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Under pandemic pressure, this Chestertown small business designed a new future

Some of the merchandise on sale at Walnut & Wool in Chestertown. Owner Samantha Owner added a home design service to keep her business going. (Submitted Photo)

Some of the merchandise on sale at Walnut & Wool in Chestertown. Owner Samantha Owner added a home design service to keep her business going. (Submitted Photo)

Before the pandemic, Samantha Arrow regularly refinished and staged custom furniture at her Chestertown gift shop, vintage clothing and furniture store known as Walnut & Wool.

But when a customer asked her to come out to her house and offer styling tips, Arrow recognized the need for design consults in the area and kick-started a business that is helping her ride out the pandemic.

“People would say something as simple as. ‘I wish you could come out to my house and just tell me to move this over here or move that there,’” Arrow said. “I was like ‘well, I can definitely do that.’”

Amid the uncertain economy, Arrow diversified her business model by opening an interior design service in conjunction with her retail front, an example of how many small businesses are scrambling to reinvent themselves to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not that it was easy.

This March, as the shutdown began, Arrow was also coping with a complete takeover of her lease and business, after her partner –– who ran the gift and decor shop –– closed down.

“It’s almost paralyzing,” said Arrow of this year’s shutdown. “What do you do? It’s unlike any situation we’ve had to deal with as a business.”

Arrow also had some help.

Garrett Glover, a retail and restaurant industries management consultant at the Maryland Small Business Development Center, helped Arrow manage the transition and rethink her brand during COVID-19.

They initially began working together in September 2019 through the center’s Business Improvement, Retention and Expansion Program, which works with small businesses.

At the time, Arrow had recently merged her custom furniture design and vintage clothing business with the gift shop, known as She She on High, after slowly testing out the market.

As customers stopped frequenting the store last March, Glover recommended bringing the product to them; the interior design element extended the custom furniture service already offered in-house, he said.

“Because of her sense of style and flair for entertainment, every direction you tell her to go, it’s going to be absolutely breathtaking,” Glover said.

When working with clients, Glover asks the business owners to identify profit centers they can exploit and leverage to maintain revenue, which can change from season to season.

For Arrow, those centers include the brick-and-mortar retail store, newly added design consultations, and custom furniture refinishing.

“They’re not meant to be a knee-jerk pivot to a stimulus but an overriding, methodical diversification,” Glover said.

This Christmas Arrow focused on the gift shop, stocking up on comfy clothing and accessories like velvet headbands and earrings for Zoom meetings. She also sold more customized furniture as stuck-at-home workers looked to freshen up their interiors.

Arrow charges an initial fee to drive out to someone’s house for a design consultation, which includes the first-hour walkthrough and a follow-up email equipped with notes, ideas discussed, and potential samples.

Customers can work on their own or hire her to find and design pieces typically sourced from auctions and estate sales.

“It fits a lot of different budgets instead of hiring an interior designer to do everything for them,” Arrow said.

For example, one client hired Arrow to design an addition that doubled as a TV room and playroom. They wanted something that looked chic but grown-up with added storage.

While COVID-19 forced Arrow to rethink her brand, she diversified from the get-go by offering vintage clothing items and accessories in a market with limited options.

“Being in a small town it’s harder to sell just one specialized thing,” Arrow said. “We have a ton of weekenders and they’re not going to necessarily buy a dresser, but they will buy clothing or gifts.”

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One comment

  1. Samantha got it right when she said “We have a ton of weekenders and they’re not going to necessarily buy a dresser, but they will buy clothing or gifts.” You have got to know and understand your customer and tailor your product line to them.

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