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How this Small Business Owner is Surviving & Thriving During COVID-19

This Chicago suburb small business utilized their online apparel store during a pandemic.

Today I interviewed my client Leslie Reed, she’s actually one of my clients and the owner of The Shop, which is an online apparel store. They have an Etsy shop and they also have a local, physical business location in Bolingbrook, Illinois.

Melissa: Leslie, thank you so much for being here and meeting with me. Talk about yourself a little bit. Tell us about The Shop and how it got started.

Leslie: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for having me. The Shop is 10 years old. Well, this year we are 11 years old. My brother and I actually purchased an existing sign shop back in 2009. We were clients of the sign shop and the owner was looking to sell, so my brother and I purchased it. We didn’t know what we were doing. I had a design background, and Kevin (my brother) had a business background and we just figured it out. Fast forward 11 years later, and we are still in business.

Melissa: When did the Etsy store start and how that come about?

Leslie: I was working at an on-campus college store when my husband was in the Coast Guard in New Orleans, and through that opportunity, I learned about apparel, different programs, and different machines to use. This was something that our shop hadn’t done, we were only doing business on physical signs. I remember when we left New Orleans, we were heading back home to Chicago thinking, “This is something I think we can do. I think there’s a market for customized t-shirts, customized bags, and koozies.” There’s a lot of people out there that don’t want to 50 items of one thing. Ex: My dad said something funny over the weekend and I want to put it on a t-shirt. So I brought what I had learned at that store back to our store, bought a press, bought some vinyl, and bought a printer.

At that point, the only place I really knew how to sell online was Etsy. I was a customer of Etsy, I loved Etsy. I loved what it was behind. This idea of helping, other women, who have a craft or just wanted to showcase some of their talents. I just loved the Etsy platform. The other thing I loved about Etsy was that it does a lot of the work for you. You put up some photos, you put up some pricing and then as far as the payments, all that stuff that starts to become really expensive, Etsy did everything. So for me, the cost of Etsy was worth it to just have them be in charge. If there was a problem with a payment, if there was a problem with a customer, they really stepped in.

So in 2015 we started an Etsy store. It was super slow at the beginning. I remember for days and being like, “I have no orders, what’s going on?” And then slowly, it probably took about six months to really get some traction, and we were maybe getting 30, 40 orders a month. Then every year since then it’s gotten a little bit better and now we’re getting 100 plus orders a week.

But it happened slowly. And I think that was something that now when I look back, I can see that gradual progression upwards, which when you’re in it, you don’t feel that you don’t see how much growth is actually happening. But when I get to look back from 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, every year, we’re 20% to 30% at an increase than we were the year before.

Melissa: That’s awesome.

Leslie: Yes, and the stuff that you have implemented, and the background algorithms, and the background ads have clearly helped from before we started doing any of that.

Melissa: Yes. Let’s go back a couple of months when COVID started and the stay-at-home orders were for real, what was going through your mind at that point?

Leslie: I honestly felt like I was in a Twilight Zone. I really didn’t understand what was happening. We were coming off of our best holiday season, and we were trying to implement some new ideas, just trying to stay creative. Then all of a sudden we kept hearing this chatter of, “There’s a virus going around, it’s going to start to affecting businesses.”

As you said, we have a brick and mortar. We’re a local sign and apparel shop in a suburb of Chicago and then obviously we have the online store. So around the beginning of March, Illinois went to a complete shutdown, only essential businesses were allowed to be open. We were allowed to operate because we got some COVID sign business, more from our municipalities were saying like, “Things are closed.” We were able to operate based on the fact that signs were needed during this COVID epidemic. I was allowed to stay open, we couldn’t have customers, we had to close our windows. So the online part really became important. It’s probably my biggest takeaway from this whole experience, is how important it is to have something online. Because we were such a small brick and mortar online was really scary for me because I didn’t know how to work it.

So at the beginning of March, we did see a decrease, which we were expecting. I went into it expecting, “We’re going to get zero dollars. Not a single person is going to buy anything, both in-store and online.” And that was not the case, but we went from again, maybe a 100 plus orders to 30, 40, etc.

Yes, it was a dip in the beginning. But I felt it was only maybe one or two weeks. Then all of a sudden I remember coming in on a Monday saying, “Oh my gosh, we had 75 orders over the weekend alone.” And through conversations with colleagues and friends of people that were working at home, one of the things that I guess I didn’t really take into consideration is not all, the majority of the people were working at home were still being paid.

We did see a dip, but it was now, looking back, so small and such a short amount of time, and I think everyone just got scared. Because Etsy is nationwide, for me it really didn’t matter that I was in Chicago and in a shutdown when most of the country at that time wasn’t. I think New York was, maybe California was, but we were very one of the few states that was in a shutdown at that point.

