How to Keep Your Retail Brand in Front of Customers in a Pandemic Economy

Grit & Grace lives up to its name, serving customers with imagination and generosity in a deeply challenging season.

Stephanie Carney, a blonde woman in gray jacket and T-shirt, in front of the store she owns: Grit & Grace.
Stephanie Carney, owner of Grit & Grace, Studio to Streetwear, in front of her store in Newnan, GA. Photo by Emmie Sellers

How does a business deemed “nonessential” during COVID-19 closures stay connected to its customers and also move merchandise? We talked to dance retailer Stephanie Carney, owner of Grit & Grace Studio to Streetwear, to find out how she’s adapting. 

Carney’s store is located in the historic downtown of Newnan, GA, an area full of shops, restaurants and events. Over the last five years, she’s turned it into a dance hub. At 1,900 square feet, her eclectic boutique has room for plenty of community engagement, which is at the heart of this dance retailer’s business strategy. Until now, community-building occasions mostly happened at the store: quarterly Pilates classes, personal portraits at holidays, participation in block parties with entertainment and promotions, cross-marketing with neighboring businesses, as well as fundraisers, scholarship contests and free annual physical therapy appointments for customers. 

When in-store experiences become prohibited, or restricted, what’s to be done? It’s one thing to plan for a rainy day, but a pandemic has no script. Carney has adapted by developing marketing and selling ideas that mirror her store’s core brand values of community, customer service, education and philanthropy. And she’s leveraged social media to inspire, motivate, encourage, inform—and sell some product. 

Facing the Crisis

When Grit & Grace closed to in-store customers on March 13, most of its back-to-school orders were already in, and payments were due. Like many dance retailers, “we do our ordering for back-to-school and for recitals and summer intensives in January and February, and shipments arrived a week or two before the shutdown happened,” says Carney. Many storeowners have asked vendors for delayed billing, but Carney decided to pay her suppliers. “We need our vendors to be surviving as well,” she says.

Grit & Grace is located in the historic downtown of Newnan, GA. Photo by Emmie Sellers

Grit & Grace applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but that yielded no result. Still, thanks to cash reserves, Carney has been able to keep up with her operating expenses and rent. The store has a small staff of three, whom she’s kept working intermittently to process back orders and now brings in to help customers who arrange private shopping appointments. She’s not calling in teenage part-timers for now.

Carney, who makes a practice of setting aside money “for a rainy day,” recommends that every business have an emergency fund to cover six to eight months of expenses, “like you would do for your own home.” A follower of personal-money management expert Dave Ramsey, she’s tried to apply his principles for families, like building an emergency fund and reducing debt, to her business. “That is what has saved me,” she says.

Consider First What Customers Need

After the store closed and sales virtually came to a standstill—and then even a few months into the shutdown—simply shifting to online shopping was not the answer for Carney. “Many retailers were reluctant to sell at all in the beginning, even online, since they understood their customers were in emergency mode, trying not to get sick or die, and then more began to lose their jobs,” she says. As always, she considered what her clientele needed. Sales mattered, but she also wanted to supply her customers with a sense of receiving benefits in challenging times. Her initiatives include giveaways, online dance activities and creative strategies to keep manufacturers’ brands in front of customers, even when they can’t come to the store. Present profit margins can be slim—even through May, weekly sales were half of what they’d been in normal times—but the tactics, which often include coupons, are designed to bring customers back later in the season.

Remain Relevant With Social

These community initiatives reach customers on social media, primarily Instagram (2,000-plus followers) and Facebook, and via the store’s customer e-mail data base. Grit & Grace has always used its platforms to announce proud customer moments, as well as sales and promotions. A marketing tagline that expresses the philosophy of Carney’s outreach—“Together, with our grit and grace, we can make a difference”—is just as relevant now, often with an added “shelter-in-place” element. Some examples:

Giveaways and Contests: At the beginning of the shutdown, Grit & Grace ran 14 days of giveaways to bring its dance community together online and to provide something to look forward to. The promotions on Instagram responded to the life adjustments of the pandemic in an upbeat way. For instance, a handwashing contest invited followers to post videos of themselves, in a dance outfit, washing and singing, with the performer garnering the most likes winning a $25 gift certificate. Another contest gave away training tools.

