turned out, none of the stores had to close at any point during the pandemic.

To adapt for social distancing and safety protocols, the shops’ lobbies were closed, and they even put together a makeshift drive-thru window at the 41st Street location.

“We really didn’t have to change a lot though,” Bettmeng said. “We clean and sanitize, of course, but we were always very clean before.”

The shops never experienced a slow period, thanks in part to an uncharacteristically warm spring followed by an entire city of people itching to get out of the house during the pandemic. In fact, they saw an increase in sales, up over last year.

“A lot of it had to do with kids and parents being home, and by 6 or 7 at night, they’re sick of being in the house with each other, so they go out to get ice cream — it’s a comfort food,” he said.

B&G’s locations begin closing for the season in mid-September, with several stores staying open into October.

Auto rentals fill a need

While most people and businesses were hunkering down in early March, Vern Eide Auto Rentals knew that customers would be back.

The business used that downtime to iron out processes and practice enhanced cleaning, all the while expecting that travel would pick up soon, rental manager Tom Borchard said.

“I was very optimistic that we were going to see people wanting to travel who would be viewing the airlines as unsafe,” he said.

Vern Eide’s typical customers include business travelers moving regionally through South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota, pleasure travelers renting out vans or larger vehicles for road trips and insurance customers.

Borchard said some of its greatest sales increases came from travelers heading out for “The Great American Vacation.”

“Our boom is usually from May through July, and, of course, in May we were still fairly shut down, but halfway through June, we actually posted a year-over-year increase,” Borchard said.

Business travel began to climb as well after a month or two of dropping off completely.

“Most of the business regulars we’re dealing with are saying you can’t do everything by Zoom,” Borchard said.

While the rental business benefited from both new and existing customers, Borchard emphasizes his gratitude for the relationships Vern Eide has with its regulars, some of whom even checked in during the slower months to express how much they looked forward to working together again.

“Whenever I have the opportunity, I always mention that the biggest thing our customers like isn’t our product, it’s our people and our customer service,” he said. “We try to make rental cars easy.”

Boating buzz

There was a certain excitement and buzz in the air at Parks Marina’s Sioux Falls location this summer.

“Boating was one activity this year that was able to have a great season,” general manager Steven Pederson said.

The marina had planned well, bringing in a larger-than-usual inventory for an expected crop of new boating customers.

“We were very fortunate that we inventoried the way we did,” Pederson said. “What we had in stock allowed us to have a great season, but it’s been difficult to replace inventory, and there’s a lot that’s still yet to be determined.”

The business saw a spike in new customers, and Pederson said it was exciting to see the amount of people who had an interest in boating but hadn’t been free to try it out until this year.

“We’re hoping that now that they’ve had a taste of the boating experience this season, it will create momentum,” he said. “Even boaters that were already customers were putting on twice as many hours this summer.”

Boating proved to be an activity the entire family could enjoy, and Pederson said that was a silver lining of the pandemic.

“It’s exciting to see families getting that quality time where it isn’t just about one specific kid, like with organized sports, but an entire family activity where everyone could participate,” he said.

RVs thrive as safe vacation alternative

With air travel and lodging either shut down or creating health concerns, people turned to alternate forms of travel during COVID-19, and Schaap’s RV Traveland reaped the benefits of the public’s new interest in road trips.

The dealership’s co-owner, Lyle Schaap, said business slowed down to a crawl at the beginning of the pandemic, but when people started to feel more comfortable leaving their homes, the RV experience provided the perfect compromise.

“It’s the best way to have a getaway and get out into the outdoors but still be safe, have your own space and your own food,” Schaap said. “It became a well-known way to do that, and business really picked up in accordance.”

Schaap said he did not expect the significant turnaround in business.

“We thought we were going to be hugely impacted at first, but we went from being very slow in traffic and interest to doing significantly more business in our peak season than we have historically,” he said.

The dealership offers contactless selling, servicing and delivery, and accommodates customers’ safety requests, whether it involves wearing a mask, meeting outside for sales and service rather than in the dealership or doing as much as possible over the phone.

Inventory became a challenge as supply chains were affected, and Schaap said customers had to be aware that it might take more time or effort to find what they were looking for.

Ultimately though, Schaap said he was thrilled to see the influx of newcomers to the world of RV travel, particularly families with young children.

“I love this industry and lifestyle, and I hope people have seen how much fun, how convenient and how useful an RV is for vacationing and traveling,” he said. “We’re very grateful for that turnaround in business and for our customers, and we’re thankful to be here in South Dakota in an environment that cares about jobs and businesses.”

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Local businesses experience surprising surge during COVID-19 pandemic

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