Over the past two months, there has been lots of discussion about which businesses and workers are essential. Health care workers, first responders, and countless others on the front lines are essential, and they are heroes. A linens manufacturer may not be essential until it begins manufacturing protective masks and clothing for health care workers. My online jewelry business and Charleston novelty store are definitely not essential, but they mean a great deal to me and the local craft makers with whom I work.
Thankfully, during the pandemic, both of my businesses are still open, online. This is possible only because the power of e-commerce connects me to customers all over the country, and the extraordinary global supply chain ensures we have the materials we need and can ship the products our customers want.
Without these tools and services, my businesses and millions more would likely be out of business, putting more people out of work and putting our economy into deeper trouble.
I have been a small-business owner for four years. I started selling handmade jewelry on Etsy. Using Instagram and email marketing tools, I was able to build a following and a brand. Eventually, I created an independent online store and then grew my side business into a full-time opportunity.
It was exciting, and I was inspired to do more by working with other talented craftspeople who live nearby. So, in 2017, I joined forces with a business partner and opened a store downtown selling locally made products and balloons. I love helping local artists and artisans build their brands and businesses and make money doing what they enjoy.
Our gift shop was a near-immediate success, but the COVID-19 shutdown could have crushed us. We made the move online quickly, leveraging sites like Shopify and tools like Square to create a digital store. I should have done this sooner, but nothing motivates like desperation. We’ve doubled down on virtual sales, Instagram, and email marketing and are thankful we’ve been able to maintain somewhat steady support from our customers.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has done more than close our stores and shops to customers. It has also disrupted the supply chains we largely took for granted just two months ago. Many of our suppliers had shut down, and others had lengthy shipping delays or could not guarantee when products would arrive. Understandably, some suppliers were prioritizing their biggest customers. Still, both the craft and jewelry business need bubble wrap and mailers to ship products to customers, and many of our regular suppliers were no longer reliable.
Thankfully, we were able to source new products from new suppliers. We found jewelry production supplies and shipping materials on Amazon, and more and more of our essential supplies are now coming from Amazon. Ultimately, we were able to shift all of our suppliers fast enough to keep both businesses running. And thanks to the U.S. Postal Service, we can still get customers the products they purchase.
Selling online is helping keep us afloat. We’re not doing the kind of sales we were when the store was open, but business is better than expected, and we are excited about our prospects for when things return to normal. We have no idea how long the official pandemic will last, or how much longer it will be until tourists feel safe to travel and return to Charleston. Even after reopening, we will have to limit how many people are in the store, so our online presence will be extremely important for many months.
While the pandemic has closed millions of businesses and destroyed tens of millions of jobs, it seems like a mistake to have our federal and state governments attacking the digital platforms and business services that help many businesses survive. Facebook, Google and Amazon are very large and should be scrutinized, but they provide critical services and extraordinary value to my business and so many more. It is also essential that policymakers appreciate small-business supply chain partners, as I have learned. If we cannot get supplies or ship products, we will never survive the next few months, so we need to do everything possible to keep shippers, truckers and warehouse workers healthy and productive.
Mimi Striplin is the Founder of The Tiny Tassel in Charleston.s