by Dakota Whitworth August 26, 2020

It is wild to think it has been 6 months since our world changed in the face of the coronavirus - so much has happened in that span of time, and it feels to me like the climate is still changing all the time. When our world first shut down in March, despite the fear and darkness surrounding us, I was so heartened by the way communities rallied around small businesses, and how we came together to support and look out for each other. It seems like a lifetime ago that we were first scrambling to buy gift cards from our favorite neighborhood spots and learning how to support the stores we love as they shifted to curbside pickup and delivery. There is no doubt that the ways businesses have adapted during this time is inspiring, and that many of these adaptations are here to stay, even once the pandemic is in our rearview mirror. As some of our lives have begun to open back up, it feels like a good time to circle back to the conversation of how small businesses are struggling, and share a little bit of our story of how we are surviving in such a weird time.

Harper & Tucker first closed for in-store shopping on March 15. At the time, we had no idea how long the closure would last, but we had the ominous feeling that it would be longer than the month or two we hoped for. For years, Natalie and I have been teased many times for being "in each other's heads," and we know from working together every day that we are almost always immediately on the same page. In this crisis, we had the same reaction to shift all of our energy immediately into harperandtucker.com. We had been talking for over a year about wanting to grow and focus energy on our online store, but working every day at two shops kept us so busy that often prioritizing the website just didn't happen. This was the push we needed to put everything we had into the website, so we did. 

It soon became clearer that this pandemic was going to go on for months, not weeks. We came to terms with the fact that if we wanted to keep our business sustainable long term in the new climate, where in-store shopping was not guaranteed, we had to consolidate and downsize our brick and mortar operations. We permanently closed our Providence shop almost exactly a year to the day from when it first opened. We moved our entire operation to our newly built-out Newport boutique at 146 Bellevue, and hunkered down for the long haul - saddened by what was going on, but also hopeful that these changes would actually make our business stronger on the other side of it all. Eventually, Rhode Island began to gradually reopen sections of the economy with safety precautions for each industry. There was still so much uncertainty, and we were faced with a new challenge - do we try to open our Newport shop, and fundamentally change the experience we normally strive to give our shoppers? Or do we continue forward, foraging this familiar yet new path online, that would guarantee the safety of our community? We came to the conclusion that even if we went to great lengths to follow every precaution possible to bring customers back inside the store, we were not confident that everyone would be safe beyond the shadow of a doubt.

The nature of our business is intimate at its core - we invite you into our little haven like an old friend, we chat, sometimes we have a drink, we pick out things we think you'll like, we want you to feel all the beautiful things to get to know the fabrics and threads, you pick out the pieces you love, you try them on, you come out so we can talk together about what does and doesn't work. It is so much fun for us - we hope by the end of your visit, we are friends, and when you come back, we get to know each other even more. We found it hard to imagine this experience with hand sanitizer or gloves, with barriers in between us at the cash wrap. We tried to understand how you could try clothing on safely, if it would even be possible to do it while keeping a mask undisturbed. We imagined steaming (thus disinfecting) every piece of clothing between each pair of hands it passed through. Even if we could make it work, even if we could do it one person at a time by appointment, we knew it would mean spending sometimes an hour or more with each person in an enclosed space where it would be difficult to maintain 6 feet of distance, and based on all the science we were reading, we questioned if even that was safe when one of us could be asymptotically harboring an airborne illness. The only thing we knew for sure is that we could not live with the idea of getting a customer, an employee, or one of our family members sick. Not when we had such faith that this would not be forever, and that we could provide our store shopping experience in a new way in that interim. And on a lighter note, we also knew that all of these rules were so the antithesis of how we do things at Harper & Tucker - we don't want to have to tell you how you can come in, how you have to try things on (yes you can do this, no you can't do that, excuse me please pay mind to this). Instead of adding a bunch of rules to try to salvage some of our usual experience, we thought it would be so much easier, and so much more fun to create a new experience entirely for you while we wait for a vaccine. 

That new experience meant moving the shopping experience online, and beginning same-day home delivery within Rhode Island. We have always wanted to create a website that was unique, that brought the experience and service of our brick and mortar boutique to the realm of online shopping. We already felt we were doing that, but we had to communicate to our local followers that they could shop the same curated selection that they love in the boutique at harperandtucker.com. We understood that it was hard for some people to imagine buying before trying on, or feeling the clothing, or having all of that intimate in-person shopping experience that we know and love. This is still a hurdle for some, and we understand. But the best we could think to do, is offer to bring the clothing directly to them, hand delivered contact-free by Natalie or me, and even come back to pick up any returns, or swap out exchanges for different sizes or styles. We changed the experience from you coming into our boutique, to bringing the fruits of the boutique and all of our services to you. Instead of shop keepers, these days we are couriers, and to be honest, it's been a fun change of pace in some moments! Of course, for everyone outside of RI, we continued all of our shipping services, but expanded our styling options - now, you can book a virtual shopping appointment no matter if you are down the street or across the globe.

