By Holly Whisler

Small retail boutiques are known for carrying unique and one-of-a-kind items. They are not typically known for selling online to a mass market, but that does not mean they cannot be successful doing so when a pandemic causes an economic shutdown, for example.

Elizabeth “Liz” Eckert, owner of Bella Boutique, 2805 West White Oaks Dr., called the store’s online sales success during the stay-at-home order an “odd blessing.” According to Eckert, “The power of social media changed the way we operate.” While Bella Boutique had an existing online store, it was not doing much volume prior to the shutdown. It was only when Eckert turned to social media in a new way that she saw remarkable online sales happen.

“Once COVID hit, I knew we had to do something drastic,” Eckert said. She built up the online store, created Instagram stories and hosted live events on Facebook. She said, “I saw the most reaction from Facebook Live events, so I put all of my energy into that.” She was amazed to see 700 comments and people of all generations interacting with a Facebook Live event. Eckert said engaging with customers in that way is unique to social media platforms and rewarding in a way she never expected.
Bella Boutique used the existing online store and social media to thrive during a time when many small businesses were suffering. Eckert said, “The thought of shutting down was scary, but connecting virtually has been so much fun, and we’ve gained new customers. If we can get through this, we can get through anything.” She also said that the “local support has been incredible.”

Jessica Kocurek, owner of Willow & Birch Salon and Willow & Birch Boutique, had some of the same sentiments as Eckert. Kocurek said, “We were doing some business online prior to COVID, but 80% of business was limited when COVID shut the salon down.” As more states began to close, Kocurek could “see the writing on the wall” and began photographing inventory to post in the online store. Since the salon and boutique had an existing online shopping platform, she was able to immediately put it to use.

Kocurek turned to her existing customer base and started connecting virtually on Instagram and Facebook, letting her clients know how much they were appreciated. Kocurek said, “It totally changed our entire marketing strategy. The goal is usually to find new customers, but instead, we were connecting with existing customers in new ways.”

For example, Willow & Birch was already known for puzzles; people put puzzles together while in the waiting room and the finished puzzles are hung on the wall. Kocurek said, “Just because the salon was closed did not mean the puzzle thing had to be put on hold.” She ordered plenty of puzzles and used social media to encourage people to post pictures of the puzzles they finished at home. It was a big hit.

Kocurek also had great success using social media to promote things that “fit the times,” such as root powder for colored hair and skin care routines. She posted pictures of herself in the car delivering orders. What would have been an in-store event, such as Why Not Wednesday, became a live Facebook event. Kocurek also sold items on Instagram but said the main source of revenue was through the online store.

Kocurek said, “The support was overwhelming. People bought gift certificates, shampoo and every little thing.” She continued, “Our clientele is used to a personalized experience. I tried to make an online purchase as personal as when they are in our store. We were able to open stronger than when we closed.”

All of this success would not have been possible without the modern miracle of e-commerce, and small retail businesses are increasingly looking to add or upgrade their ability to offer online sales.

When asked how long it might take a small business to get an e-commerce platform up and running, Mark Roberts, founder of GoWeb1, a digital branding, marketing and web solutions company, said, “It can range from being online quickly within a day to a couple of months, depending on whether a business wants a custom platform or a pre-defined template.”

Roberts said since the pandemic caused many businesses in Illinois to close, the demand for e-commerce platforms has increased significantly.

“Before COVID, we were seeing a natural, organic move toward this process. But, with the pandemic and stores having to close, we have seen a large demand because stores wanted to give their customers an online shopping option,” he said.

Roberts also assisted other small businesses during the shutdown in another way. Within a few days of the stay-at-home order for Illinois, GoWeb1 and sister company, Alerts Made Easy, built the website to help businesses and organizations quickly communicate their operational status to the public. Businesses can note whether they are open with modifications (such as lobby closed, accepting teleconference meetings, etc.) and restaurants can include additional notes about delivery or takeout options.

Roberts said he and his team donated their services to offer a free tool to help businesses and organizations in Sangamon County.

Jeff Enlow, director of LRS Web Solutions, said the company has also seen a similar increase in demand for e-commerce sites, and he described recent events as an awakening of sorts. Enlow said, “When suddenly your customers disappear because you had to close the doors to your business due to a pandemic, it really shines a light on the importance of your website.”

In order to be prepared going forward, Enlow said, “Your website needs to be a core part of your business. Make a commitment to your web presence. Use all channels, including social media, website and search engine marketing. Repurpose content across all channels.” He emphasized that businesses have to work to attract customers to their website and online store just like they would for a brick-and-mortar store.

Local businesses have proven their ability to pivot quickly in a crisis, put their resources to work and be better for having weathered the storm.

Holly Whisler is a freelance writer who lives in Springfield.