Taking the E-Commerce Plunge—No Better Time Than Now

With their stores closed, dance retailers are focusing on staying connected with their customers and their local studios and getting down to rainy-day tasks they didn’t have time for before. If you’ve always meant to start or upgrade your store’s online selling, here’s how three storeowners did it.

Interior shot of Attitude Dance Boutique in College Station, TX, with color-blocked racks of leotards at back, and a display of classic black on table at front.
Attitude Dance Boutique, in College Station, TX. Courtesy of Emily Mayerhoff

“I’m not going to panic; I’m not going to just close my doors and wait it out,” says Emily Mayerhoff, owner of the nine-year-old Attitude Dance Boutique in College Station, TX. “It,” of course, is the state-mandated closure of non-essential businesses in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. “I’m going to fight for my business’ survival,” she says—and encourages other dance retailers to do likewise.

For Mayerhoff, that means capitalizing on downtime to build on the knowledge she has gained from three years of e-commerce experience. As soon as the shutdown went into effect, she created a Google Doc outlining all the “rainy-day” tasks she wants to complete to improve her online sales and their related social-media efforts.

Time for an E-commerce Tune-Up

Before the shutdown, Mayerhoff had already conquered one of the big challenges small brick-and-mortar sellers face with online sales: She integrated her point-of-sale (POS) system with her website so that inventory is tracked in real time no matter where the sale takes place. Her POS of choice is the iPad-based ShopKeep, while her e-commerce site is hosted by BigCommerce. In 2017, the two cloud-based tech companies entered into a partnership that integrated their services, a fortunate development for Mayerhoff.

Among the key tasks that Mayerhoff has outlined for herself is verifying all her in-store inventory, itemizing all storage bins and making sure everything matches her online listings. She plans to edit all her website product descriptions and check that the photos supplied by manufacturers are accurate. More than half of Attitude’s inventory is available online. Over the three years that Mayerhoff has pursued e-commerce, she’s learned that it’s the more exclusive fashion lines that draw sales, not the basics.

Two items from the online sales pages of Attitude Dance Boutique showing fashion leotards
Storeowner Emily Mayerhoff has found that fashion sells better than basics in her online store.

“Now is the time to look into getting online,” she advises other retailers. “Do your homework on this part of growing your business. It’s not that time-consuming. Anybody can do it, especially if you start small. Find a category that you’re comfortable selling right now: shoes, plushes, jewelry, training tools.”

She doesn’t plan on posting a lot of Attitude’s new products at the moment, however. “I don’t feel comfortable saying essentially, ‘Look at what you can’t buy right now.’” Instead, she plans to encourage customer interaction by offering a gift certificate for the best photos uploaded from online classes where Attitude is tagged. She’s working on planning other social-media campaigns and back-to-school e-mails. She will post links to printable activity sheets and online classes and is making lists of dance movies and musicals that stay-at-home families can watch together.

Instagram post from Attitude Dance Boutique, thanking their "studio friends."
Instagram is one way Attitude Dance Boutique stays in touch with her local dance studios.

She has been in touch with all the local dance studios to show them support and to offer them $5 gift certificates to award to their students during the shutdown. All of the studio owners took her up on it, she reports.

Mayerhoff sees initiating or improving your online presence as an investment in the future: “Our turn will come on the other side of this. Getting online now is the perfect way to get ready for your turn.”

Deepening Customer Relationships

Like Mayerhoff, Josephine Lee, owner of six-year-old The Pointe Shop with stores in Santa Ana and Oakland, CA, is focused less on online sales right now with her stores under state-mandated closures and more on staying connected to customers and keeping her four-person staff employed. Her three mobile fitting units (stocked with 300 or more shoes) that would normally be visiting schools and retailers are idled, too.

Instagram post showing Josephine Lee, owner of The Pointe Shop, going live with a Nikolay pointe shoe fitting session
Through The Pointe Shop’s online store, customers can make appointments for fittings online and, once they’re fitted, reorder their shoes. For now, though, “it’s more important to collect karma than to collect money,” says owner Josephine Lee.

“At this point, it’s more important to collect karma than to collect money,” Lee says. Her first community-outreach effort was to create a free online dance class with her staff, all of whom, like Lee herself, are former professional dancers or trained at the pre-professional level. “I want to keep my employees excited and engaged,” she adds. She streamed the class they created on her Instagram feed and drew about 1,000 attendees. She’s considering archiving it on YouTube, but is sensitive about not impinging on studios’ paying online classes; she’s also promoting the studios’ paid classes on her social-media platforms.

