How Local Stores are Surviving the Shutdown

In April 2020, Buzz, Web Exclusive by Jane PorterLeave a Comment

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Please support Raleigh’s local retailers—nearly all are currently operating through their websites and offering curbside pickup and/or local delivery.

WEB EXCLUSIVE Plenty of locally owned businesses that rely on foot traffic have had to get creative during the coronavirus shutdown but none more so than Raleigh’s independently owned retailers. From running promotions to taking their sales almost totally online to offering new products and services, Raleigh retailers are finding ways to stay afloat while they can’t connect with their customers in person.

Offering New Products and Services

Emily Sexton owns the Flourish Market—a boutique that partners with national and international brands which provide jobs and fair wages to artisans in vulnerable communities—in downtown’s Warehouse District. Sexton went straight to her customers to find out what they wanted to buy at a time when the shop’s traditional staples—think colorful, flowy Easter dresses and statement earrings—weren’t in as high demand as they would be under normal circumstances.

“I called about 15 of our longtime customers and we held virtual roundtables over Zoom, meetings for people who wanted to help,” Sexton explains. “We figured out people just needed an easy way to gift others with things. With Amazon on delayed timelines and people wanting to support small businesses, they wanted something $30 or under to send to friends and workers on the front lines. Just little bits of encouragement.”

So Sexton and her team created gift bundles for kids and adults, packed with two to four fun, witty or inspirational small gifts, priced at $29.99 apiece.

“We had a hundred sell out overnight and we brought back 300, and they sold out in a few hours,” Sexton says. “We released 300 more, and we have sold more than half, and we’re releasing even more this week.”

Sexton says the gift set sales have allowed her to keep paying her staff and to send thousands of dollars in new orders to the groups the store partners with that are in need of financial provisions right now.

“Our customers are always right,” Sexton says.

Lisa Kaufman, founder of the North Hills boutique Scout and Molly’s, similarly leaned in to her client base. Kaufman says she reached out to individual customers personally and offered to send them boxes of clothes to try on. In the last week, she shipped out 125 boxes to clients for free.

“It’s a try-before-you-buy,” Kaufman explained in a text message to Raleigh Magazine. “They can try on and send back what they don’t want and then pay for what works. It’s been really fun for the clients to get surprises in the mail. Getting dressed makes everyone feel better.”

Going Virtual

Many local brick and mortar retailers have had to shift their sales models from in-person to online.

Chuck Millsaps, vice president of the North Carolina-based specialty retailer Great Outdoor Provision Co., says he has seen a rise in interest in boating and kayaking since the shutdown. He has been fulfilling orders for the company’s nine stores through its Cameron Village headquarters.

“If I’m isolated and can’t go to work, I want to enjoy time by myself on the lake and go fishing,” Millsaps says. “Our brick and mortar sales model was a high service, very intimate sales situation where we’re helping people in and out of boats, sizing paddles and giving instructions on features and how to paddle the boats.”

Now, customers can consult web tutorials on the company’s website, order online and pick up kayaks and accessories–as well as anything else they want to order–during the store’s curbside pick up hours.

“Our pivot has been to make resources available in a contactless manner,” Millsaps says.

Ashley Webb, owner of the North Hills designer label boutique Vermillion, is doing more online to reach her customers as well, including coordinating website exhibitions of designer collections with the shop’s Instagram stories and email blasts to customers.

North Hills boutique Vermillion’s recently remodeled interior. Photo credit: @catnguyenphoto Design by Hobgood Architects and interior by La Maison

This Friday, Vermillion will feature a virtual trunk show with a fine jewelry partner and soon, one with designer Natalie Martin’s dresses. Though Vermillion featured all of its inventory online previously, Webb says most of her sales generally happened in the store. Now, more sales are taking place through the website and Webb says she has had to think ahead to how she’ll promote future collections with social distancing.

“For the next brainstorming session with my team, I want to figure out how to do a trunk show for pre- order for our fall collections,” Webb says.

As with the Flourish Market, Webb says she has been able to keep her core staff working their same number of hours and on the payroll, though many are working from home and balancing work with taking care of kids.

“Our hours have changed but everyone is still working as hard as ever,” Webb says. “I am also realizing we are not as reliant on traffic as I thought. Really, it is these relationships with our clients we have had that has been our support system. Shutting down was not an option for us. People are still shopping and we are just trying to get more creative while still abiding by the rules.”

Gift Cards, Promotions and Online Stores

Some local boutiques, including Uniquities and Copper Penny that didn’t previously feature their clothes online, are now selling items through their websites or through Facebook shops.

Copper Penny is offering a 20 to 30 percent discount on items storewide and Uniquities has a large number of items on sale as well. To coincide with its 15th anniversary this year, Vermillion is offering a 15 percent discount on its spring collection.

As with local restaurants and salons, the gift card has played a major role for Raleigh stores, too.

“We never had a digital gift card before but figured out how to create one and launched that 10 days ago and our customers have been wonderful,” says Millsaps from the Great Outdoor Provision Company. “Now is a gift giving period with Mothers Day, graduations, Father’s Day coming up. Gifting is taking on new shapes and forms and we’re hoping people can use [gift cards] to buy from our online site and in stores when we’re allowed to re-open.”

If you’re looking for gifts, now more than ever it’s important to support local businesses instead of buying from large chains or ordering on Amazon.

“We have had a wonderful community rallying around local businesses for years,” Millsaps says. “We miss our fellow merchants. All of us do what we do because we have a passion for it and for our customers and neighbors and we hope to get back to it soon, in as safe a way as possible.”

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