California’s Thomas Fire is now two weeks in and roughly half contained as some retailers slowly get back on their feet to assess the damage with only a handful of days left in the holiday selling season.
As evacuation orders are lifted, communities are being called on to shop local or buy from small businesses online as some retailers are throwing events or offering promotions to draw people in, while others are just barely beginning to sort through the lengthy insurance claims process for property damage.
“The problem is how do small businesses sustain themselves during that period because they have to pay their invoices and, like myself, you pay your employees,” said Barbara Bowman, who operates her namesake boutique and jewelry line in downtown Ojai, Calif. “It’s such a snowball effect that I find [the fire] totally remarkable.”
Bowman over the weekend sent an e-mail of gratitude to longtime clients also notifying them she had placed nearly everything in her store on sale. She called it her own SOS to entice shoppers back. “You can open your doors,” she said, “but if everybody feels that they can’t come to town or if the freeways are closed, because the areas this took in went from L.A. all the way up to Santa Barbara.”
Gusty winds and dry conditions in California colluded in early December giving way to the Thomas Fire — now in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties — while separate fires launched in Los Angeles, San Diego and east into the Inland Empire. It’s been the Thomas Fire, which began Dec. 4 and has crept to 272,000 acres to make it the second largest in California history, with costs now hovering around $150.3 million.
Ojai, in particular, became an island of sorts with the fire surrounding the mountain town that many from L.A. and other parts of the region flock to for spa and wellness retreats, wine tastings and local boutique shopping.
“It’s a destination place for tourists, not a destination place for your average guy getting in the car saying ‘I need to go buy this,’” Bowman said. “We are a destination for an outing and I don’t know how many people are doing outings.”
Many, including Bowman and Bianca Roe of Ojai lifestyle boutique In the Field, are hopeful.
“We’ve got an amazing community here so I’m not at all concerned about our sustainability or if we’re going to make it through,” said Roe, who opened the boutique with her husband Channon in 2014. “I think that the terrifying thing for anybody whose a business owner is we’ve never been through this before.”
In the Field — a purveyor of goods from Aesop body products and vintage to Ulla Johnson blouses and Filson coats — has been closed for two weeks now due to damage from smoke and ash that will require a professional cleaning of the store and new inventory in some cases. Roe described her store’s current state as being in a holding pattern, dependent now on how quickly her insurance company moves. The company’s online business, which used the store to ship out of, has also come to a halt.
“For us, specifically, it’s kind of brutal because it’s not just the holiday season,” Roe said. “We just returned from a six-week buying trip in Europe. We invested all of our financial resources into bringing back these incredible products.”
Rugs, wedding blankets, pillows and textiles are among the items now ruined from the fire.
Most retailers — whether large or small — say they will not be able to recover sales lost in the remaining days of the year.
Human Arts, a 42-year-old gallery and outpost for fine crafts such as jewelry and ceramics by American artists, was closed from Dec. 5 through Dec. 13.
“It certainly has affected our holiday business. If the fires had happened this week or even a week later, it probably would be more devastating to our business. Right now we’re seeing people on the street,” said Hallie Katz, who owns Human Arts Gallery with her husband Stan. “Fewer people are wearing particulate masks, although we were all wearing them on Sunday. That’s been difficult. Even though we wanted to be opened, the environment has been against us.”
Katz is hopeful business will continue to pick up as the air quality improves and as East Coasters seek refuge from harsh winters by picking up to places such as Ojai.
“We’re having a tough time, but we are appealing to locals. Locals are coming down to support the stores and we just hope that this week will improve and that people will come out and do some last-minute shopping,” Katz said. “It won’t be like we will recoup what we normally do at this time of year though.”
“There’s no way you can,” Bowman said of making up for lost operating days. “The thing you do is hope you get enough people in to survive through the end of the year. Two weeks [lost] business would be really hard to make up because you’d have to have an onslaught of people and with the hotels closed, the hotels just make it really difficult. This town tends to every weekend be sold out.”
The Ojai Valley Inn is undergoing professional cleaning as a result of the fire and is expected to reopen Jan. 11. Spa and wellness center The Oaks at Ojai is currently closed until damage to the property is repaired.
About 35 miles west of Ojai, closer to the coast, it’s a similar story for many in downtown Santa Barbara as businesses reopen and assess their situation.
Downtown Santa Barbara was evacuated Saturday forcing the closure of nearly all businesses, including the Paseo Nuevo shopping center with retailers such as Nordstrom, Express, PacSun and Lorna Jane among others. The center, much like others in the area, has taken a hit with the impact of smoke and ash that’s kept most indoors and some of the center’s retailers now reporting business down more than 50 percent for the season, according to the center’s marketing and specialty leasing manager Mary Lynn Harms-Romo.
Traffic’s slowly trickling back, Harms-Romo said.
“It’s not anything near what holiday traffic should be, but it’s definitely getting back there,” she said.
Lovebird Boutique & Jewelry Bar, with two stores in downtown Santa Barbara, has been closed four days over the past two weeks.
“Our business was very significantly impacted to lose the first two weeks of December,” said owner Jennifer Scarbrough. “Even when we were opened, business was quite slow. You want to be open to create a sense of normalcy because you have people who want to work and local people who want to shop.”
The retailer said Lovebird’s business was strong heading into December and thinks January could shape up to be “solid” even though it’s historically a quiet month in the city.
Events planned for the past few Saturdays at Lovebird had to be canceled, but Scarbrough said she resumed them with one on Tuesday and another slated for Friday.
“I just want to make what time we have left of the holiday season really festive and fun,” she said. “We are not doing some massive sale. We’ll do some specials. We really feel that people are going to come out and support the stores. Right now, we’re all wanting to move forward.”
The Thomas Fire, as of Wednesday, was 60 percent contained with current estimates pegging full containment by Jan. 7. The sentiment among many is despite the uncertainty, there’s a sense those within and outside the community will support local. Some, such as Bowman of Ojai, believe specialty retailers will come out OK because of their unique assortment despite the fire and broader headwinds impacting the entire industry.
“I know Ojai will be a destination, but how did the fire impact customers?” Bowman said. “With the fire and Amazon, I don’t know what the hit will be. It’s unfolding everyday. How long does it take people to recoup themselves and go out and go to a destination place? That’s what we don’t know. The biggest problem with small retailers is how much time do they have and those are the unknowns. You wouldn’t be in retail for 38 years if you weren’t optimistic. You keep reinventing the situation and coming at it from a different angle. Today, people are going to shop if it’s special and we’re special.”