Tourism drives a good summer for many OBX retailers

By on August 14, 2020

Chip Cowan of Outer Banks Bicycle working on a bike. (Kip Tabb)

Merchants are also adapting to changes from COVID-19

For many Outer Banks retailers operating during a pandemic, this summer’s perhaps surprisingly strong visitor numbers are translating into healthy sales and a good season. But they also acknowledge COVID-19 related challenges and emphasize the need to be nimble and adapt to the changed circumstances.

John Harris, President of Kitty Hawk Kites, believes the strong visitor numbers are directly affecting sales in his stores. “It’s translating into retail. I mean, our business is strong,” he said. With locations from Corolla to Ocracoke, Kitty Hawk Kites is the largest locally owned retailer on the Outer Banks.

Other local retailers with multiple Outer Banks locations echo those sentiments.

With three stores on the Outer Banks, Candy Wright, whose family owns the Cotton Gin, likes the way the summer has gone to date. “People are definitely down” visiting the Outer Banks, she said. “Overall, with everything going on, we’re pleased with our sales.”

For some retailers, the strong visitation numbers are important. But so is the ability to be nimble and to react quickly to changes in the market. “My mantra has been since March 25, that the key word is ‘ADAPT’ in all caps. And if you don’t adapt, you’re not going to make it,” said Jamie Anderson of Downtown Books in Manteo.

That is also the sentiment from Kenny Hyman at Trio Restaurant and Market in Kitty Hawk. “If you want to survive this, you’ve got to be flexible and you’ve got to be creative and think outside the box,” he noted.

For Anderson, the restrictions generated by COVID-19 have forced changes. In past years, the town of Manteo hosted a number of events that supported downtown businesses. Gone is the monthly First Friday, an event that Anderson always tied into an author signing. Nor was the annual June Dare Day held this year.

In spite of that, Downtown Books is holding its own. “I’m very pleased to be even. We might even be up a smidge…I kind of wonder if it has to be sheer numbers,” Anderson said. “I mean, because we’ll be busy on a beautiful beach day and I think it’s just because there’s so many people here.”

Jamie Anderson at the counter of her Downtown Books store. (Kip Tabb)

One step Anderson did take was to join an association of independent booksellers, That became critical in April when Amazon was unable to fill orders for Outer Banks photographer Wes Snyder’s Journey Through the Outer Banks. Anderson did have it in stock, three cases of it, and through her connections was able to sell all of them quickly.

There also seems to be another trend emerging that Anderson has noticed, one that other retailers have remarked on as well.

“People are buying hardbacks without kind of standing there and being, ‘Oh, what’s the price, is this the price?’ They’re buying what they want, instead of playing the price game,” she said.

Chip Cowan at Outer Banks Bicycle in Kill Devil Hills has seen a similar situation. In March and April, with schools and gyms closing and many hunkering down at home, people began looking for ways to get out and exercise.

“People went out and bought bicycles,” Cowan said. “They bought every available bike there was. We have zero bikes in stock.”

Because there are no bikes to buy, Cowan has been swamped with repairs. “We have repairs. I mean, repairs like crazy. Because people couldn’t buy…a bike. People were bringing in [old bikes] and the repair was $125, and I was like, ‘This bike’s not worth $125.’ And they were saying, ‘I don’t care.’”

By his own reckoning Cowan is having a very good year, but his need for more bike mechanics and the nationwide shortage of bikes points to issues that have challenged other Outer Bank retailers.

Although the business is having a strong year, It has not been all smooth sailing for Kitty Hawk Kites.

“Our challenge is that we’re having difficulty or two challenges,” Harris said. “One, of course, is manpower to cover the stores and provide good service. We don’t have enough staff in any of our stores. And then the other challenge is we can’t get product in a lot of cases.”

Harris’ concern about keeping his stores stocked can also be traced directly to the effects of COVID-19.

“Everything is manufactured in China these days,” he said. “The surf brands are difficult to get. A lot of it got canceled. Footwear has been a huge challenge. Most of the footwear companies are not shipping. We can’t get Crocs, for example. And we can’t get Reef footwear.”

“The other part that’s the challenge, so many of the surf lines are based in California. They’re working with skeleton staff in their warehouses. And if they do have the product, they’re challenged with getting it out the door,” he said.

Wright at the Cotton Gin has experienced similar problems.  “Some products are slow coming in…It’s been more challenging,” she said.

Although a number of retailers are experiencing a strong summer, that has not been the case for everyone.

“It was actually a little bit…down in retail, but not by much. It was, I guess an average retail year,” Trio’s Hyman said.

Much of the flat sales at Trio can be attributed to added competitive pressure, and Hyman cites the presence of Publix, in addition to other grocery chains with large craft beer and wine selections. Yet Trio, with its combined restaurant, market and wine tastings has a distinctive combination that continues to drive the business, he added.

“Our business model has a lot of synergies that feed off of each other. Having people in the restaurant benefits retail and having people in retail benefits the restaurant. So, you know, we continue to look for ways to take advantage of that,” Hyman said.


  • Steve

    It has been a terrible summer with all the hoards of self-entitled. I can only imagine what its like in town, KDH,NH, KH.

    Monday, Aug 17 @ 7:14 am
  • Part time OBX

    Steve sounds like he wants to move… if you don’t like it, change yourself. don’t expect others to do it for you. There are plenty that will be happy to buy your property.

    Monday, Aug 17 @ 11:44 am