Syracuse, N.Y. — It didn’t take long for Caeresa Richardson to figure out how to attract customers hesitant to visit her new women’s clothing boutique in downtown Syracuse during the coronavirus pandemic.

Richardson offers private one-hour virtual and in-person shopping appointments at Gypsy Freedom, which she opened at 312 S. Salina St. in August. The private shopping opportunities have proven popular, she said.

“Some customers don’t want to be around people,” she said. “With a private appointment, there’s not the risk that there’s a lot of people or we’re over capacity and now they’ll have to wait. They get that dedicated shopping hour.”

Retail experts say private shopping sessions are an example of the creative ways that brick-and-mortar retailers must find to survive during the pandemic, when shoppers are reluctant to leave the house and resort to online sellers.

“The goal for many retailers is to meet shoppers where they are most comfortable shopping whether that is in the store, online or taking advantage of curbside pickup,” said Shelley Kohan, an adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management. “For customers shopping in-store, health and safety are top of mind so retailers need to offer processes that promote a safe shopping environment.”

Richardson’s customers can book a private hour-long shopping appointment with her Monday through Saturday after the store closes at 4 p.m. During the one-on-one sessions, Richardson shows them her highly curated offerings of sustainable fashion apparel and accessories.

Those who prefer to shop virtually meet with Richardson via Facetime or Zoom.

She charges a $50 booking fee for the private appointments, which goes toward any purchases made during the sessions.

“Private shopping is almost like an old school shopping culture,” Richardson said. “If you remember the days of our mothers, they would get dressed up to go to their favorite boutiques, and it was an experience.”

Kelly Landau, owner of Synple, a women’s clothing and home decor shop in the village of Camillus, is taking a similar approach. She has been offering private one-hour shopping sessions for groups of up to 10 people after 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

As an added incentive, she offers shoppers a 20{09c3c849cf64d23af04bfef51e68a1f749678453f0f72e4bb3c75fcb14e04d49} discount on purchases made during the appointments.

Landau said she has found that some people are more comfortable shopping in person if the session is restricted to a group of friends and family.

Kelly Landau

Kelly Landau stands in front of her clothing and home decor shop, Synple, in Camillus.Provided photo

The private appointments have attracted up to 95 customers in a single week, she said.

“Business has doubled for us,” she said. “We’ve definitely done well. People like to shop small and local.”

Landau does not charge anything for the appointments. Customers who make the appointments come in a buying mood, she said.

“Say you have a cup of coffee and you’re just strolling around the village on a Saturday, you come in and you may buy a couple of things,” she said. “But when you book an appointment and you’re getting a discount, oh my God, these ladies are loving it. They tend to shop more. They’re here to shop, especially if they’re coming with their girlfriends.”

Landau said she also will accommodate customers who are reluctant to shop with any other customers around.

“We’re very sensitive to people and their emotions and we do have customers that have certain health issues or they don’t even feel completely comfortable being here with 10 people,” she said. “So we have welcomed them into the store at 9 in the morning before the store opens.”

Merike Treier, executive director of the Downtown Committee of Syracuse, said many downtown retailers are offering special holiday discounts for both in-store and online sales to drum up business during the pandemic.

“There are different promotions available within the stores, but we also recognize that some people are not comfortable going out into public places,” she said. “So most of our downtown retailers also have an online presence.”

When Amy Wilson opened her Mixed Methods gift shop in Syracuse’s Hanover Square in October 2019, she planned to establish brick-and-mortar presence for the first two or three years before launching online sales. But when the pandemic struck this year, she quickly shifted gears.

She put together a website that features photos and descriptions of all 80{09c3c849cf64d23af04bfef51e68a1f749678453f0f72e4bb3c75fcb14e04d49} of the items in her store, which features products handmade by 80 artists throughout the country.

“I was like, alright, I’ve got to pivot,” she said. “I planned to do it in two years, but it became two weeks.”

Amy Wilson

Amy Wilson stands in front of her gift shop, Mixed Methods, in Hanover Square in Syracuse.Provided photo

The website takes quite a bit of work because Wilson must photograph every item, write a description of them and measure them. Which takes time because many of the products she sells are one-of-a-kind items.

But she said it has been worth it. Online sales account for 30{09c3c849cf64d23af04bfef51e68a1f749678453f0f72e4bb3c75fcb14e04d49} of her business — and help drive in-store sales because many people visit her website to survey her inventory before coming in to make a purchase.

“It’s been very helpful,” she said. “They can see it on the website first.”

Kohan said e-commerce sales are expected to rise 35.8{09c3c849cf64d23af04bfef51e68a1f749678453f0f72e4bb3c75fcb14e04d49} for the holiday season — $50 billion more than in 2019 — reaching $190 billion for November and December combined.

She expects the changes in the retail world to remain after the pandemic ends.

“Permanent changes to retail will include a shift to online, curbside pickup and stronger digital applications,” she said. “More emphasis on creating opportunities for retailers to meet shoppers where and how they want to shop.

“The pandemic has given a tremendous boost to convenience shopping. Streamlined commerce and contactless shopping experiences are top of mind for consumers.”

Rick Moriarty covers business news and consumer issues. Got a tip, comment or story idea? Contact him anytime: Email | Twitter | Facebook | 315-470-3148