I miss having my Brooklyn neighbors coming into my shop, Annie’s Blue Ribbon General Store, simply to say hi. I miss store events. But given how crazy this year has been, I’m grateful I’m still able to serve my local community at all.
As a small-business owner— “small but mighty,” I prefer to say—I’ve got at least a couple reasons to look forward to the end of 2020. It was easy at the beginning of the pandemic to think, we’re not going to make it, but my team and I focused on what we could control, and we’ve made so much progress over the last few months. If you’d told me 6 months ago that I’d be looking forward to the holiday shopping season and that I’m feeling pretty good about my store’s prospects – I’d have bet against that.
But I am! And I’m not alone. A recent American Express survey reveals that 75% of entrepreneurs are optimistic about the recovery of their small business, even though the same percentage acknowledges that their survival in 2021 depends on holiday sales that are as good as last year’s, if not better.
As an associate professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and a business owner, business management is something I think about a lot. This year in particular, though, has made me really engaged and thoughtful about the future of my business. I’ve learned some hard lessons and made some mistakes, but by focusing on my store’s strengths, I’ve been able to survive. Here are some of the things I’ve learned that may help you prepare for the busy holiday season ahead and Small Business Saturday, on November 28.
FOCUS ON THE BEST PARTS OF YOUR BUSINESS, AND BRING IT TO PEOPLE
There’s something great about walking in a store and browsing through great finds. This isn’t easy stuff to recreate online and it’s why I believe so much in storefronts. Right now though, that’s simply not possible. So, for now, we need to make the digital shopping experience work by creating energy.
Mine is the kind of store where you’re not even sure what you want when you walk in, and you walk out with a bunch of stuff and great ideas. Creating that excitement of discovery and energy is a hard thing to do online. Still, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. We started doing virtual shopping appointments with regular customers and we’ve managed to bring back some of the fun vibes, by literally taking customers around the store via FaceTime, Zoom or any way that works for you. My nine-year-old daughter has even gotten in on it – she wants to be an actress – and has become a hit on Instagram. She started doing these videos where she’d just try out, say, a plush, bunny-shaped kids’ purse that we were selling and say, ‘This is so cute!’ People keep asking for more of those.
TAILOR YOUR OFFERINGS TO THE NEW REALITY
Adapting to all these shifted priorities isn’t just good for your business—it actually helps the community get through tough times. We’ve been offering in-person shopping appointments on Thursday, Friday and Saturday mornings, before regular opening hours, for customers who prefer to be alone in the store. We even started a section on the website called Homeschool Fun, where we sell games for telling time, math sequencing, and so on. By adapting with our community, we’re helping them get what they need, and we’ve become an essential resource. That’s a dream for any business, let alone a general store.
I also think the customer mindset has changed, in a way that’s exciting. More customers ordering online and shipping items directly, and I’m hoping this means they’ll buy holiday presents for non-local friends and family from us, rather than a bigger retailer they find online.
EMBRACE SOCIAL MEDIA, EVEN IF IT’S A BUMPY PROCESS
My shop is leaning on social media in a way I never worked at it so much before, even if the transition hasn’t always been seamless.
Back early in quarantine I did an Instagram Live “story hour” for kids where I read Blue Ribbon Day, by Katie Couric—twice, after I realized I’d failed to record the first time. Clearly, I had never done an Instagram Live. Our community has been patient, generous and kind as we figure it out. So, don’t be discouraged by mishaps like these. Social media love can be worth an estimated $197 billion to the small-business economy—that’s something customers should remember, too, as they decide whether to promote their favorite local businesses to their followers. I love the engagement we get directly from customers through Instagram and Facebook, it truly keeps me inspired!
If you’ve read this far, you’ll see a theme emerging. Pivoting towards digital in general is important, too. I’m super glad that we switched our online sales platform to Shopify back in 2019, which has made selling on Instagram fairly seamless and our digital business that much easier and more integrated. It’s also helped with much needed inventory issues.
THIS SEASON, EMBRACE THE HOLIDAY SPIRIT
I’m sharing because this has been my experience. I know so many businesses haven’t been able to pivot, some industries have had a tougher time than others. But this holiday season I encourage you all to embrace the holiday spirit and ignite the fun in your business. Not only will it create a stronger experience for your customers but it’s important for all of us too. People may not be able to spend time with loved ones, but the gifts we ship or the cards we sell can help bring a little joy back.
So, I say, embrace the holidays for yourself and your business and of course, encourage your community to Shop Small at the businesses they love this Small Business Saturday and all holiday season.
Ann Cantrell is owner of Annie’s Blue Ribbon General Store, in Brooklyn, which she opened in 2007 after an 11-year career in corporate retail. She is also an associate professor in fashion business management at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.