How small businesses around Penn are surviving the coronavirus crisis

As local and state governments issue shelter-in-place orders, small local businesses are facing difficult decisions.

Street view of empty street with shops closed
Image: Facilities and Real Estate Services

At 8 a.m. on Monday, March 23, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf issued a stay-at-home order in Philadelphia.

State officials say residents should only leave their homes for essential travel to help ease the spread of the coronavirus. The stay-at-home order has been hurting small businesses across the region.

On March 30, Penn announced it will provide financial support for University City retailers. This includes offering short term rent abatement for locally owned and operated retailers in the University’s commercial real estate portfolio.

In a statement, Penn Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli said, “Our campus retail portfolio is more than 60% independently owned, and all of University City is well served and made more vibrant by this sector.”

In addition, through a partnership with the University City District (UCD), Penn is also providing monetary assistance in the form of grants, coupled with UCD’s technical assistance, to be distributed to for-profit independently owned retailers and restaurants located in the District boundaries. The grants, between $1,000 and $5,000, are to help operators stay afloat.

Facilities & Real Estate Services (FRES) at Penn is also stepping up to help ease the burden facing locally owned businesses in and around campus.

Responding to the economic havoc the stay-at-home restrictions are wreaking on Penn small business owners, Ed Datz, executive director of real estate at FRES, says the health and wellness of the University’s retail customers, employees, and community are a high priority during the coronavirus.

“Facilities & Real Estate Services is using its Shop Penn brand and platform to continue to support our retailers and communicate the status of our stores and restaurants,” he says. “Through the Shop Penn website, and Shop Penn social media, we are messaging about the modified offerings of our retailers, including hours of operation, options for delivery or takeout, special promotions, and/or online purchasing opportunities.”

Barbara Kahn, the Patty and Jay H. Baker Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School outlines two major fundamental things small businesses can do during uncertain times. One is for small businesses to have a powerful online presence.

barbara kahn
Barbara Kahn is the Patty and Jay H. Baker Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School. She is also the author of “The Shopping Revolution: How Successful Retailers Win Customers in an Era of Endless Disruption.” (Image: Wharton School)

“If they can do anything online to link with their physical store, that would be very beneficial,” she says. “A robust online website to leverage in some way would be a good start.”

The other, according to Kahn, is for businesses to pivot from nonessential product services to essential product services.

“For example, some of the local apparel boutiques are stitching gowns and masks,” she says. “This is how they are directly meeting the needs of the coronavirus. If you look to what people need now, and you can produce those services, that’s another way small businesses can maintain revenue. Some of these other things are obvious, such as physical games are turning into virtual games. So, they are still providing the connection, but switching to the need at the moment.”

Some local Penn retailers are shifting how they continue to do business and trying to adjust to the changing environment. Hello World at 3610 Sansom St, has been closed since March 16. Owner, J. Lamancuso says they are in uncharted waters.

“We have been in business for 20 years and gone through many up and downs, from 9/11 to the 2008 stock market crash, but this is completely different,” he says. “Our survival will depend on creative financing, and the support of our vendors. We are committed to continue as a brick and mortar retailer, and any help from Penn and UCD is incredibly appreciated. We are determined to get through this and in the end be a better business for it.”

hello world on walnut street
Hello World storefront (Image: Facilities and Real Estate Services)

Datz says FRES is strengthening creative ways in which businesses are promoting their goods as they pivot with new marketing strategies.

“In an effort to support all of our businesses, we are promoting and amplifying opportunities for gift card purchases as well, where possible, for online use now or for future in-store purchases,” says Datz.

storefront sign saying "keep Running Philly"
Philly Runner store window display. (Image: Facilities and Real Estate Services)

Philly Runner at 3621 Walnut St. is an independent and locally owned specialty running company that is used to moving fast, but says the way things have been changing during the global coronavirus pandemic is unlike anything the store has seen before.

“With so many group runs, events, and races being cancelled, and our shops being closed, we wanted to come up with a way to keep Philly running,” says Liz Pagonis, the company’s director of marketing and community outreach. “We created the PR Solo Challenge on Facebook and Instagram as a way for runners and walkers to come together to share some miles with us from anywhere, at any time. We’ve been marking courses with chalk, giving out prizes, and encouraging people to share what they are going through in addition to their miles. We miss seeing people coming into our stores and running with our groups. So this has been a fun way for us to connect with people in a new, creative way.”

Owners of the local restaurant group, CookNSolo, which runs several popular eateries at Penn (Goldie, Dizengoff, Federal Donuts), held a fundraiser to help their employees during the coronavirus crisis. Michael Solomonov and Penn alum, Chris Cook, issued a statement on their Instagram post that they are “fired up” to have surpassed their goal:

“We surpassed our goal of raising $40,000 by sundown tonight and raised a total of $110,000! Combined with the additional pledge of $40,000 from CookNSolo, we got to a grand astounding total of $150,000 for our hourly team members. THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU from the bottom of our hearts for showing what this roller coaster of-a-thing called life is all about at its core and at its finest.”

picture of gloves, cleaning kit, trashbags with united By blue logo
United By Blue DIY Kit (Image: Facilities and Real Estate Services)

When local business United By Blue had to put all their community cleanup events on hold due to the coronavirus crisis, they decided to give away their surplus of DIY clean-up kits they had in stock with every purchase. While they normally build community through waterway cleanups, they continue their mission of sustainable practices and living, and spread the idea that if one business can make a difference, so can one person.  

Some of the other small businesses in the University Community have gotten creative to stay afloat and provide the necessary services to those in and around Penn. The following is a list of what some Penn area businesses are doing to maximize their revenue, stay relevant, and keep on the radar of shoppers during the coronavirus crisis.

Piper Boutique
The fashion-forward clothing store is doing Facebook Lives and Instagram posts on all of the spring    merchandise, and taking online orders.

People’s Book & Culture
Penn’s long-running independent shop is selling a wide range of new books, including titles by Philadelphia authors, and has announced on social media that they will be selling books online while the store remains physically closed.

This restaurant is offering a takeout and delivery BOGO (Buy One Get One) special for healthcare providers who are still working on campus.

World Café Live
This entertainment venue has shifted weekly performances online, highlighting some best shows of the past and streaming other musicians live on social media platforms, in an effort to keep traditional programming going, and stay connected to their loyal fans and ticketholders who also frequent the now-closed restaurant and bar.  

“Our approach to supporting our diverse and robust portfolio of retailers is evolving as we navigate these unique challenges together to maintain the vibrancy of this district for better shopping days ahead,” says Datz.