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Lessons from COVID-19: Retailers learn to adapt, diversify

Contributing Writer //July 20, 2020//

Lessons from COVID-19: Retailers learn to adapt, diversify

Contributing Writer //July 20, 2020//

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By Holly Fisher
Contributing writer

Stephanie Summerson Hall’s strategy for a diversified business model was smart, but in the midst of a global pandemic, it was genius.

Hall’s primary business, Ruth’s House Event Rentals, came to a screeching halt in mid-March when the coronavirus led the state to shutter businesses and force everyone to stay home. Hall purposely kept her 15-year-old event business smaller and niche, focusing on some long-term clients with annual events, along with weddings and small corporate functions. But even those events were canceled or postponed.

As Ruth’s House Event Rentals’ work paused in the spring, Hall’s newest business venture into the retail space was picking up speed.

In October she launched Estelle Colored Glass, a luxury brand of hand-blown colored glass cake stands and stemware in a mix of jewel tones and soft pastels. The vintage-style pieces are original designs made at a 100-year-old glassmaking company in Poland. Hall was marketing her new business largely on Instagram, reaching out to influencers and sending them samples. She had a good Christmas season.

And then came COVID-19. While nonessential retailers closed their doors, online businesses kept selling products. With more people at home and surfing social media, Estelle Colored Glass — named in honor of Hall’s grandmother — got a boost.

Hall had a second surge of business in June thanks to social media efforts to bring attention to black-owned businesses. In a span of about two weeks, Hall’s @estellecoloredglass Instagram account doubled from 23,400 followers to 51,500 followers. She turned off her Instagram advertising and has been working round the clock to respond to media inquiries and messages from retailers interested in selling her products.

Charleston-based influencer Julia Berolzheimer, who has more than 1 million Instagram followers, posted about Estelle Colored Glass, as did Martha Stewart, Elle Decor and Harper's Bazaar.

“When she (Julia) did that, it was a turning point,” Hall said. “Very influential people have posted about us. Our sales have gone through the roof.”

Hall said she was so grateful for the attention given to her business and other black-owned businesses, many of which were hurting from the impacts of COVID-19.

The boost in business also allowed Hall to keep Ruth’s House Event Rentals employees working. Instead of delivering event rentals, they were packaging and shipping orders for Estelle Colored Glass.

Hall, a former corporate tax attorney, is always looking for her next business opportunity. She is the co-founder of Wedding Flowers for Rent, renting lush, silk flowers to brides, and hard at work on another business she hopes to launch next year.

Being able to pivot quickly and having a diversified business portfolio has long been a sound business strategy, but Hall said COVID-19 reinforced that lesson in a big way.

“I think of it as hedging,” she said. “If one thing is not going well, the other thing is.”

Retail resurgence a mixed bag

In May, retailers began to reopen their doors with limited capacity, and consumers began to venture out to their favorite shops and boutiques. U.S. retail sales were up 17.7% in May compared with April and exceeding growth forecasts, according to the Commerce Department. It was a welcome surge for retail, which experienced three months of declines.

Yet some larger retailers like J.C. Penney and J. Crew have filed for bankruptcy. Small and midsize businesses are working to make up the lost revenue, taking extra precautions to ensure employees and customers are safe as the number of coronavirus cases maintains a steady uptick.

Karen-Anne Pagano was excited to open an independent bookstore in Mount Pleasant early this year. The shelves were stocked with new books and she was ready to welcome her first customers on March 21. Instead of opening The Village Bookseller at 761 Coleman Blvd., Pagano made a fast pivot to launch her online store and porch delivery.

When Gov. Henry McMaster announced retailers could reopen, Pagano opened her physical location on May 9. But with just 1,500 square feet, she was limited to three or four customers at a time. She had plans to serve coffee and encourage customers to lounge in comfy chairs, but that aspect of the business is on hold for the moment.

By mid-June, Pagano was watching as the number of coronavirus cases rose dramatically in South Carolina. At the same time, her sales certainly aren’t what she’d predicted when she put together her business plan.

“I’m definitely kind of anxious,” she said. “The community support is keeping me going right now.”

The Village Bookseller is still offering online ordering and porch delivery. What she doesn’t have in stock she can order for customers and have within three to four days.

“People are showing support by buying books and spreading the word,” she said. “They seem to be very excited to have a bookstore in the community.”

Keeping a positive attitude

That same level of community support spread through Summerville too. Rita Berry, president and CEO of the Greater Summerville/Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce, said people were calling the chamber asking how they could help.

“People were worried about the businesses on the historic square,” she said. “We encouraged them to buy a gift certificate or a gift card that would help with their revenue stream.”

Berry’s been checking in with businesses since they’ve reopened, and she’s encouraged by the positive attitudes and good spirits. “Everyone seems to just be happy to be open again,” she said.

One of the biggest lessons for businesses has been the ability to adapt and do things differently.

“Several businesses didn’t have an online shopping component and realized the value of that,” Berry said. “Or they started providing a different product or service.”

Longtime Summerville fabric shop People, Places, & Quilts became a vital resource for people who were making masks. Downtown Summerville gift boutique Four Green Fields quickly added an online store, Berry said.

Even local chambers themselves shifted to quickly accommodate the needs of local businesses. Both the Summerville Chamber and the Mount Pleasant Chamber of Commerce added coronavirus resource pages to their websites, working to provide their members with valuable information.

“There’s an element of positivity right now,” said Shane Griffin, president of the Mount Pleasant chamber. “People are wanting to get up and running and get back to business as usual. Businesses are marketing again, and they are looking at strategies and ways to get customers back in the door.

“The chamber is doing everything we can to connect the dots and ensure businesses stay positive and grow their revenue the best they can.”

The Mount Pleasant chamber is continuing to offer virtual events, including a weekly webinar with Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie and other educational topics. Even networking events have shifted to Zoom so members can continue to develop relationships.

“Local small businesses have always been a critical piece of what we do,” Griffin said. “For us, we’re continuing to expand that message. We’re helping businesses succeed east of the Cooper. Every referral, every connection helps.”