As the summer has worn on, I'll be candid with you, sticking to this decision has been both rewarding and challenging. It's been rewarding because as we see our online efforts pay off, we just get more excited about the potential for harperandtucker.com to continue to grow. To see our online customers and sales in relation to last year gives us so much hope. It has been energizing to dig deep into our mission, to launch new initiatives like our rewards program and Potter League partnership, to hone and refine our curation, discover new designers, and position H&T for the future, both locally and online. In this time, we have really done the work to figure out who we are as a business, who we want to be in terms of style and character. But it has also been challenging. As we work away at the shop behind a locked door, we have seen droves of visitors come and go through Newport, and longed for summers past where we would be greeting them with an open door and a glass of Prosecco. Many have even come up and knocked on our door - unfortunately some have gotten frustrated and angry with us when we try to explain why we have not re-opened the boutique for in-store shopping. It has been discouraging when some people seem unsatisfied when reassure them that they can shop every single thing on the website, and that we will bring it to them outside, to their front door, or to the hotel they're staying at! Even though we know in our hearts this was the right decision for us, the decision we were comfortable with, it is hard to stand up for it when others think we should be opening faster. To put it lightly, it has not been the year of growth we had planned for in terms of in-store sales. Remember, before the pandemic hit, we had just moved to this new shop location (we opened on March 7th!) - built it out to be the bungalow boutique of our dreams, and waited with such excitement to welcome everyone inside on these very summer days. With in-store shopping paused, we have had to put off that year of in-store growth and watch July and August, usually our two biggest in-store sales months, go by as we work away on building a solid foundation for our online AND in-store future.

Then, there have been challenges that hit the fashion industry as a whole. For us, the one that hits the hardest has been cancelled lines and collections. Because we work with small, conscious brands, none of the clothes in our boutique are "mass produced." When the world shut down, factories in LA (and across the world) shut down. While in the first couple weeks of the pandemic, we were struggling to take in product without knowing if there would be customers ready to buy it, we now are feeling the effects of the lockdown where customer-favorite brands cut styles or even whole collections. If it seems like our clothing has been selling out faster than usual, or we have been getting less than you are used to, you aren't imagining it - the majority of the pieces we ordered for the store this summer never arrived to us. New brands we had been excited to introduce you to decided to stop selling to boutiques, and brands we already carry decided to make vastly less because of the uncertainty of both the customers' demand in such an unsteady time and the ability to keep factories open and thus make the clothes amid the pandemic. This has resulted in many disappointments but also has pushed us to find more new brands that align with our mission and will still be making clothing for us this Fall. Even with these issues, we feel lucky - our niche of the fashion industry has been able to adjust so much better than others. Because we work with smaller makers, many of our brands were able to delay or re-think collections, or just take a pause this Fall to recoup and come back strong with Spring collections. It may seem like a bit of a style desert these summer months, but having too much demand is a good thing - it means we are not wasting, and not creating too much! Other sectors of the fashion industry are having to slash prices and may eventually even have to throw away clothing that is currently sitting in closed stores that are out of business. 

Different stores in Newport (and beyond) have made different decisions about how best to operate and move forward in this time, and we respect that greatly. Believe us, we know we are on the conservative side of that spectrum, and we ask you to trust us, and know that we are even more excited than you are to get back to shopping together inside the store! We know that all the new services we have created during the pandemic - local delivery, curbside pickup, virtual styling appointments, care packages - will never go away, even when we open back up for in-store shopping. We can't tell you HOW excited we are for a future when we can build on all of these new services, keep improving our bigger better online store, AND open up the boutique. We have said it since the beginning, the future is bright.

On the days it feels so odd to have the boutique closed, and we long for summer days like we used to know them, we remind ourselves to be grateful. Be excited for our hard work, for the online business we are building, and for the future ahead when it will feel safe to open the shop back up, and welcome everyone in again like old friends. There are so many small businesses that have not had the luxury to make these decisions, who might not survive this season or the year. We think every day about how grateful we are for our community, for the customers who shifted to shopping online with us without blinking, who we wave to excitedly from afar as we drop off their goodies, or write notes to before sending their care package off in the mail. To those who have stuck with us, thank you. We hope you know that through our optimism for the future at H&T, you really are the back bone, the reason we feel confident that we will come out of this stronger. Every single order, no matter how small, makes that future more and more sure and tangible.  

I still feel that warmth of the community rallying behind small businesses. Even as the world continues to adjust to this pandemic and the struggle of small businesses is not so in our face as it was when everyone was closed, I know there are still so many people aware and supporting in every way they can. All we can say is thank you, and encourage you to keep on supporting your favorite places, the places you want to be there when we can all rush back outside, returning to our carefree lives when the storm has passed. And if you own a small business, we see you - we all need to support each other too! Natalie and I are always here to help if there is anything we can do, or even just be there to exchange ideas and empathize. We will be hosting live happy hour at @harperandtucker this Friday at 5:30pm EST - bring a cocktail and all your thoughts, we will be chatting candidly (with many laughs) about the highs and lows of being a small business in a pandemic. We would LOVE to have a drink and an open discussion with customers, other small businesses, and all our friends about this crazy time we are all living in. See you there!

xx Dakota


2 Responses

Sue
Sue

August 26, 2020

So eloquently written. Having had to work in the public since the beginning of pandemic with so many variables, you made the wisest and safe choice. Your creative ways to connect and serve your customer base still feels like an intimate shopping experience. Such a pleasure to log into your live Instagram chats. Thank you for all your hard work, positivity and enthusiasm.

Joyce
Joyce

August 26, 2020

What a fantastic and heartfelt blog on fashion in the pandemic and its effect on small biz. Bravo!

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