With pandemic raging, Twin Ports stores forced to get creative with Christmas shopping

It's the most profitable season for many small retail stores. But this year, customers are wary to shop in person.

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Gayle Healy, owner of Serendipity, adds an artificial tree to a pinecone Christmas tree themed gift box on Tuesday, Nov. 24, in her shop. Healy made the difficult decision to close her doors after Nov. 8, and to only allow people to shop on the porch or order curbside pickup. Healy said her son, who's in medical school, commended her for closing the shop, saying she may never know how many lives she saved by doing so. (Tyler Schank /

Gayle Healy, owner of the Serendipity gift shop in Duluth's Lakeside neighborhood, usually sees about 60% of her annual business during the three months around Christmas.

But amid increasing COVID-19 cases in the area, she chose to close her shop's interior in early November.

"I was watching those numbers in our community going up every single day, and I just couldn't do it in my heart," said Healy, who has run the shop with her mother, Shirley Johnson, for 16 years. "I knew this was the right thing to do."

Instead, she's opted to hold "porch sales" once a week or so by placing products outside her store at 4407 E. Superior St. and inviting masked shoppers to browse. She's also been assembling gift boxes customers can order and marketing products on social media for porch or curbside pickup.

Those measures have brought her sales down to about one-third of what she would expect to see during the holiday shopping season.


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Gayle Healy, owner of Serendipity, poses for a portrait on the porch of the shop Tuesday, Nov. 24, in front of winter and Christmas items she offers. Customers can order items for porch or curbside pickup by messaging Healy on the shop's Facebook and Instagram accounts at Serendipity of Duluth. (Tyler Schank /

"But it's keeping my doors open," Healy said. "It's paying the bills."

Eight months into the pandemic, cases, deaths and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 are rising rapidly in Minnesota and the U.S. , all while Northland businesses try to operate safely and say afloat.

With less than a month to Christmas, it's coming at a crucial time for many small retail businesses, said Kristi Stokes, president of the Greater Downtown Council in Duluth.

"This is the season where so many of our businesses are really relying on an economic boost," Stokes said. "Typically, every year they're really looking forward to the holidays and this helping their bottom line and helping out the business, and so it'll be more important than ever to give that local support."

Across the harbor, Aimee Glonek, co-owner of Blue Arrow Boutique, 1404 Tower Ave. in downtown Superior, said the pandemic has made 2020 a slower-than-normal year for the 6-year-old business. The Christmas shopping season isn't looking much brighter so far.

"This should be our busiest week of the year," Glonek said in a phone interview Tuesday. "I shouldn't have time to talk on the phone right now, but I do. So I think that kind of tells you a little bit to what we're seeing."


As people hunker down at home, more are making online purchases. Online sales have been increasing steadily over the last decade, but have accelerated since the pandemic began.

According to quarterly retail commerce sales data from the U.S. Census Bureau , nationwide online sales were up more than 37% in the third quarter of 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019. E-commerce made up 13.5% of total retail sales in the third quarter this year, up from 10.6% in the third quarter of 2019.

"I think most of the businesses in our area are kind of feeling the same kind — less foot traffic, more online sales ... people may be a little leery about going out and about so we've kind of adapted as much as we can to online and providing curbside pickup and doing things that are more convenient than the typical shopping experience," Glonek said.

In Duluth, annual events and attractions that would normally draw in foot traffic to downtown and Canal Park are canceled, scaled down or modified, like the Bentleyville light display. On top of that, Minnesota restaurants are takeout only, making a day spent shopping and dining unlikely.

"I think we all have to change our mindset a little bit. It's not as much about the full experience that we've always promoted for our downtown," Stokes said. "It looks a little bit differently. And so now we really need to be focused on how to make sure people can still get to those businesses and show their support to them in a way that's most comfortable for them."

Stokes said she's seen small businesses get creative to safely make sales during the pandemic, such as setting up a shopping reservation system so only that a customer and their family are in the store, reducing the chance of exposure to the virus.

While small retailers have online stores, many do not. Those without online stores have boosted their social media presence since the pandemic, posting items for sale to Facebook or Instagram. If someone wants the product, they can then arrange delivery or curbside pickup over the phone, social media messages or email.

"We are utilizing and seeing a stronger presence from our customers online than we have in the past," Glonek said of Blue Arrow Boutique.


Healy also posts items for sale on social media every day. And while it's "working great" to keep Serendipity running, she admits "it's definitely a lot more work."

"It's challenging — there's no doubt about it," Healy said. "It's a big challenge."

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Gayle Healy, owner of Serendipity, ties a bow on one of the curated gift boxes she offers Tuesday. Healy currently offers eight themed gift boxes and has plans to create a kids box as well. (Tyler Schank /

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at or 218-723-5332.
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