Back-to-school sales have never been more critical.
As virtual learning separated students and college staff from the city safely, the separation also took a toll on nearby retailers who relied on an economic boost at the start of each semester and on foot traffic. throughout the school year.
Now some of these business owners say their hopes of emerging from the pandemic with some degree of financial stability rest on an academic return to normal – even as COVID stubbornly refuses to go away.
As of March 2020, the Book Culture store on Broadway and West 114th Street near Columbia University has been much quieter than the staff would have liked.
“We’ve always had very busy stores,” said store manager Cody Madsen, referring to Book Culture’s two locations in Morningside Heights and one in Long Island City, Queens.
This pedestrian traffic decreased during the pandemic. In 2020, “around 40% of our sales were online,” Madsen said. “Now he’s sort of stabilized at around 15% online. “
It’s not just bookstores looking for money for students and faculty. From restaurants around NYU to a neighborhood pizzeria near Fordham University’s Bronx campus, local businesses are anticipating the return of students in person to increase their results.
It takes the village
For Deep Patel and Karn Deshmukh, an influx of NYU students is crucial for their new restaurant to gain traction. The two 28-year-olds from Jersey City are co-owners of Ambo, a quick-service Indian restaurant similar to Chipotle on East 8th Street near Washington Square Park.
The partners chose the location of Ambo, which opened earlier this summer, in hopes it would attract a mix of Greenwich Village residents, local retail and office workers – and tens of thousands of NYU students and staff.
“So far, our customer base has been primarily residential and office workers,” Patel said. “But we certainly expect to see an increase in business when the students return.”
“The influx of students has just started, but we haven’t seen much of it yet,” Deshmukh added.
Equally optimistic is Ramaz Kiknadze, the owner of Cafe Delia, a 4 month old Georgian restaurant a few doors down from East 8th.
“We’re seeing 70-80% residential customers right now, but in September that could change,” Kiknadze said. “Students could represent 50% of our clients. “
Kiknadze plans to use college-specific marketing tools to attract college kids to the fledgling restaurant, like advertising on the Clipper Campus and offer a 20% discount to NYU students and staff.
“I hope the situation is not going to change and that nothing terrible is happening with COVID,” Kiknadze said. “We need time to establish ourselves.
Rachel Brandon, Marketing and Events Manager for Village Alliance, the business improvement district that encompasses NYU and The New School, emphasized the importance of students to the economic vitality of the neighborhood.
“August can be a little empty because the residents are gone,” Brandon said. “Then it’s the fun time when there isn’t really a summer school and we’re waiting for that ‘after Labor Day’ state for the students to come back.”
“Literally a university town”
Michael Buono, the owner of Best Italian Pizza on East Fordham Road in the Bronx, is crossing his fingers for fall.
“Before, I could predict these things, but right now I don’t because I don’t know what each day brings,” said Buono, the third generation in his family to operate the restaurant. “Due to the Delta variant and the fact that wearing the mask is re-preparing, I cannot speculate.”
The pizzeria has seen an increase in online sales through food delivery apps like Uber Eats and GrubHub.
“We have always had [delivery], but it’s kind of morphing into a bit more, ”Buono said.
But home customers are not enough. According to Buono, the restaurant sees only 50-60% of its revenue before the pandemic, so it looks forward to more students in the area.
“I hope my sales will return to their normal course,” he said.
Daniel Bernstein, deputy director of the Fordham Road Business Improvement District, which includes 16,000 Fordham University students, wants students to come back not only for the financial health of the BID members, but also for the intangible effect they have. on the neighborhood.
“There’s a dynamism that’s missing when they’re not around,” Bernstein said. “Fordham students are generally very good in the community. “
He sees the region as a city in itself.
“If you’re a business on Fordham, you have access to three great colleges right there,” said Bernstein, referring to Fordham, CUNY’s Lehman College and Monroe College. “It is literally a college town.”
A new economy
The pandemic has changed behavior, so a return to in-person training may not translate into a full return to in-person shopping, some observers say.
“I think most students will continue to shop online,” said Dan O’Flaherty, professor of economics at Columbia.
Still, local businesses “will do better than last year,” he predicted.
What the city’s overall economic situation will look like in just a few months or what kind of purchasing power young people will have this semester remains to be seen.
“On the one hand, there is still a lot of unemployment,” said O’Flaherty. “But the student-age job market has been OK.”
This could be a positive signal for student spending in neighboring businesses. But other factors, evolving variants from COVID to weather, will play a role. The key, say traders, is to prepare for the unexpected.
“If anything, we’ve learned over the past two years that we’re pretty skillful,” said Madsen, the bookstore manager.