The COVID-19 pandemic forced countless brick and mortar businesses to pivot to eCommerce amid a global shutdown. As businesses everywhere looked to quickly increase their online presence or build an online customer base from scratch, they came up with some innovative solutions including virtual wine tastings, contact-free delivery, quarantine care packages, and more. SMBs are known for being among the most agile and resilient businesses out there. Over the past few months, we’ve watched them lead the way in finding new and creative strategies to transform their business models and product offerings to create safe and enjoyable customer experiences that fit the new needs of consumers.
One of the small businesses we saw overcome COVID-19 challenges through innovation and creativity is co-owned by Payability Customer Service Representative and retail entrepreneur, Michelle Delgado. After leading the Seller Growth team for Etsy Wholesale, Michelle joined Payability’s award-winning customer service team in late 2017. While on maternity leave, she and her business partner decided to take the leap and open their own brick and mortar store in Queens. Together they founded Stay Forever, a beautiful storefront and eCommerce store in Ridgewood, Queens featuring unique items such as handmade jewelry, stationary, home goods, baby gifts, natural apothecary, and more.
Today, Michelle works part time on our customer service team while growing the Stay Forever store. As a neighborhood store that relied heavily on foot traffic and in-store sales, the COVID-19 pandemic threw Michelle and her business a huge curveball. To share how she overcame these challenges and pivoted her business online, we sat down (virtually of course!) with Michelle to learn more about how she did it.
Check out our Q&A with Michelle to find out what innovative solutions she came up with to quickly turn her brick and mortar shop into a thriving eCommerce store and what the future holds for her business.
What inspired you to open your store?
I used to lead the Seller Growth team for Etsy’s wholesale which gave me exposure to many retailers. I often caught myself thinking, “I could do this”, but it’s easier to think than do. A friend and I were on maternity leave together and jokingly talked about opening a store in our neighborhood. We looked at an available space for fun and ended up signing a lease a few days later – no business plan, no funding aside from our own savings. We immediately started posting on Instagram using the neighborhood geotag so that we could build interest and began following neighboring businesses who helped spread the word. We currently sell online and have a physical store in Ridgewood, Queens.
How did COVID-19 affect your business?
We announced our store closure right before the NYC mandate was announced. It was a hard decision to make. We had just come off a great holiday season and business had remained steady. Then all of a sudden, the rug was pulled out from under us. We made the call to close before the NYC mandate because it began to feel unsafe. We had no idea when we were going to reopen so we went on social media and encouraged customers to buy gift cards. We went from thinking this is the year we’ll start to pay ourselves to wondering if we can make enough money in gift card sales to cover our overhead.
What new opportunities did you find to better serve customers during the pandemic?
Our store is in Queens which quickly became the epicenter of COVID-19 and many people were already hunkering down in quarantine. Our customer base is mostly local so we immediately offered free contactless, doorstep delivery. As the number of infections began to rise in NYC, we began to feel less safe so we closed the store entirely and took a much needed, two-week mental health break to reassess what we were doing.
How did you change your business strategy? What new products and offerings did you introduce?
Prior to our break, we received a direct message on Instagram from a fella in Colorado. His friend lived in the neighborhood and was a fan of our shop. She had just received some bad news so he reached out to us and asked if we could put a gift together for her with a $50 budget. We were very familiar with the customer so we had no problem curating a care package for her. She messaged us on Instagram after receiving it and said she cried – the timing was perfect. This gave us the idea to offer this service on our website, using her gift box as an example. To make this “dealer’s choice” box more enticing, we made the promise that the retail value of the box would exceed their chosen budget and threw in an extra treat for essential workers. There was no initial spend on this, we just worked our way through the leftover product before placing new orders.
For those looking to build their own boxes, we created a section on our site specifically for care packages and listed anything that fit in a gift box in this section. Doing this made it easier for customers to build their own boxes without having to fish through the site. Since everything fits in a gift box, this made the shipping process easy for us.
How did your marketing strategy change?
