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story.lead_photo.caption Dee Roberts (left) of Sheridan stops in to buy a few Christmas gifts Thursday at June’s Hallmark Shop in Oak Park Village Shopping Center in Pine Bluff. Jayme Varnell (right) said sales have been strong, and the business has been crowded with shoppers at various times of the day. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Byron Tate)

As holiday shopping rolls around, the pandemic is pushing more and more shoppers online. For local merchants, the holiday season is essential to survival and many have adapted to the new normal in order to retain their customers as well as draw in new ones.

Christmas is the largest holiday for shopping and approximately 1.3 billion cards are sent in the United States, according to Hallmark Cards Inc., the oldest and largest greeting card company in the United States.

June's Hallmark Shop, located in Pine Bluff, said the demand is even greater amidst the pandemic.

Brandi Akines, store manager, said there were concerns during the climate of covid but said business has been steady throughout the pandemic.

"We've actually done pretty great considering everything that has been going on but we have noticed a definite uptick in online orders," she said. "We are doing a lot more than we were this time last year. As far as our in-store business, we're still doing really, really great."

While the holidays are typically a chance to spend more time with family and friends, Hallmark said in a press release that it recognizes that this year, many may be celebrating apart from loved ones. Locally, June's Hallmark Shop has been been a distributor for Hallmark greeting cards for any occasion for decades, and this year even offers quarantine Christmas cards.

Akines said they are utilizing social media and offering more online services where orders can be can picked-up in the store or curbside and payment can be made online or over the phone.

"We're definitely blessed," said Akines who said customers will watch their Facebook live inventory video and then come to pick up the items in-person.

"Social media has really helped us connect with our customers," she said.

Between December 3-6, Hallmark is offering an in-store or online 'Trim The Tree' event, Hallmark's final ornament release of the season, which includes special offers, bonus points, and holiday fun for the whole family.

"As we prepare to celebrate this holiday season, meaningful connections and family traditions are more important than ever," said Lindsey Roy, chief marketing officer of Hallmark. "Relationships hold our world together, and this year emotional connection is especially vital because many of us are unable to spend time together, causing us to find new ways to create and celebrate our favorite holiday traditions."

Tonya Mitchner said she always had an eye for affordable clothing and brought that to Jefferson County in October of 2014, launching her storefront, Preppy Chicks Boutique, in the Pines Mall. Holidays were one of the busiest seasons for her business and when she was forced to close down her store after the mall foreclosed in the middle of the pandemic, she didn't worry. Mitchner's online store was already generating heavy traffic and says the pandemic is pushing holiday shopping online.

"More people are feeling more comfortable by ordering online instead of going into the stores because of the pandemic," said Mitchner who said her revenues have nearly doubled since this time last year. "I feel like people want to feel normal. They still want to shop, even if they can't go into stores."

Supporting local businesses and shopping local is important to Mitchner but, though she has had tremendous success online as a local vendor, many small businesses in the area may not have the resources or know how to migrate their business online. Small family businesses that were already struggling are also being hit with layers of obstacles from big-chain retail competitors, covid-19, and no online presence to attract the online buyer.

The American Independent Business Alliance (AIBA) reported approximately 48% of what is spent on local purchases is recirculated back into the local economy, but it said when those purchases are made at a chain store, that number drops to only 14%.

"Everyone should support their local small business," said Mitchner. "Small businesses are the main ones that get affected by the pandemic. I'm very grateful that people continue to shop with me during this time."

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