Brick-and-mortar storefronts deemed “non-essential” have been impacted dramatically by the COVID-19 pandemic. The unexpected closure of many local boutique shops has their owners scrambling to reinvent small-scale retail sales during an ongoing economic crisis amid ever-changing government regulations.
We spoke to several boutique owners about how they have had to adapt their business practices to accommodate the changes of this unprecedented time. Two things became immediately clear — shop operators are incredibly grateful to the loyal customers who continue to support them in less-conventional ways, and they truly miss their customers and being able to cater personally to them in their stores. This past week has seen some retail shops opening with limited hours and COVID-19 safety guidelines in place.
Ditto Boutique, 1143 National Road, Edgewood
“I’ve learned that online is the new black!” reveals Stacy Dietz, owner of Ditto Boutique. Like many others, Dietz has been marketing her fashions on the Internet since the mandated store closures began in March. “We started putting our items with their prices on our social media pages, and it has taken off,” Dietz shares.
She is delivering local shipments at no charge and shipping out-of-town packages for a modest fee. The success of this new strategy has confirmed for Dietz that she will definitely need to utilize an online sales platform moving forward. She says that she is fielding messages from customers at all hours of the day and night right now, which of course she doesn’t mind.
“I thought I was the only one up at 3 a.m. bingeing on the latest styles!” she laughs. But having a shopping site to field those orders will give Dietz more time to get her beauty sleep.
Ditto is a unique shop and “repeat boutique” that features fashionable new and gently used or never-worn women’s clothing and accessories as well as giftware for all occasions.
Dietz says she misses the “Ditto Gals” staff because the group is close-knit, and it’s tough being away from each other during this time of social distancing. And she misses her clientele.
“Spring collections are just sitting there waiting to adorn our customers!” she states. To see what Ditto has to offer, you can visit the shop’s Facebook page.
(Limited walk-ins permitted at Ditto this week.)
Ash and Tin Boutique, 2242 Market Street, Centre Market
Ash and Tin Boutique, purveyors of women’s clothing and accessories, had not quite made it to their first anniversary in business when the pandemic struck. “Our last day of business was March 14; after that time, we chose to close for the health and safety of our customers,” says Kristin Irwin, who co-owns the boutique with business partner Ashley O’Neal.
The shop had coincidentally launched its new website a week prior to the forced closure. “Fortunately we had that in place already. We used this time to add more things to our website and try to grow interest in shopping with us online,” Irwin explains. “This has proven to be difficult with the abundance of online shops. But we continue to try to gain more of a following for our website, and hope that people will be more inclined to shop local/small businesses during this time.”
Ash and Tin is also hand-delivering local orders or shipping to customers outside the immediate area. Irwin assures customers that their orders are carefully packaged in a frequently sanitized area and sprayed with disinfectant prior to delivery.
Despite facing their own difficulties during these uncertain times, local shop owners are also concerned about the folks in our area being directly exposed to the coronavirus. Some of them are finding ways to support essential workers. Irwin and O’Neal are just wrapping up a very successful “Mystery GIVE Bag” promotion as a way to give back to the community. Customers may purchase a mystery grab bag of items from the website, and $5 from each purchase will be used to buy gift cards for local health care workers. To date, the promotion has netted enough for the women to provide $10 gift cards purchased from local stores to more than 50 frontline health care workers.
(Ash & Tin is open this week with social distancing measures in place.)
Hughes Design & Gift Gallery, 600 National Road, Fulton
When WEE asked how she is adjusting to the “new normal,” Hughes Design & Gift Gallery owner Mary Beth Hughes exclaimed, “We hope this isn’t the new normal! We call it the new abnormal and hope that we will be back more closely to normal at some point!”
“Because we don’t have the resources that many larger companies have, we are focusing on Facebook and Instagram, as well as online accounts with Shopify and Shoptiques,” shares Hughes. She posts photos of merchandise that customers may need as they shelter in place, such as hand wash, lotions, essential oils and cleaners. Customers can then call or message the shop to make purchases, and Hughes will deliver their orders to their cars at the curb outside her store. “Always holding the bags with disinfectant wipes!” she assures her shoppers. In addition, Hughes Design offers children’s items such as books and stuffed animals and also carries a line of West Virginia-themed baby apparel.
Hughes has been able to continue serving her design clients remotely and says that transition has not been difficult. “However, we do have a basement full of things awaiting delivery or installation, because people are wary of having delivery people in their homes.”
Like most small retailers, Hughes admits the current situation is stressful. “We are struggling, as are so many people. We understand that things may never be the same. We hope we will still be here when the world comes out of this. We are so grateful to have customers who are trying to be supportive of small businesses!”
(Hughes Design and Gift Gallery is open today and Saturday, and asks that customers wear masks and follow COVID-19 guidelines.)