Coupons: From mid-March to the end of April, Carney offered a $10 customer-appreciation coupon for every phone order, to be redeemed July 15 to September 30 for back-to-school.

Online Dance Classes: The store shared livestreamed technique and exercise classes from its vendors, such as Nikolay or Russian Pointe, which featured ballet stars and soloists, or from professional companies in the region like Montgomery Ballet. 

Dance Competitions: Grit & Grace promoted a virtual dance competition offered by vendor Só Dança, which engaged dancers stuck at home while also providing some co-branding for Grit & Grace.

Spotlighting Vendors: In fact, Carney has turned the appreciation light on her vendors whenever possible. For instance, she shared Russian Pointe’s Insta invitation to “#ShareTheRPLove during RP Month” by inviting customers to post a photo with a Russian Pointe product and then tag it with both @russianpointebrand and the name of a local retailer.  

Education: Teaching best practices, always an aspect of Grit & Grace’s customer service, continues during sheltering in place with livestreamed talks on gear and technique from experts, such as master pointe-shoe fitter Leanne Bisson in a Nikolay “Meet the Retailer” event. 

Banding Together With Fellow Retailers and Local Studios

The Grit & Grace brand identity has always incorporated outreach to customers, but also to the greater dance community and to the town and neighboring businesses. This was no time to slow down, Carney felt. In early April, the store banded together with fellow dance retailers on an Instagram post to create a shared message of encouragement as reality began to settle in. She also joined with three other dance stores to produce a special “Social DisDancing 2020” T-shirt; a portion of sales went back to purchasers’ home studios. As some studios began online dance classes and, now, as they look forward to reopening, she shares their news on the store’s Facebook page. Similarly, she’s been supporting her town: promoting “shop local” with fellow shopkeepers in Newnan and participating in a food pantry, donating food for backpack-type meals for kids out of school who may not otherwise get lunch. 

Encouraging—and Enabling—Sales

Package from Grit & Grace on doormat of porch with two cute dogs on the other side of the windowed door.
Sometimes there’s a friendly welcome when Grit & Grace makes a porch delivery. Photo courtesy of Grit & Grace

To survive, of course, a store must ultimately move the merchandise that it has in its inventory. Carney has been working to do that on various fronts, although purchases remain low. Here are some of her tactics.

Bundles: As a parent, Carney recognized kids’ need for something productive and creative to do. So she and her team assembled kits for young dancers. The Sleeping Beauty Pointe Shoe Decorating Kits, in three themes inspired by the fairy godmothers, comes with a $10 back-to-dance gift card. Several dozen sold. And she plans to do product bundles for back-to-school at a special price.

Porch Delivery: To assure quick, contactless delivery, Carney has provided dozens of front-porch drop-offs to customers needing some essentials or a little dance pick-me-up. Included: a $10 gift certificate to use during back-to-school. 

Shopping by Appointment: In May, Carney introduced a “Private Shopping Experience,” promoting it on Instagram with incentives like discounts, gift with purchase and Insta photo ops with some customers modeling new product.

What’s Next

Carney reopened Grit & Grace in early June. For now, 10 people at a time are allowed in the store and, for the time being, it will operate with modified hours and days. She’s also continuing private shopping for customers who prefer that. Appointments have worked well, eliciting a better response than anticipated, and, as Carney observes, “25 percent off is getting them in the door.” The store’s fifth-anniversary celebrations are on hold until the moment seems right, says Carney. “The in-person events I’d planned won’t work right now.” 

The Bottom Line

The pandemic economy has opened her eyes to how dependent she is on other businesses and their choices, Carney says. So much hinges on studios and the school districts—and her future depends on dance studios being open. “It’s been devastating,” she says. Some studios are not opening for summer, and one has closed down. “If people don’t have classes and they don’t need dancewear, then they don’t need my services.” Waiting to find out if kids are returning to school is excruciatingly hard for all, including retailers, but Grit & Grace will continue to innovate. “We’re changing how we do things on a daily basis, coming back slower and modifying our business plan to reflect that,” says Carney. “I’m in it for the long haul.”

Charlotte Barnard is a writer living in New York City who often reports on retail trends, design and branding.