The Pointe Shop sells only pointe shoes, and normally its Shopify-driven website is used mostly for booking appointments. Once personally fitted, though, a dancer can reorder via Lee’s online store. But “we’re not really pushing sales at this point,” she says. “We still have some orders we’re shipping, but it’s definitely on a decline.”

A few years back, Lee spent less than an hour setting up her first online store. “It took me like 30 minutes,” she says. “I didn’t have any experience with building websites before, but these platforms are very simple to use, very intuitive.” Shopify, which is designed specifically for creating retail sites, can be configured to be a complete retail ecosystem, meaning that you can buy various modules and accessories to create an iPad-based POS that includes a card reader and register and manages inventory in your physical and online stores, as well as shipping, marketing and finance, among other functions. Lee, for example, opted to add an appointment-booking app, SignUpGenius. 

Making New Alliances

Roshawn Buxton, owner of Ro's Dance Closet, talking to her customers via Instagram.
Roshawn Buxton, owner of Ms. Ro’s Dance Closet, is staying connected to her customers through social media.

Roshawn Buxton, owner of the eight-year-old Ms. Ro’s Dance Closet in College Park, GA, launched her online shop three years ago. Like Mayerhoff and Lee, she plans to use her downtime for a combination of sharpening her Shopify-driven e-commerce efforts and doing more community outreach. “If I can help other small, local black-owned businesses, I will,” says Buxton. “This is something I’ve been wanting to do, but it’s always been secondary.” For example, she’s hoping to add Ballet Café’s full color range of flesh-toned tights to her website.

In addition, her to-do list includes connecting her Instagram and her online store; brainstorming how to create a profitable subscription-based shopping club; and developing an ambassador program for her young dance customers. Buxton also runs a nonprofit, Permission to Fly, for dancers with rare medical conditions, and she plans to strategize on how to get into more schools with her motivational message.

Tips to Getting Started Selling Online

Start small and stay focused. Although you may have time on your hands now, you still want to create an e-commerce site that’s not time-consuming to maintain over the long haul. Consider the number of products you want to list. Although it’s easy to upload product images, each one needs to be placed individually via click and select or drag and drop. (Most vendors make high-quality images available to their retailers, so you don’t need to spend time and money shooting your own catalog-page images.) Information fields you will need to fill on product images include entries for SKU, bar code, variants (i.e., sizes, colors), price and taxes, and shipping info. 

Shopify’s cheapest package—Basic Shopify—goes for $29 a month and takes 2.9 percent of each online sale, plus 30 cents in transaction fees, unless you use its proprietary payment system. If you use Shopify Payments, the company waives all transaction fees. There are free tutorials from Shopify itself on its website (and 24/7 support once you’ve signed up) or a paid 90-minute course on lynda.com. (Some public libraries are offering select lynda.com courses free; check your local library system to see if it does.)

Shopify’s articles and videos cover everything from search-engine optimization to sales analytics. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t have the patience to sort through all the details yourself, enlist some help to get you started. You can find a Shopify Setup Expert in your area via Shopify’s site, although hiring an expert entails a minimum of $500 and can run considerably more. 

Mirror your store experience in your e-commerce persona. Another reason to start with a modest effort is to avoid damaging your brick-and-mortar store’s reputation by overpromising and underdelivering. If you are known for your friendly, customer-focused approach, reflect that on your website. Emphasize your ties to the local community and your relationships with neighborhood studios and educational institutions. If you and your staff have dance backgrounds, create an “About Us” page to build your credibility—anything that makes your story unique and relatable.

Support your online sales with social media. The enforced break is also a good time to explore established social-media platforms fully and familiarize yourself with the newest: TikTok.

As a general rule, you can find dance moms and dads on Facebook and cultivate young dancers on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. “Most teens are buying online,” says Buxton. “That’s why Ms. Ro’s needs to be online.” Since her customers are primarily teens, she’s been focusing on Instagram: “It reaches a different generation.” She recently made her first foray into TikTok, with her daughter wearing a Ms. Ro outfit in her dance video.

While exploring social media, check out studios, competitions and schools in your community and see if you can establish reciprocal links with their websites and tag them in your social-media efforts when appropriate. Plot out a calendar for your social-media efforts for the rest of the year and write and store posts for later release via a dashboard such as Hootsuite.

The Bottom Line

Although it may be an unwanted gift, if you use your gift of time wisely, you will be better prepared for what’s to come. As Mayerhoff says, “I think that we’re all going to be very busy once we come through this thing.”

Anne M. Russell, based in Los Angeles, covers technology, small business and fitness.