Melissa: Definitely. Let’s shift to some ideas that we were brainstorming back in March and April. Ex: “Okay, what type of apparel can we create? What type of item or product can we create and basically market to those who are experiencing the same feelings we are right now?”

Leslie: I tried to shift to some funny sayings that had to do with COVID, and quarantine, being a stay at home mom, homeschool teaching, and all of that. And I think that having to constantly come up with ideas is also something that is a takeaway for me throughout all of this. It’s needing to put up new content and being a little bit ahead of the game. The toilet paper thing was really relevant in March. Well, it’s not so relevant anymore because everybody can get toilet paper, but now it’s masks. We did a ton of graduation shirts that said class of 2020, but the zeros were masks.

So I think being ahead of the game is something that I’ve had to really become disciplined in and really put it on my schedule, “Okay, on Monday, let’s go through Pinterest. Let’s see what people are pinning. Let’s see what things came up over the weekend.” Even from the news, Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, she’s this four foot, five foot, little petite lady. She did a press conference probably at the end of March….she got so mad at people for going out for St. Patrick’s Day. Chicago is a huge city for St. Patrick’s day and everybody went out, everybody completely ignored her social distancing orders and she ended up shutting down the city.

She went to this press conference and she had a book in her hand, and I want to say she had this really stern look on her face. Well, that image went viral and people started popping her up into all these places around Chicago of like, “Where are you going? You better turn around and go home.” So I started getting inquiries about making cutouts so that people could put them places

Doing things like that, where it’s taking relevant happenings in our local area and being ready to launch that stuff come Monday.

Melissa: Yes, so that’s really good. Let’s also now shift a little bit from the shirts. Let’s talk about the signs, because that’s your best seller, and I feel like the ads that we’ve been doing have really helped bring awareness to the product that you’re actually selling at your brick and mortar.

Leslie: I wanted to have something that I felt was a dual purpose. I wanted to do something to help the first responders. We weren’t allowed to have people come into our store, nor did anybody want to. That was clear. Everybody just stopped. I would say, right around that St. Patrick’s day mark, at least in Chicago. Everyone pretty much just stopped, and everybody was in this really weird standstill. Nobody was going anywhere, schools at that time were still in session. Our school district hadn’t gone to spring break yet, but people were starting to pull their kids out. It was a very weird couple of weeks. We had all these orders and all of these jobs lined up, and then all of a sudden it was crickets, and no phone calls. Nobody wanted to move forward, no one wanted to put deposits down.

That got really scary for us, and I was thinking, “I’ve never felt that in the 11 years we’ve been in business, am I going to be able to make rent? Am I going to be able to make payroll? Am I going to be able to pay our loans on our machines that we have?” And I’m thinking, “Okay, we need to shift gears here and stop focusing on events and our large sign business, and maybe think of something a little bit smaller and tangible.” And yard signs became really popular. Everyone’s putting up yard signs, for graduation, birthday, all that. But at the time, supporting your healthcare heroes, first responders, essential workers, all that became super popular. And I was thinking, “Okay, how can we do this? Let’s have a dual purpose. Why don’t we come up with a predesigned one? So it’s not a custom sign. Someone can come in, they can leave with it right away.”

So it was just another way for us to get another product out there, and then from that ad and that campaign, sparked graduation signs. Then people were like, “Are you doing graduation signs?” So we did the same thing, came up with a template. You can customize it with your name, the college you’re going to, something that you were involved in in high school. And that exploded. We got so many orders for graduation yard signs than we’ve ever had before.

Melissa: Did you have to lay anybody off? Were there any hard decisions that you had to make in April? Because I feel like that was the month where decisions had to be made.

Leslie: Yes. We did not have to lay anybody off. There are three of us on staff, myself, the other owner, and we have a full-time graphic designer, so we don’t have a huge staff. We applied for whatever loans we could when it first came out. So the SBA CARES, the PPP, and the payroll protection. We did all of that right away, and then I busted out a calculator, a pencil, and a pad of paper and went through and wrote down what is our absolute bottom line. What bills do I have to pay every month to stay in business? And came up with our bottom dollar and figured, “Okay, again, if zero money is coming in, that means I’m not paying for apparel to make it. I’m not paying for material to make a sign. This is just so that I can keep my doors open.”

Just the revenue that comes from Etsy, I’ve seen if not double, almost triple what it typically is. That’s awesome and amazing.

We’re doing now what we normally do in the holiday season, in November and December, and again, I had zero expectations. So at this point, anything is better than nothing, but to see large deposits come in and go, “Oh my gosh, this just paid for the two machine loans.” Or, “These two weeks of deposits from Etsy just made rent.” That’s huge for us. And then everything else that we get in-store, is like, “Okay, we can make a small credit card payment. We can put some money back towards our line of credit.” It’s been really nice, it has. Etsy is been fantastic for us, for sure.

Melissa: Yes, awesome. Amazing. You guys are doing so well and I’m honored to work with your business during these crazy times.

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