Claudia Towles, owner of aMuse Toys in Fells Point, has never sold so many puzzles in such a short amount of time. Piecing pictures back together has become a sought-after way to pass the time as residents continue to stay at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Puzzle companies are actually overwhelmed with demand,” Towles said. In early April, she was able to get some in stock thanks to her strong relationship with vendors.
Before Gov. Larry Hogan announced the closure of non-essential businesses in mid-March, Towles decided to temporarily close her business for in-store shopping in an effort to keep the staff and community healthy.
Towles and staff decided to ramp up and retool the business, moving to online orders, curbside pickup and local deliveries.
“We’ve had an online presence, but it has never been our focus,” she said. “Our focus is more in-store experience. That’s where we felt we shine. We never really felt we could compete with (websites like Amazon) so we didn’t put too much effort into it. Well, fast forward to where we are now and we were like this is the only way people are going to be able to effectively shop with us throughout their day. We pooled resources, we retooled, acquired some new skill sets, our staff pivoted, we pivoted. We got our website to a point where it is very shoppable. (It) certainly doesn’t replace the in-store experience, but we made it easy for folks who wanted to (shop with us).”
The store also offer personalized shopping experiences over the phone in multiple ways, including FaceTime and Google Hangout. Towles notes they have been doing everything they can do to help people support them.
Towles’ store, as well as many others, have had to completely change the way they have done business in a short amount of time due to the pandemic.
“It’s what we do as business owners in order to survive,” she said. “We are constantly trying to innovate, but this change was certainly pushed upon us. It has been hard. It’s not our area of expertise. We are not web designers. Thankfully there are tools out there to make it easier. I joke with folks that I am working 10 times harder to make 10 times less, but that is OK. We are learning and we are serving our community, which is our primary focus.”
Maryland Secretary of Commerce Kelly Schulz said it has been inspiring to see how businesses have changed to meet customer demand and to provide help to their communities, including making masks and providing hand sanitizer to first responders.
She also knows this unprecedented time has been stressful for business owners and employees.
“We do understand their concerns and we are in the process of addressing all of those concerns,” Schulz said noting the state has a response team addressing thousands of matters a day. “(W)e understand that there is fear, but we also have to know that this is going to end. Everything that we have done up until now for the last month was to be able to make sure that this situation doesn’t go on longer than it needs to. We do not want to be in this for six months. We want to shorten the duration so that everybody can get back to business.”
In early April, Schulz said the Department of Commerce was looking at what will be needed before businesses can open back up to the public.
“We have put together a task force and advisory council to meet regularly via conference call to be able to go over what these industries, what their pain points are going to be so we can have a plan immediately in place when they are asked to reopen and go back to business,” she said.
The Department of Commerce received an overwhelming response to its COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund Programs for Businesses and stopped taking applications shortly after opening. There are several programs at the federal level that businesses should look into, including the Economic Injury Disaster Loan and the CARES Act, which provides payroll protection programs. County and local communities have also offered ways to help businesses.
“Sometimes it is a little bit frustrating to go through the process of applying for some of these government programs, but we highly recommend businesses do that,” Schulz said. “This could be the difference between keeping people on your payroll and making sure you have a workforce for when we go back into being open to the general public. (Residents are also reminded) to be patient and to be able to understand that this is a health crisis like we have never seen before in this country and to know that really everybody is on the side of getting everything back up and running.”
Providing a service
Emma Canoles of Emma’s Tea Spot initially temporarily closed the British hospitality business but reopened to do takeout orders. “We didn’t want to waste the food we had in store but also (we just wanted) to provide a service to the community,” she said.
Offering curbside pickup and delivery through GrubHub, the business has seen growth in usually slower areas such as gift cards and Brit Box customizable care packages, Canoles notes, saying those are now some of her most popular items. “That is good for the long run if we make it through to the other side,” she said. “It is probably going to help us overall. It’s been great really.”
Many have taken up gardening to pass the time, so Canoles began selling seedlings as an opportunity for folks to get outside and do some activities. Some of her most popular include cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots and sunflowers.
Canoles has been touched by her community. “They made an effort whether they needed it or not to make some kind of small order so that I knew that they had not forgotten me,” she said. “They did ring and email and make sure I was alright. Hamilton is a very supportive community. They were lovely. I got lots of gift cards on the first day. … Everybody seems like they have a positive mental attitude and I am just really proud to be a part of that.”
|This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Women Who Lead: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Women Who Lead (formerly Path to Excellence) magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Women Who Lead.|