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Small Biz Saturday: Ann Arbor’s Bivouac works with vendors to handle changes in shopping

Owner Ed Davidson says the future is about “planning, planning, planning”

Bivouac at 336 S. State St. in downtown Ann Arbor.
Bivouac at 336 S. State St. in downtown Ann Arbor. (Bivouac)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – “It’s been drastic. Sales are way down,” said Ed Davidson, owner of Bivouac said regarding how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted his retail business in downtown Ann Arbor. 

Located on State Street, Bivouac has been a part of Ann Arbor’s history since 1971 when Davidson opened his business as an army surplus store.  

Having closed in mid-March, and after remaining through April and May, Bivouac finally reopened on June 4, but business still isn’t as robust as it previously was. 

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“If it wasn’t for the support of the small business administration and the City of Ann Arbor, who has closed the streets to traffic and [is] allowing restaurants and even us retailers to put stuff outside, we would have been in horrible shape,” said Davidson. 

Bivouac sells backpacking gear, clothing and accessories.
Bivouac sells backpacking gear, clothing and accessories. (Bivouac)

Unlike many other businesses in Ann Arbor, Bivouac, which sells backpacking gear as well as clothing and accessories, hasn’t experienced problems with distributors or suppliers. In fact, they have worked with him to change orders or extended payment deadlines.

Before Bivouac closed in March, Davidson said that a lot of his spring and summer merchandise had been shipped or receive but because of the closure and the COVID-19 pandemic, suppliers were willing to give him extra time to pay for items or to cancel items that hadn’t shipped yet. 

“The retailers and the vendors are really partners. We need each other. So, they’ve been helpful where they can be helpful,” said Davidson stating that a relationship with a vendor is a two-way street. They help him however they can, and he is better able to sell their goods. 

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While its anyone’s guess on how retail businesses will have to adapt in the future, Davidson said that he has been doing a lot of planning. He has to anticipate what sales will be like for the rest of the year, which will likely be very different from previous years: Football season is in limbo and the University of Michigan has said that in-person classes will end in November. December is usually the busiest time of the year for retailers, but  Davidson doesn’t expect that to be the case this year. 

For Bivouac, this means ordering less inventory and trying to keep expenses down. Davidson doesn’t anticipate laying off any of his current staff, but he won’t be able to hire more in the fall.

“So, the issue now is just planning, planning, planning,” said Davidson. He added that part of the future will be to make a plan and try to adhere to it, but to also involve his vendors and communicate with them. As local demographics change, due to fewer students in Ann Arbor, so too will the inventory at Bivouac -- something Davidson also has to plan for. 

The downtown Ann Arbor store has taken numerous precautions to keep employees and customers safe.
The downtown Ann Arbor store has taken numerous precautions to keep employees and customers safe. (Bivouac)

Davidson said that he had already placed orders for fall before the pandemic hit, so he had to call his vendors and ask to cut out parts of his orders as he projected significantly fewer sales. 

“In every case, they have been willing to accommodate us and again, its the vendor-retailer relationship. We’ve been good to them. They’ve been good to us. It’s to both our advantages to have a good relationship.”

He’s been working with most of his vendors for five to 10 years. With them, he has had to create different plans in case orders need to change. 

For now, visitors to Bivouac won’t notice much of a change in its inventory but the shopping experience is different. Masks are mandatory (something Bivouac implemented before it was mandated), plexiglass separates customers and employees at the register and the store doesn’t accept cash. Davidson said that Bivouac staff also cleans more often and they disinfected or steam items that have been handled or tried on. 

On a personal level, Davidson said he misses his customers. 

“I’ve had customers for 40 years who I see them seven football games a year and I’ll miss that,” he said. “On their way to the game they’ll stop by, say ‘hi,’ and we catch up.” 

 He said that he will miss the interaction with these customers but “there’s always next year.”

Bivouac is at 336 S. State St.

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The retail store has taken numerous precautions in order to keep employees and customers safe.
The retail store has taken numerous precautions in order to keep employees and customers safe. (Bivouac)

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