Creating a single section made it easy for us to direct customers to the site with a single call to action. We recognized early on that people weren’t looking to spend money on themselves, they were looking to connect with their friends and family who they couldn’t see in person. Many of the recipients were getting over illnesses, losing jobs, were on the frontlines as healthcare professionals or celebrating milestone moments in their lives. We used Instagram Stories to share images of every box we built and included generic info about the recipient because we knew it would inspire shopping. Simple captions like, “here’s a curated box for an essential worker from her best friend” would prompt sales of similar boxes.
What tools did you use to market and sell your products as you shifted your business strategy amid the COVID-19 shutdowns?
We’re frequent social media users so we relied on Instagram posts and stories. As Mother’s Day rolled around, we used Instagram and Facebook ad features to help spread the word locally. We were slammed through Mother’s Day, so I think it worked.
Did you start selling on any new marketplaces?
We didn’t sell on any additional marketplaces, but we did discover that the Stories feature on Instagram was a great way to move products. We try to hold at least one Stories sale a week with a focus on house plants and planters. The items we would post were available on a first come first serve basis. Stories are great for impulse purchases and they keep customers engaged.
How has working on the customer service team at Payability given you a different perspective on your business?
I get that you have to spend money to make money. As soon as our ecomm sales started taking off, we immediately re-invested our profits into more products. Having worked with small businesses before, I knew that if we wanted to keep things going and continue to scale, we would have to spend. Admittedly, it was hard to do initially because we didn’t know how things would pan out with our doors being closed but in the end it proved to be the wisest choice we made – our sales for March and April were comparable to holiday sales which was totally unexpected all things considered.
What are your plans for reopening your physical store?
NYC is now in Phase 1 of reopening so we’re able to offer curbside pick up 6-days a week. As we inch towards Phase 2, we’re still weary about re-opening considering the influx of positive cases as of late. That said, despite being “allowed” to re-open, we may choose to wait it out a bit longer – the safety of our employees and customers is our highest priority so our plan is to play it by ear and re-open when we feel it’s safe to do so.
How do you see the recent changes and innovations you made to your business this year transforming your business model going forward?
Prior to COVID-19, we hadn’t paid much attention to the website. We randomly had orders come in but we never really marketed for online sales. Once we’re open, I think it’s important that we revamp our website and possibly hire an outside agency to do this for us. We’re also looking into raising our ad spend online and sending out newsletters regularly to push online sales. It’s important for us to keep this momentum going – we’ve spent so much time and money learning the online side of things, it just doesn’t make sense for us to neglect it as we’ve learned there is so much potential there.
What advice do you have for small businesses with physical locations looking to move online or increase their online presence during this challenging time?
While it may seem intimidating, many vendors make it easy for you to offer their products online. By using their provided images and product descriptions, you can save so much time and get a website up and running in no time. I also can’t stress enough the importance of social media. Instagram has been a lifesaver for us and has helped us attract customers from all over the country. It’s important to be consistent with your posts and tag your vendors if they have a presence online. Many times they’ll share your posts with their followers, giving you exposure to a whole new audience. We also encourage our customers to post images of their purchases – this gives us content to post on our own feed.
What permanent effects will COVID-19 have on the brick and mortar store model? Any predictions?
Now that consumers and retailers are now well aware of their vulnerability, going forward I would expect for retailers to be transparent about what they are doing to keep everyone healthy. Retail environments will now have the expectation to be clean and allow room for personal space and this might mean seeing hand sanitizer pumps at store entrances and setting a maximum store capacity. Retailers should also expect a good percentage of their business to remain online. Social distancing has driven consumers to develop new habits that many aren’t eager to give up.
The Payability team is among some of Stay Forever’s best eCommerce customers.
Our Director of Marketing, Alison Sperling, bought two care packages for her sister-in-law, one for Mother’s Day, and another for her birthday.
“What I liked best was that I got to pick out a bunch of really nice items and it all came gift wrapped in one package. This felt safer because it would only require one trip to the mailbox. Instead of ordering similar products which would all arrive at different times and require multiple trips, it was a much better gift experience to send one beautiful gift wrapped package. Michelle provides wonderful gift wrapping and packaging. I was able to give my sister-in-law a special gift experience and maintain safety guidelines,” said Sperling.