This year started off like so many others, with inventory day followed by a few slow winter months.  Sure, Amazon was continuing to eat into our market share – but we had a loyal following and the buy local movement here in Madison, Wisconsin continues to be strong.  And then came COVID-19, and everything in the world of independent retailing suddenly changed.

I’ll never forget locking the door of our store in mid-March, not knowing when we’d be reopening for customers.  Although we started letting a few people in on July 1, this holiday season has been very difficult – our shop is open only 20 hours a week to 5 customers at a time. It’s such a comfort to know that the first wave of vaccinations has started, so if all goes well we will be back to some semblance of normal by this time next year.

What has the year of the pandemic taught us? The most important thing is that saving lives is more important than anything else – sports, theater, church services, school, parades, reunions, holidays and of course even retailing.  We had to step back from the pursuit of business success to prioritize flattening the curve (a new expression).  Our busy daily lives as shopkeepers gave way temporarily to the quieter pace of sheltering at home.

As we worked to get our businesses back up and running, we learned a welcome lesson: that many of our suppliers wanted to help us succeed.  They were willing to drop ship products to our customers, giving us credit for the sale. They postponed invoices that were due and delayed shipments that were scheduled.  When things return to normal, we’ll remember which vendors were there for us.

We also learned our local colleagues were willing to help us get through this.  Two business neighbors on Monroe Street helped us move Easter merchandise, since they were open and we were not.  We worked with several other small shops around town to create and market a “buy local” Mother’s Day gift bag.  The local medical clothing supply store provided gift cards for a thank you package we put together for healthcare workers.

We learned to pivot, which in our case meant going from featuring only two items for purchase on our website (gift cards and my book on retailing) to offering hundreds of different SKUs for curbside pickup.  And we learned how to do curbside pickup, which was not something we’d ever considered.  

Many of us learned how to use social media effectively to keep in touch with customers who could no longer come into the store, even using Facebook to sell product.  The communication often went two ways, with customers telling us how much they missed shopping in person and wishing us well. (Not everyone, of course – those who didn’t want to wear a mask, or who were just unhappy,  had to be dealt with.)

We learned to prioritize our employees’ safety, even at the expense of sales.  And happily in most cases we discovered how loyal our staff members are, despite the dangers of working with the public and the difficulty of providing customer service under trying circumstance.

These lessons will serve us well when we get bogged down in wanting to do things the way we’ve always done them, or in thinking that we know what the future holds. I hope we never have a year in which we have to make so many changes so quickly – but it’s good to know we can do it if we have to.

Happy Retailing,
Carol “Orange” Schroeder

PS There will not be a Specialty Shop Retailing blog next week due to the holidays