Mystic — At R.A. Georgetti & Co., where they have been selling collectibles, fine gifts and jewelry since 1975, they had never made a sales pitch on a park bench outdoors.
But like so much else, the pandemic changed the way they do business.
When Connecticut’s governor forced retail venues to close their doors to indoor shoppers for two months last spring, Georgetti’s quickly beefed up its website for online retail, adding several thousand more items to the thousands already there. Purchased merchandise is sent by mail or may be picked up curbside. And, if a customer wants to see and touch an item before committing to a sale but is reluctant to come inside even now that shops have reopened, a Georgetti’s salesperson will bring it outdoors.
“They just sit on the bench outside and we bring things to them,” said Rick Georgetti, whose father Dick opened the store 46 years ago. “We put them on a tray and we bring them out to the customer and we can do the transaction right there.”
Georgetti said they’ve sold jewelry and the collectible, sculpted miniature mice called Wee Forest Folk that way, as well as other items.
While many brick and mortar retailers have suffered as a result of the pandemic, merchants at Olde Mistick Village said they have done surprisingly well, or at least better than most. A few said they had one of their best years ever.
They attributed their success to their location in Mystic and the fact that the village — a replica of a Colonial village — is children and dog friendly and every shop has its own access from the outdoors. When the state mandated that retail stores shutter to indoor shoppers last May and June, the village attracted dog walkers, moms with babies in carriages, and senior citizens looking for a safe place to get outdoors and move. To take advantage of the passersby, many of the merchants set up outside.
In addition, they said Olde Mistick Village is a destination in itself and visitors come for passive recreation, shopping, dining, as well as the nearby attractions.
Also, to their advantage they said is that through their merchants’ association they market themselves as a group, with a focus on unique, one-of-a-kind shops and regular reminders to shop local, not big box or online.
‘Adapt and change’
Cory Bailey sells high-quality, handcrafted candles and soaps at his shop in the village, Naturali Home, and is grateful for his location there during the pandemic. He was part of another short-lived, unsuccessful Naturali Home at the Tanger Outlets at Foxwoods Resort Casino that closed shortly after it opened late last year.
“I know right now it is tough for everyone,” Bailey said, “but being here in the village puts us in a significantly better place to succeed.”
His focus now is getting through the slow months of February and March and into April, when the weather warms up and shoppers are more willing to come out again. And he wants people to remember to shop local, and to support small businesses like his when they buy for Valentine’s Day and Easter.
“All of the businesses in the village have had to adapt and change and everyone has pulled together and we are excited for the spring and the warm air to come,” said Bailey.
In the height of the pandemic, Pat and Kim Roche opened Make Your Mark in the Olde Mistick Village a week before Thanksgiving last year.
“For whatever reason Covid was the right time for us, and it’s been very good so far,” said Kim Roche, of their shop that customizes everything from apparel to growlers, water bottles, cutting boards — imprinting whatever a customer wants on glass, wood, cloth, or other materials.
Personalizing items started as a hobby and the couple initially sold their goods and services at farmers markets and craft fairs. But in their first six weeks at Olde Mistick Village business was so good they had to add two employees and remodel their space to better accommodate customers.
Another shopkeeper, Stephen Clemente, has been a merchant in the village for 10 years. He has two shops now — Extra Virgin and Sticky Situations. One sells everything honey and the other, fine olive oils, balsamic vinegars and pastas.
Clemente said he regularly talks to visitors and hears from them that they feel safe in the village and inside the stores, and that they enjoy the personal attention and experiences that are offered.
At his shops, visitors can learn where the honey or olive oil they’re buying comes from, as well as other interesting facts about the products and their regions of origin.
Shops update and remodel
Joyce Olson Resnikoff, whose family developed and built Olde Mistick Village and opened it in 1973, still manages the property, now with her son, Christopher Regan.
“We have done extremely, extremely well,” she said about tenant business over the past year, “and it’s because we are open air, and kid friendly and dog friendly, and we have a duck pond.
“People can come to the village and they can distance themselves and they want to be in the open air. You can’t go into a mall right now. I wouldn’t put my toe in a mall.”
Christopher Regan said the village has free WiFi on the entire property. Also, during the eight-week, state-ordered retail shutdown last year, the property managers used the time to update and remodel some of the 45 shops and to install new, state-of-the-art public restrooms, with motion sensors for sinks, lights and hand dryers and automatic flush toilets.
“They are the best bathrooms on Interstate 95,” he said.
The village also gives back to the community — hosting various fundraisers, and events such as the Stonington High School graduation in its parking lot, and drive-in movies last summer. For the holidays, rather than a single night or weekend illumination as they’d done in the past, for the 2020 season they tripled their lights to over half a million and lit them through all of December and January, encouraging visitors to pick their own evening and enjoy the display while socially distancing. It proved to be good for business.
Stefan Ambrosch sells pizza, doughnuts, coffee, and ice cream in the village and said his shops — Deviant Donuts and Mango’s Wood-Fired Pizza Co. — have done incredibly well, especially in December and January. His pizza shop is right off the parking lot, which makes pick-up for customers easy, but the doughnut shop is inside the village and it has done well, too.
“The demand for that product is astronomical, so being inside the village hasn’t hurt,” he said.
Early on, Ambrosch made the decision to expand his outdoor patio at the pizza shop and in hindsight it was a great move as customers filled the space in better weather. And, he acknowledges that pizza and doughnuts are good things to be selling in such difficult times — affordable comfort foods, or in the case of his gourmet doughnuts, an affordable luxury.
His customers have been extremely loyal, he said, supporting his shops as the pandemic has grinded on, a sentiment that other shopkeepers in the village echoed.
“I count my lucky stars for the customers who have stuck by us,” he said. “If not for that strong customer base we probably would not have succeeded, but there’s also something about this village that just works.”
Dick Georgetti, the senior shopkeeper who opened his gift store in Olde Mistick Village on April 1, 1975, said that the pandemic has made for a difficult year and forced him to make adjustments and adapt.
“It’s been a tough year in business and a lot of businesses have gone under, closed for good,” he said. “But we are still here and we have survived other drastic things, like the Crystal Mall. They told us we wouldn’t make it after the mall opened, but we have survived and now they are going out of business.
“And the casinos, they told us we’d be out of business, but now they’re in trouble.
“All we ever did is use some common sense,” he said.