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Amid Pandemic, Business Owners Find Unique Ways To Stay Afloat


You cannot give someone a tattoo over the Internet. You can't paint their nails or groom their dog. Millions of people whose jobs involve personal interaction have been desperately trying to find ways to make money while social distancing. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Imagine you need some new running shoes. Obviously, it's a weird time to be out shopping and trying stuff on. So you call up your favorite store, and they say, sure, come to this park and wait for a guy...


SELYUKH: ...With a suitcase.

DALIA MORTADA, BYLINE: Honestly, it looked more like a secret black market meetup in the park than a quest to buy some sneakers.

SELYUKH: That's what happened to my colleague NPR editor Dalia Mortada, who did a socially distant shoe fitting with a stranger who literally rolled up a few options she could try.

MORTADA: The kind store clerk showed up in a tie-dye face covering and black rubber gloves, and he brought three pairs of shoes in a black suitcase.

SELYUKH: The coronavirus pandemic has been devastating to American businesses, but it was also a summons to creativity. Professionals whose work does not translate well through the disembodied World Wide Web had to put on their thinking caps, like the strip club in Portland that began offering a show with your takeout order.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're calling it food to go-go.

SELYUKH: This example is almost a classic now. It's captured lots of headlines - here, featured in a video by The Oregonian.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You order your food at the beginning. You drive through the tent. And inside the tent, there are four go-go dancers in there.

SELYUKH: Another pandemic classic is the remote haircutting instructions, now even popping up for free on YouTube.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What if you only have kitchen shears?



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I've only done that once, and it's a big mistake.

SELYUKH: There's the wine seller in Nebraska...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Everybody, pour your first glass.

SELYUKH: ...Delivering tasting portions for weekly Zoom parties even a psychic in D.C. who now offers readings over FaceTime. She declined an interview with NPR, saying that phones have energy-draining crystals. These creative solutions are not a replacement for regular business. They're a Hail Mary to offset losses, maybe draw new customers or at least remind old ones that you exist.

NICOLE BURKE STEPHENSON: I just was brainstorming, like, what can work now.

SELYUKH: Nicole Burke Stephenson lives in Hawaii and does facials. It's one of the more intimate jobs out there - leaning over someone else's face, treating it, massaging it.

STEPHENSON: To be totally honest, a lot's going to have to happen for me to feel comfortable giving facials in person. Like, I'm questioning whether or not I'll ever use a steamer again because it blows people's breath into my face.

SELYUKH: As the shutdowns put a huge question mark over her income, she had an idea - to do video classes teaching people a face massage technique that comes from Chinese medicine called gua sha, which uses a curvy, flat jade stone.

STEPHENSON: This one I've nicknamed alligator-shaped. So there's the teeth side, and there's the notch between the legs and the tail.

SELYUKH: It's kind of like a really fancy cheese knife.

STEPHENSON: (Laughter).

SELYUKH: Over Zoom or FaceTime, she shows people how to work the stone on their face and neck using oils they might buy from her website.

STEPHENSON: There's, like, a notch that fits the jawbone. This rounded end is really nice for under the eye.


Stephenson is charging a lot less than her normal price for a facial. She's not making much money. But she feels like she's helping people self-care. In fact, she says she might keep this online class forever, though as someone who's quarantining alone, she says with certainty that human touch is irreplaceable.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
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