In the niche world of custom art framing, Elisa Spurlin has noticed that when things are down, wall decor goes up.
The pandemic was the latest example. As homes also became classrooms and offices, giving classmates and co-workers a glimpse into each other's personal spaces, a new type of environmental awareness formed. A wall was not just a wall, but a Zoom background or, even further, an insight into one's character. Others simply wanted to make home feel more like home. In either case, people turned to services like Spurlin's.
"It's weird," said Spurlin, owner of Peabody Gallery in Menlo Park. "Anything that kept people at home was good for us."
Few businesses, especially the small ones, went unscathed during the pandemic.
Business owners have pleaded to their landlords to ease up on rent. They've wrestled with red tape and crowded phone lines to secure government loans. And many have confronted the tough choice of letting longtime employees go, or worse, completely shuttering.
But after being battered for the past two years, some small businesses have seen slivers of hope.
Anna Chow, who co-owns Cheeky Monkey toy store in Menlo Park with her husband Dexter, was eager to share that as restrictions loosened, they saw the most sales since they first opened in 1999.
"2021 was our best year, sales wise, ever," she said.
A year before, Chow was seriously considering dipping into her child's college fund to support her staff and desperately trying to secure federal loans. Now, a third-party study of downtown Menlo Park reported that Cheeky Monkey was one of the top 20 sales tax revenue generators for the city in 2021.
Chow surmises that people have a newfound appreciation for shopping in person and supporting local businesses, after being holed up in their homes. Another theory she has is that, as people reconnect in person — grandparents with grandchildren, kids with other kids — there's a pent up demand to buy toys as gifts.
"I think there's a sense of making up for lost time," Chow said.
Spurlin also said she saw clients coming back during the pandemic.
Large retailers such as Target, Home Depot and HomeGoods have all reported an increase in sales in their home decor departments by Aug. 2020, according to a report from Business Insider.
"Anything that kept people home was good," she said. "If you're feeling threatened anywhere, where do you go? Go back home to mom or go back to your home that you've made a safe haven."
Spurlin saw a similar phenomenon during the Great Recession, when huge economic pressures shifted spending behaviors. The 2008 financial crisis ravaged Spurlin's business, winnowing its three locations down to one. The only saving grace, she said, was that as people lost faith in the stock market, they shifted their money into other investments such as art.
"People were looking for other avenues. They said, 'Let me invest in weird things I never thought of,'" Spurlin said.
But despite these small yet unexpected blessings, both Spurlin and Chow said they can't relax just yet.
Supply chain snafus continue to batter every industry, from home decor to toys. It's not only delaying the shipment of goods, but also adding to costs, increasing the price of items and consequently the price of doing business.
In times like this, Chow and Spurlin found that resourcefulness isn't just a value they've gained as small business owners but a necessity.
Chow saw the supply chain hiccups coming around April last year, so she started to stock up and place orders a lot earlier than normal. Spurlin did so as well, despite the lack of space in her store.
Both business owners said they've also had to scour for new vendors as some of their usual sources ran out of supplies or completely shut down.
When some of her longtime wood suppliers closed, Spurlin turned to vendors in Vermont or Kentucky.
"I have had to build relationships with vendors that I didn't even know existed," she said.
Even then, those fixes aren't entirely foolproof. Shipping across the country adds to costs and turnaround times. Orders that typically take a week or two can now take up to three to four weeks to fulfill. In the age of overnight shipping, that can be tough on clients, she said.
"I think we will be dealing with supply chain issues for at least another couple of years in our industry," Spurlin said. "It's temporary … but when it goes on for four to five years, that's a major impact."
On top of the price of toys going up, Chow said another challenge was keeping up with the costs of living for her employees. Cheeky Monkey raised salaries 15%, but still lost two workers due to housing costs.
Still, being in business for so long, Chow has learned how to ride out every wave.
"I think it's one of those things as a small business owner — you're always kind of scanning the horizon, trying to figure out if there's a bump coming," she said.
"That's what small business people do," Spurlin said. "They just find ways. Because your livelihood depends on it."
Palo Alto Online is marking two years of the COVID-19 pandemic this week. If you missed any parts of our series, see the More Stories box, above.