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D.C.-Area Black Creatives Refine Selling Strategies During Pandemic

Vendors Fear Plummeting Sales Without Face-to-Face Interaction

The landscape of summer artist shows and vending spaces has come to an abrupt stop amid the coronavirus pandemic, and Black artists and entrepreneurs are scrambling to maintain the human and business connectivity typically developed through those seasonal events.

Jimi, a popular jeweler and artist, has completely shifted to the virtual world to maintain and expand his client engagement.

“I have chosen to adopt my own website so that I can contact a bigger, broad arena as far as business, and that’s my store online,” said Jimi, owner and designer of the Spiritual Hands collection.

Jimi has been a longtime staple in the DMV artistic community, facilitating weekly pop-up shops within the area such as at the Patapsco Flea Market. But the COVID-19 closings have forced his and many artist distributors’ hands in finding new methods of reaching current and potential clientele.

“Things change all the time and you have to be able to adapt to the changes,” Jimi said. “You could have Facebook, you can have Instagram and all the apps that they give you, but what are you using it for? The only way that I see is that I have to be in the norm — with the change.”

Malaika Cooper, a Baltimore-based salon owner and event organizer who has long hosted artists and community shows throughout the metropolitan area, said her lucrative annual “Natural Hair Care” trade show — which generates roughly $60,000 for her alone, covering months of living expenses — was nixed this year due to the ongoing pandemic, and other shows will likely suffer the same fate.

“I’m the founder of ‘Happy Nappy Day’ and ‘Poets in The Park’ — those are my two summer shows and people are not even sending me vendor fees and things like that, nothing,” Cooper said. “Everything is a complete shutdown. So I’m kind of like in limbo right now.”

The online market is a saving grace for some business owners looking to maintain customer interactions and sales. However, for niche artist businesses, however, the virtual world presents a few holes in the effectiveness needed to execute compelling engagement for a large umbrella of niche artist businesses.

“I did hair for 26 years — now I’ve gone back to the basics of me and myself in my salon only doing the essential people,” Cooper said. “I don’t want to, just because things are slow, give away my classes that people pay $1,500 for, for a $40 online virtual class. That’s cutting my nose to spite my face.”

Many of Cooper’s artist shows are sourced through her Dreadz n Headz hair salon in Baltimore. Consequent to new state business regulations amid the pandemic, Cooper had to furlough 13 employees after finding she is ineligible for any stimulus program provided by the federal or state governments.

However, she is eligible for loans, which is an arguably lesser-sought option that could create deeper financial issues for business owners and individuals in such unprecedented economic times.

“It’s not going to last forever,” Cooper said. “I’m organizing, regrouping, cutting away the fat, doing all kinds of things so that when I come back out of this cocoon, I’m going to be a beautiful butterfly.”

In the District, businesses are also feeling the pinch. Backyard Smokespot BBQ, a family-owned eatery on Georgia Avenue NW, operates mostly as a carryout with limited in-store space, so its clientele’s dining experience was largely unaffected by the city’s coronavirus-related restrictions.

But like many other restaurants in the city has had to scale back operations, cutting two days from its workweek and truncating daily business hours. In accordance with the mayor’s mandate against dine-in service, Backyard employees now take customer orders at the door.

“It didn’t really decline on numbers, but it really made it more difficult for people to get their food or call it in, because some people call in and it’s busy — and it’s a lot more call-ins now,” said Walter Jones, co-owner and sous-chef of Backyard Smokespot BBQ.

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