Local business owner Heidi Vanorse Neal and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins met through Zoom to discuss retail business during COVID-19.

The June 24 meeting and virtual tour was organized by the National Retail Federation and the Retail Association of Maine.

Neal owns and operates seven Loyal Biscuit pet stores in Maine. The most recent store in Bath opened in the middle of April after the company purchased the Wags and Whiskers pet store.

Collins said she is familiar with Loyal Biscuit, and frequents the Brewer location with her black lab, Pepper. “Whenever we go there her tail starts wagging,” Collins shared, and praised Neal’s “great staff” at the store.

Neal’s stores require customers to wear a mask, and she told Collins it posed a challenge to her staff. She said her employees have “taken abuse” over the matter, and she wished Maine’s mask policy for businesses was more clear.

Collins said the mask policies for each state were up to the governor.

Loyal Biscuit closed for in-store shopping in the middle of March, and reduced their hours of operation. The business and employees were able to quickly adjust to accommodate online shopping and ordering by phone for curbside pick-up.

Not shopping in-store has changed what customers purchase, however. Neal said customers are still buying pet food, but not dog toys and treats, which she described as “the highly profitable items.”

Collins said those items are usually an impulse buy, and that she was guilty of buying more than she meant to at Neal’s stores as well. “I go into the store meaning to buy one thing and end up buying extra products… due to your clever marketing,” she said.

Neal expressed concerned about what business will be like in the winter without the summer tourists to boost their profits. “We rely so heavily on that foot traffic… and those tourists,” she said. While the pandemic might be over in a few months, Neal said the winter will still be very challenging for her stores.

Collins said that was helpful to know as the Senate continued to debate moving forward with another package to help businesses. She said the cost is the main dispute, but she continued to work with a bipartisan group to pass the measures.

Neal then took Collins on a virtual tour of the Rockland store. She discussed the safety measures that have been put in place. These included plexiglass shields at the registers and the closure of the self-service dog wash stations.

Neal said the stores were still trying to determine how to safely open the dog washing stations and comply with the safety measures.

The National Retail Federation’s store tour program is to connect members of Congress with retailers “to learn how retail powers the economy and creates jobs in the states and districts they represent.” The program also allows business owners to “build relationships with the lawmakers who make decisions that directly impact the retail industry.”

The tours are usually held in-person, but have moved to an online format since the pandemic.