Editor's Note: This is the 11th in a series of short features on small businesses responding to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Rock City Outfitters has closed its retail store in Conway, and another line of its business — customized event T-shirts — is in tatters following the COVID-19 outbreak in Arkansas.
"Foot traffic was pretty much non-existent," Owner Ryan Ritchie said about shuttering his brick-and-mortar store. "We also didn't want to, you know, help spread the virus … And we're, of course, relying on our online sales right now still."
Rock City, which makes apparel including T-shirts and hats, also rents space at The Painted Tree in Little Rock, Fayetteville Funky Yardsale and BrickCity Emporium in Fort Smith. All have closed.
So far, Ritchie has had to lay off two employees who were hired a month and a half ago in anticipation of the busy spring and summer months, when customized T-shirts for festivals and other events are in high demand. Rock City's other employees are Ritchie, his wife and one screen printer.
Several orders of customized T-shirts have been canceled as events have been scratched or postponed due to the pandemic.
"The custom jobs have come to a complete stop — I mean, have gone to zero practically," Ritchie said.
One small mercy is that his business has been online for 10 years now and didn't have to scramble to set up e-commerce like other small businesses have had to do. But Ritchie said online sales are down "simply because of the uncertainty everybody has" about their own income.
"A T-shirt is not a necessity," he said.
But that doesn't mean he’s not trying to come up with new products customers want.
Ritchie sent out an email last week asking customers and Rock City's social media followers whether it should produce a virus-related "stupid" shirt.
"We were kind of torn, because we know it's a very sensitive subject. And so, in the last email, we just wanted to bounce that off all of our loyal followers, and we got a lot of great feedback," he said. "We're definitely not going to come out with something poking fun of the virus because a lot of people don't think it's fun or funny."
Instead, the shirt or shirts would focus on the humor to be found in "pinpointing some of the new situations that we're all finding ourselves in, and human nature."
The business is also planning to make a positive and uplifting shirt, and it aims to partner with a charity or nonprofit to help it raise money through shirt sales.
Rock City Outfitters was established in 2008. It designs and prints shirts that highlight unique places in Arkansas or that have Arkansas-related themes, and it designs shirts for local schools, businesses, churches and more.