Agility is one advantage to being a small business. Here’s how three savvy retailers sprang into action to get through the pandemic.
For dance stores during this pandemic, necessity has, indeed, been the mother of invention. Brick-and-mortar retailers forced to shut down have had to pivot and use imagination to preserve revenues while simultaneously navigating unprecedented safety restrictions.
Here, we share three inspiring examples of agile dance storeowners who didn’t let these new challenges defeat them. Instead, they got creative and quickly developed new ways to connect with—and sell to—their customers. Not only did these moves bolster their bottom lines during the shutdown, they also proved to be new sources of revenue with lasting potential.
Live Virtual Shopping Events
When Jennifer Velasquez shuttered her dance shop, Pointe of Joy, in Lima, OH, this spring, she spent the first two weeks quarantining at home—and worrying. But then she sprang into action. She suddenly realized the biannual livestreamed shopping events she typically held via Facebook Live during the holidays and recital season might have even more potential.
“When COVID hit, these events became a quick way to reach people,” says Velasquez. “They allowed people to stay connected to us, and to each other, and to shop locally.”
Velasquez began hosting the events weekly on Wednesday evenings, and she was astonished by the results. Not only were customers eager to participate, but she was exceeding her weekly sales goals in just a few hours. “It more than made up the difference from having the store closed,” she says. “I was shocked.” In fact, customer participation and sales doubled from the first week to the next, and she averaged between 20 and 30 participants per session.
Velasquez promotes the events primarily on social media, and while the bulk of participants are local existing customers, she has also reached some new shoppers from outside her immediate area.
To keep customers engaged from week to week, Velasquez builds her events around various themes, such as $25-and-under night, or product categories, such as face masks or leotards. The actual sales are structured like televised shopping shows (think HSN or QVC) but streamed to customers via Facebook Live. Velasquez hosts and talks about the products while relying on her dancer daughters to model the apparel. To streamline transactions, she took advantage of a free trial of CommentSold, which makes it easy to manage her inventory, send invoices and collect payments. For added convenience, she also offers curbside pickup and delivery within a 20-mile radius.
Even though Pointe of Joy was able to begin reopening this June, and Velasquez estimates that about 80 percent of her in-store traffic has returned, she continues to host the virtual events weekly, and she expects to continue doing so as long as they remain profitable.
Virtual Fitting Sessions
When Footlights Dance & Theatre Boutique shut down its three locations—in Frederick and Silver Spring, MD, and Alexandria, VA—on March 16, it quickly launched a variety of personalized services, including virtual shoe fittings and virtual shopping appointments.
Over 30 years in business, the store has built a strong reputation for quality pointe shoe fittings, so the owners were well-positioned to design a detailed, multistep procedure to safely translate the shoe-fitting experience to a virtual environment. “We require that customers have a safe place where they can try on shoes, such as an at-home barre,” says the store’s communication director, Molly Ellis. “And we don’t fit first-timers remotely—no exceptions.”
To begin the fitting process, each customer fills out a lengthy questionnaire, which they can access via the store’s website or social media. During the store’s initial consultations via video chat, “we run through the questionnaire responses,” says Ellis, “and we ask for photos of their feet in multiple positions, with and without their toe pads or other protective gear, and then their current shoes. We send between three and six pairs of shoes depending on if they want to try something new or love what they’ve been in but need a new size. Each time, there has been at least one pair that works.” When the store ships the shoes, it includes instructions asking the dancer not to open the box until they are video-conferencing with the store’s fitter—to ensure the integrity of the product and the dancer’s safety. Then the fitter runs through the same process as if the customer were in the store. “Overall, it takes about 15 minutes to actually complete the fitting,” says Ellis, “but it takes about a week for the full process of evaluation, partial payments and shipping time.”
Other virtual shopping experiences for apparel are a little more casual: The staff will either text photos and links for products that they think will suit the customer’s needs, or they’ll call the person on FaceTime and walk around the shop to show the products being considered. “It helps that we have most of our inventory available to purchase online, so it was easy to send photos and direct links for parents to shop from once they decided on a style they wanted,” says Ellis.
Though the stores still lost revenue during the prolonged shutdown, the virtual experiences have helped sustain the business to a certain degree and keep customers engaged. “Those who wanted to shop were excited,” says Ellis. “Everyone felt they were getting above and beyond personalized service, which they were, because we had no one to cater to in-store at that time.”
All three locations are now open, but Footlights still only offers by-appointment shopping (either in person or virtually) for the foreseeable future, so that it can adhere to local safety regulations about store capacity and employees can keep up the store’s expanded sanitizing efforts.
As the owners continue to navigate reopening, they plan to continue offering virtual assistance services for customers who are not comfortable shopping in person for as long as there is demand. “We’ve decided to keep virtual assistance as a staple for Footlights,” says Ellis. “We offer more availability now that we have some of our staff back. As we’ve reopened, virtual pointe shoe fitting demand has decreased, and we’re focusing more in-store.”
After 26 years of purely brick-and-mortar business, The Dance Bag, in Modesto, CA, launched an e-commerce site amid the pandemic shutdown. “We had to do something to try and keep business,” says owner Holly Bertucci.
Since Bertucci already uses the Lightspeed POS system in her store, she found it relatively straightforward to create an online shopping experience using the system’s e-commerce software. “It was easy to add their e-comm site to our existing informational website,” she says. Luckily, “most vendors have product pictures easily available, and we just added theirs” to visually showcase the store’s inventory.
According to Bertucci, the most challenging aspect of launching the site was adding detailed product descriptions and fit information. “We are very particular about how we fit all of our shoes, and trying to provide customers real information without giving out our company secrets was hard,” she says. “We can’t discount like some places, so providing exact fit information knowing that someone could take it and use it on a discounted site was hard for me.”
Bertucci also found it difficult to program the site to handle various sales-tax rates for different cities and towns. “Right now, we only allow California-based sales in order to comply with our resale licenses,” she says.
Once the site was up and running, Bertucci promoted it on Facebook, on Instagram and via e-mails to studio directors. To further entice customers, she offers flat-rate shipping and curbside pickup. “We had about 10 orders right away, within the first 24 hours,” she says. To drive more traffic, “we did our annual pointe shoe decorating contest via the website this year. It was so much work, but it drove people there to purchase and vote!”
Colleen Bohen is content director at a New York–based marketing firm and a freelance journalist. She formerly served as editor in chief of Dance Retailer News and managing editor of Dance Spirit.