Exactly one year ago, non-essential retail was closed by the governor. Did anyone believe that retail’s great comeback could be better than ever after a brutal year of closures, reduced traffic and frightened customers? We heard brick and mortar retail was dead more times than I can count. The truth is, there are many stories of retailers who set their focus on what their retail comeback could be like and then charted the course to make it happen. There are also many retailers who couldn’t make the journey back and closed their doors permanently.
This is the story how one Ohio based small retailer used COVID and the pandemic to reinvent herself and her boutique.
The Pandemic Struck
This true story is about Elizabeth, a born and bred retailer with a remarkable talent for merchandising and a deep love for her brand and her customers. When the COVID pandemic struck exactly one year ago, the governor required all non-essential businesses to close. Green Velvet, along with most other retail stores closed their doors with little notice and no idea if or when they would reopen.
While large retailers with deep cash coffers were struggling to stay afloat, it was that much harder for small boutique retailers like Green Velvet. With high overhead and low margins, surviving indefinite closure felt like a losing proposition.
For retail context, Spring Break and Easter are the first big peak of the year and retailers stock up on inventory in preparation for what is usually the 6 weeks that make or break the first half of any retailers year. With inventory flowing in just in time for doors to close and bills mounting, it was bleak.
What Were Her Options?
Elizabeth, like many small retailers, didn’t have the cash stockpile to pay the bills with the store closed. She couldn’t pay the rent & utilities, pay for all the inventory she had bought for a good spring season, pay her staff and be closed for what was an indeterminate amount of time. She furloughed her staff and prepared for the worst…permanent closure.
Her sister, Rachel Williamson of Running Great Stores had a different strategy. Rachel suggested that there were creative ways to move the inventory and reminded Elizabeth just how loyal her customers were. With nothing to lose and nowhere else to go, Elizabeth decided to reinvent the way she operated her business.
The History of Green Velvet
Elizabeth was 34 years old and living in Granville, Ohio. She had been in business with her entrepreneurial parents since she was 17, selling straw wreaths and hats covered in dried flowers (do you remember these?) in malls up and down the eastern seaboard for 17 years. Her dream was to own her own retail boutique right in Granville. Trips to Europe, walking in and out of countless boutiques, created a vision of what her shop would be like. Her aging parents were ready to stop traveling, retire and enjoy living in the charming town of Granville.
Elizabeth’s dream had finally become a reality. Green Velvet opened at 130 E. Broadway, right in the heart of Granville, Ohio. Over the years, as retail continued to evolve, Elizabeth continued to run GV the same way she did from the day it opened. She thought she was safe from the retail apocalypse and for a time, she was. While volume declined with slowing traffic, she continued to fill her shop with beautiful things that were comfortably priced trying to attract new customers. She jumped on the social media bandwagon but always doing things manually and rather randomly, never experiencing the lift in sales she hoped for.
Mindset Shift Required
Elizabeth had no choice but to stop the panic and focus on saving the shop. Facing the brutal reality of closing permanently became a “do or die” situation. Thinking differently about how she ran her store was her only option. This included finding new ways for customers to shop from her beautifully curated spring assortment. But first, she had to shift her own thinking and move from a fixed mindset (what if I fail) to a growth mindset (I may not know everything I need to do today but I will keep trying and learn from my mistakes).
This was the big epiphany for Elizabeth…once she took the first step and saw a little bit of success, she had confidence to take the next step and the next as creativity surged through her. She was coming up with great ideas that would move her business forward even while the doors were closed. It was remarkable to watch. She was no longer frozen in fear! She was moving forward.
Cut Expenses Now!
Now that Elizabeth had a new mindset, she started moving fast on other aspects of the business. She cut expenses, starting with furloughing her team. They all said they would come back when she reopened and were rooting for her!
She contacted her landlord about rent relief. He provided two options to help her bridge the store closure.
Then she started to contact vendors to cancel deliveries. She put summer buys on hold and evaluated what she had bought for fall and holiday.
While she felt confident she was taking the right steps, she still didn’t see how this was going to work.
