Did you think in-person business was all but over in Chattanooga? Think again.

In the early, eerily quiet days of the pandemic, Catharine Daniels locked up her gift shop and art gallery on Frazier Avenue and wondered what the future held for Plum Nelly. The business, which turns 50 next year, had always counted on walk-in browsers looking for something unique, local and chosen by hand.

"We have a website, but we don't have an active shopping cart," Daniels says. "So much of what we carry, each piece is made differently, they're hand made."

The business was closed for a month in 2020, and had to make big adjustments to its operation once it reopened. Traffic was slow at first. But her customers returned, new ones followed, and Daniels is more sold than ever on the enduring value of the in-person experience.

"I think last year, besides the fact that people were trying to get toilet paper and paper towels off Amazon, people realized the shops they go to weren't going to be around if they didn't patronize them," she says.

At the Tile Store and Scarlett's Cabinetry just off Cherokee Boulevard, new habits preserved the crucial in-person element of the design business, and also made processes more efficient, says owner Jackie Howard.

"We all got in the habit of meeting with clients and taking tile samples and cabinet doors outside, and we encouraged our clients to bring more inspirational photos ahead of time," she says. "It's really helped us in the long term because we've learned to be more productive."

Business took a little while to come back, but now it's booming, she adds.

"Those first three months, people were afraid," Howard says. "Then people got tired and realized 'Oh my gosh, we're going to be home - we need to remodel our house.'"

While all that staying home fueled an increase in online shopping, the in-person spending habit is strong and growing, according to market data.

In 2021, U.S. consumers will spend more than $933 billion online, up nearly 18% year-over-year, and adding up to 15% of total retail sales, according to data from emarketer.

But while online spending is expected to break $1 trillion in 2022, in-person sales will account in 2021 for more than $5 trillion. And in-person spending grew more than 6% in 2021, which was the strongest growth rate since 2011, according to emarketer.

Online buying may be gaining steam, but people still want to peruse, pick up and check out the things they're hoping to purchase, Daniels says.

"When you walk in, I will tell you about the artist you are supporting," she says. "We've returned to that need for connection and community and support that has always been there."

And in an age of snarled supply chains and delayed delivery, in-person transactions appeal as the holidays bear down on shoppers, Daniels adds.

"People want the brick-and-mortar because they can walk in the door, pick something and walk out with it," she says.

Plum Nelly's business has nearly recovered, and she has learned some new tricks, adding promotions on social media and more shipping options to weather the crisis, Daniels says.

"Social media has been a Band-Aid for us in many ways," she says. "We ship a lot to places all over, and a lot of people are reaching out to me, so even in a modern age you can have the personal customer service experience with people who never enter your door."

For High Point Climbing Gym, there was no going outside or taking it online when they shut down in the spring of 2020. Their business simply can't be done any way but in person, says co-founder Johnny O'Brien.

"Our buildings are single-purpose built, and a big component of our builds is the climbing walls we build in each gym," he says. "There's no way to take the business outside."

High Point has six gyms in Tennessee and Alabama. They were closed for three months, and things remained slow well into 2021, O'Brien says.

"When we came back, we were operating at 50% and we had all kinds of restrictions on our operations so we incurred significant losses going forward through 2020," he says.

Supportive local lenders and funds from the Paycheck Protection Program helped the business weather the worst of it, and climbers began to return in earnest in the spring of 2021, he says.

"Around March, we saw the number starting to get back to normal, and from May to October we're around 95% of pre-pandemic revenue on a same-month basis," O'Brien says. "The last six months we have seen a significant increase in traffic getting back to normal levels."

The business spent some of the downtime retrenching, examining its operations and becoming more efficient, O'Brien says. Now that it's back in expansion mode, though, High Point is navigating another challenge, he says.

"One thing we're doing like every other business is we've recognized we have to increase employee benefits and wage structure," he says. "I think every company in every industry is experiencing the shortage of staff."

In-person staying power

* U.S. consumers will spend $933 billion online in 2021, up nearly 18% year-over-year, and equaling 15% of total retail sales.* Brick-and-mortar retail spending will grow more than 6% in 2021, to just over $5 trillion, the strongest growth since 2011.Source: emarketer

At the Tile Store and Scarlett's, family members have stepped in to help strengthen the staff as demand for their work grows and labor shortages persist, Howard says. Her grown son moved back to Chattanooga from Charlotte and left his accounting job to help his parents, she says, and two of her nephews have joined the production shop.

"Honestly, it has gone straight up since June 2020, and this has been one of the busiest years this year by far," Howard says.

O'Brien tells a similar story about his in-person business, predicting 2022 will be the best ever for High Point.

"We're fortunate, we've been blessed and we're going to come out stronger moving forward," he says. "We feel after the last six months things are getting back to somewhat normal levels."

At Plum Nelly, Daniels is anticipating a brisk holiday season, and planning a 50th anniversary celebration for 2022.

"Walk in the door and give us your list and we'll wrap it and ship it for you," she says.


* What's in a name? Brands evoke emotion, and changing them is a tall order

* Chattanooga-based CBL Properties embraces suburban town center concept as shopping habits shift