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Women-owned small businesses work overtime to attract customers in new COVID era


Claudia Towles

Claudia Towles, owner of aMuse Toys, made the adjustment to bring its customers’ hands-on, in-store experience and inventory online by adding a chat feature where patrons could talk with staff and a Matterport 3D camera so folks can virtually walk through the store.

There is a sign outside aMuse Toys that states “You buy local or say goodbye to local.” Owner Claudia Towels notes the sign sums up how critical it is for folks to spend their money at small, locally owned businesses this holiday season — not at big box stores.

“Many of us business owners are ever the optimists because otherwise if we weren’t I think we would not be able to get up out of bed every morning but we are getting tired,” she said. “What is keeping us going is people coming in saying ‘I care about you. I want you to be here.’ (They) are saying that but we need to see it to a scale that has never been present before. We need everyone. No purchase is too small.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, small businesses including those owned by women have faced shut downs, changing regulations and making large adjustments to their stores in order to continue to serve customers.

One of the biggest pivots aMuse made was moving their hands-on, in-store experience and inventory online. They added a chat feature where patrons could talk with staff to discuss product questions and the purchasing process. They used a Matterport 3D camera so folks could virtually walk through the store.

“That was a great success because for us when you walk into aMuse, it is about the experience of communicating with someone who is knowledgeable about the product,” Towels said.  You don’t necessarily need to know what you want. We will guide you.”

They also offered personal shopping appointments via FaceTime with clients.

“We were throwing everything at the situation that we could,” she said. “… Trying to stay relevant for people. Our biggest concern was that people would get into a habit of ordering online from some of the bigger places and we would lose relevance because, you know, people get comfortable and get used to doing something a certain way and if it is easy enough then why change it, right? For us, it was more than being profitable or cash flow, it was about staying relevant to customers and hopefully keeping us in their every day or every week or whatever habit they had. Not letting them go somewhere else.”

The Baltimore-based store is open seven days a week. They are allowed to have 12 patrons in the store at a time but have capped the number at five. In addition to cleaning the store every day, there is hand sanitizer available as well as contactless payment options. Patrons may also shop online, call them to submit orders or set up private appointment shopping experiences.

“We are working to see what we can do and how we can make things easy and seamless for people, obviously creating the least amount of obstacles for people to shop with us safely and keeping things as straight forward as possible and communicating via social media what we are getting in so if there is something of interest, people can call us and we can hold on to things for them,” Towels said.

Mango + Main was an online store up until last year when owner Shannon Riesenfeld opened a brick and mortar shop in Downtown Annapolis. When the shutdown occurred, the company shifted back to its online presence. Riesenfeld brought home inventory and proceeded to do online sales from her home.

The store has reopened to include curbside pick up and offering free delivery in the Annapolis area for orders over $50. With hand sanitizer on site, they offer contactless checkout options. They are not accepting cash at this time.

“Everything that is in our shop is also on our website,” Riesenfeld said. “We do a lot of social media so a lot of people will shop through Instagram or Facebook and we are constantly posting new products and videos there. … We are just trying to give people the opportunity to shop online because that is probably the safest thing to do.”

This year, small businesses are faced with a decrease in the amount of people that are coming to their shops yet they still must pay rent and their employees. “As it has gotten easier for people to shop online, I think people are tending to shop on Amazon or Target online or Wal-Mart online but small businesses are just trying to hang on to their locations and pay the rent. I think it is going to be really important for people to try to support those businesses online as much as they can if they have websites. Hopefully they will think of us before going to Amazon.”

Poppy & Stella owner Kelley Heuisler considers herself lucky that her company already had an online store in place when the pandemic forced in person closures. The business still had to make major changes.

“Like most small businesses, we have had to rebuild a lot of the components of our business and pivot and reinvent ourselves in a way that I never thought we could or would in the past,” she said.

At the beginning of the year, there were four store locations — two in Fells Point, one in Ellicott City and one in Catonsville. Opened 13 years ago, the business was originally focused on shoes and accessories.

“This year has proven that people aren’t buying shoes in a pandemic because they aren’t going anywhere,” Heuisler said. “What was once 95% of my business is now probably less than 5% so we’ve had to restructure to make up that loss of revenue. So now we focus more on apparel and on gifts and homegoods way more than we ever did before. That is what our customers are looking for. They are home. They are still wanting to feel cute and comfortable on their Zoom meetings every day so that makes sense to us. They want to reach out to friends and family that they don’t see so we do a lot of gift boxes which have proven to be really successful for us. We have really had to pivot and transition our business.”

Three of the stores have reopened while the fourth in Catonsville will remain closed until the pandemic is over. Heuisler has been using the store as a shipping base for online orders. In addition to sanitizing, they are limiting the number of customers to three at a time which is well below their 25% occupancy allowance. They are also doing curbside pick up, delivery options as well as offering private shopping hours.

“We are just doing everything we can to try and make sure we are keeping everyone safe,” she said.

Heuisler chats with small business owners often. “Every single one of us are in survival mode,” she said. “There is not a single small business that I know of personally that is thriving through this and that is doing better in 2020 than they’ve done in 2019.”

Government assistance like PPP loans helped but that assistance was designed to only last three to six months. In December, the pandemic will enter its ninth month. Cases are now skyrocketing to record numbers daily and Congress remains bitterly divided on an additional stimulus relief package.

“To keep ourselves and our staff and our customers safe, we can’t have the big Black Friday, Small Business Saturday events and sales that we once did and would help keep us going through January and February,” Heuisler said. “We really need all of the assistance we can get from our customers.”

When asked if she has plans for her business for 2021, Heuisler said she did not because the pandemic has proven that the world is constantly changing.

“As a small business owner, you are having to constantly think of today and tomorrow and so the long term planning has really been put on the back burner at least for me,” she said. “I know that is not the case for everybody. I genuinely don’t know if my business is going to be here in the spring so I am trying to focus on today and one day at a time and how can I survive today. I am really hopeful that 2021 is going to prove to be a much better year and that we can see some actual growth and some thriving that we are always trying to attain. Right now I am in a one day at a time mentality and I think that has been crucial to get us through this time.”

Every time a customer supports her shop, Heuisler does a little happy dance. “Because that just gets me one step closer to surviving this pandemic as a business,” she said. “We pour all of ourselves into our businesses, into our communites to better serve our customers and our communities and if we are not here? It makes me really sad to think of the thought of Fells Point with no small business or Ellicott City with no small businesses. It just would not have the charm and charisma that it has now. I am really hopeful that people will be able to step up and help get us through that. I know it is hard right now for a lot of people but we are all just doing the best we can.”

Women Who Lead 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.