Reinvent How to Sell
Elizabeth had always been on Instagram and Facebook but now she put structure and strategy behind her efforts.
She started by notifying her mailing list what was going on and asked for their continued support while thanking them for their loyalty.
Then she operationalized her social media strategy. She offered alternate shopping methods and was consistent in her outreach.
Elizabeth began to see 2 things happen:
- Her customer responded to her new way of doing business and were thrilled to have access to their favorite shop amidst hard times
- This new way of selling actually worked!
Sales started coming in and Elizabeth was able to pay her rent and bring a couple associates back from furlough to help her fill orders. Instead of cancelling more orders, she was contacting vendors looking for available products.
Creative Merchandising Required
Creating beautiful assortments that are well merchandised was always Elizabeth’s gift. Now she had to create displays that would resonate through social media. With Easter around the corner, she and her team started making gorgeous baskets and advertising them all over social media. Word got out and she barely kept up with the orders. She brought the remainder of her team back from furlough and between shipping and front porch delivery, she was bringing the joy of the holiday to her customers.
Elizabeth decided to experiment with new product offerings. She quickly learned that when her store reopened, she had new offerings that would add annual volume to her brick and mortar store.
Ultimately, once Elizabeth changed her mindset and put her limiting beliefs aside, her creativity started to flow. Elizabeth became the best version of herself and business followed.
Control Cash Flow for Retail’s Great Comeback
Next was to help Elizabeth understand how to better impact her cash flow. If she sold the same quantity of merchandise without the deep discounts, she would make more money without needing more inventory.
Historically, Elizabeth randomly marked products down to 50% off or more when it wasn’t selling. So the next step was for her to learn the impact of markdowns on her cash flow. Her thought was that the markdowns would generate cash to pay bills and get new products in. Once she learned the math behind it, she stopped the deep discounts.
With Easter a week away, she had seasonal items that needed to be marked down but instead of the traditional 50-75% off, she ran the items at 20% – 25% off and guess what, they sold! Why? Because she was creating compelling photos and videos that made the product must haves.
It’s ALWAYS about the Customer
COVID19 has been a unique time for everyone. From stores, restaurants, salons, churches all closed to record unemployment rates. So why was Elizabeth doing so well? There were plenty of online businesses that her customers could have pivoted to.
Here is why…Elizabeth has never forgotten how to make every customer’s day with each interaction. Whether through texting photos of products back and forth to customers, delivering packages at all hours of the day or night all over the city, or wrapping each package like a gift so that the recipient would experience joy when they opened it, the customer has remained the center of what she does and why she does it.
Drum Roll Please: The Results
Green Velvet didn’t just survive, it thrived through COVID. Could she ever have thought that this retail’s great comeback story would be hers? Elizabeth is still growing her business. She has always stayed connected with her customers. She doesn’t just know them, she knows what they want and need from her.
This all started with a mindset shift during perhaps what was the largest challenge in recent retail history. She has reinvented how she could run a store while it was closed and did it. Now retail is back open and yes, she continues to respond to her customers and the retail environment. It has been hard work. Ridiculously long hours. But she has had a great time helping her customers through this difficult period by bringing their “Green Velvet fix” to them in a contactless way.
- A GROWTH mindset is the only way to win in this environment and EVERY environment. Put aside your limiting beliefs, lean into the discomfort and GO!
- Putting customers first is the right approach, regardless of the economic barriers. Listen to them with empathy and give them what they want and need.
- Having a consistent Social Strategy is key.
- Offer payment options…PayPal became a huge win for customers who didn’t want to give their credit card number over the phone.
- Don’t be afraid to fail. If something doesn’t work, try something else. It’s how you learn.
A Note from Rachel
There are many retailers who continue to struggle to make their retail business bounce back since Covid. My hope is that this true story inspires other small retailers to push themselves beyond their limits and figure out how they need to change to make it through. Could retail’s great comeback story be yours?
Rachel Williamson led Elizabeth and other retailers through successful reinvention and can do the same for you. For more information, visit http://www.runninggreatstores.com or email Rachel at Rachel@runninggreatstores.com.