V. C. Wares, 2253 Market Street, Centre Market
In April, V. C. Wares celebrated its sixth anniversary in business. Owner Amy Cordy is grateful for her loyal customer base that has made those six years possible.
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“We have been blessed with a community of people who love our shop and all that comes with it,” Cordy says. V.C. Wares is best known for its vintage, one-of-a-kind curated home goods. “Timeless with a splash of rebel,” according to the shop’s recently updated website.
Cordy shares that store intern Sydney Badia, a student at Ohio University Eastern, was able to tackle the updating of their website earlier this year. “We had our very first website sale on Feb. 13,” Cordy says. However, online sales remained rare as Cordy focused on her storefront and that personal, face-to-face connection with her customers.
Then the pandemic struck. Cordy states that the store first began offering curbside pick-up as an option for customers who were more comfortable avoiding others in the shop. A few days later, Cordy decided to close the shop completely in order to do her part to “flatten the curve,” while still offering curbside pickup and also implementing a new next-day porch delivery option.
“But on March 24, we nixed curbside completely and concentrated solely on delivery and shipping as Ohio and West Virginia began to implement the ‘stay at home’ orders,” explains Cordy. The shop’s online and phone sales have since grown.
“Initially, our goal was to have one sale per day in order to be able to cover our rent and monthly overhead. As our online sales began to increase, we have been able to restock some items, making sure to focus on our local and family-owned businesses who are also feeling the effects of this shutdown. I lock myself in the shop almost daily, packing up orders and trying to add new items to the website, and then hit the road for an hour or two delivering our goods to our community. It has become our new normal. And one that we are most grateful for,” Cordy says with sincerity.
Nini’s Treasures, 355 Wharton Circle, Suite 159, The Highlands
Nini’s Treasures has been a Wheeling fixture for decades, offering an eclectic selection of women’s clothing, accessories, handbags, jewelry and gifts. In fact, the shop had just celebrated its 25th anniversary when the world as we know it came screeching to a halt.
Owner Nini Zadrozny shares that she wasn’t all that proficient with social media before last month. However, she knew that she would have to adapt to doing business remotely.
“An online presence is important now,” she states. Her daughter Lydia has helped her learn the ropes, and now Zadrozny is doing frequent Facebook Live video promotions. “We’ll do a style show or showcase a particular item, and viewers can comment on anything they may be interested in purchasing,” Zadrozny explains. “Our Pandora, Brighton and Vera Bradley items are popular.”
Purchases are delivered or shipped or can be picked up at the store. “I’ll even meet customers somewhere convenient. We’re making it work!” says Zadrozny. Like other shop owners, she is taking steps to ensure that orders are packaged and delivered safely.
Zadrozny also credits her supplier Brighton with being instrumental in helping her and other shops as they transition from in-person to online sales. She says that Brighton has offered several educational workshops via Zoom, teaching shop staff how to create an effective social media site and sharing tips for online marketing and sales.
“Heading into the Christmas season last October, the traffic on I-70 kept many customers away, and now this. It’s a different world!” Indeed, it’s a very worrisome world for independent storeowners.
Nini’s Treasures has also been offering a new promotion that customers have been excited about. “We run a drawing where, for $10 a square, customers can win a Brighton handbag and a store gift card. You have to get creative!” explains Zadrozny. She is donating a portion of the proceeds from this contest to the local Adopt a Senior 2020 movement, which is sending gifts and good wishes to local seniors who are missing out on graduation and other rites of passage.
The shop also plans to continue offering online shopping even when they return to more normal business practices. Zadrozny says she is in the process of switching her online sales platform to Shopify in order to satisfy customers who may enjoy browsing from home.
Zadrozny assures her customers that she will do whatever it takes to reopen her doors as soon as it’s safe to do so. She will be installing a commercial-grade hand sanitizer station for customers to use as they enter and exit the shop and will also be taking any other safety measures necessary to ensure that her customers and staff remain safe and healthy.
We are all struggling to some degree during this quarantine. But most of us will have jobs we can return to once the order to shelter in place has been lifted. Boutique stores like these are among the most likely to suffer insurmountable financial consequences. They are doing all they can right now to make customers happy and keep their virtual doors open. We can return the favor by shopping local and supporting our neighbors whenever possible.
• A lifelong Wheeling resident,Ellen Brafford McCroskey is a proud graduate of Wheeling Park High School and the former Wheeling Jesuit College. By day, she works for an international law firm; by night, (and often on her lunch breaks and weekends) she enjoys moonlighting as a part-time writer. Please note that the views expressed in her writing are solely her own and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, including her full-time employer. Through her writing, Ellen aims to enlighten others on causes close to her heart, particularly addiction, recovery and equal rights. She and her husband Doug reside in Warwood with their clowder of rescued cats, each of whom is a direct consequence of his job as the Ohio County Dog Warden. Their family includes four adult children, their spouses and several grandkids.