Business-not-as-usual in Hillsdale

Posted April 23, 2020


What happens to small businesses when suddenly their customers are not allowed to leave the house except for groceries or to pick up take-out? “‘Pivot’ becomes the word of the month,” says Gurton’s Plant Shop owner Julina Abbott. Restaurants have pivoted to rely on take-out to keep afloat, but other types of operations face different challenges. Businesses that may have had a toe dipped into the online world have suddenly been thrown into the deep end, with no time to change into suitable bathing attire.

One challenge for retail shops that rely on foot traffic is quickly finding and implementing an online shopping application. A bigger challenge is “stocking the shelves” of an online store. Each item must be photographed, described and entered into the shopping app, a task that becomes huge with unique inventory items and no staff to help out, as in the case of two Hillsdale outlets, Gurton’s and Hoot-N-Annie’s, a women’s and children resale boutique. For OmBase yoga studio, a business that relied exclusively on face-to-face interaction in the same physical space, electronic devices and apps now “mediate” the relationship between teacher and students.

“I have never worked so hard for no money,” says Gurton’s Abbott, of the new realities of life as a small business owner in a pandemic. Her routine now consists of taking care of her live inventory, fulfilling orders for pick-up and delivery, managing the online store, while homeschooling and taking care of three small children. Her current revenues barely cover her utilities, she has laid off her staff, and hasn’t paid herself in two months. Her earlier experiments with online sales didn’t pan out as there were so many complications with shipping and packaging for plants, but current circumstances have forced her to make it work. She is learning to adopt a narrow focus for online sales, lessons that will last once she is able to open the doors again. Tina Donnaloia, owner of Hoot-N-Annie’s, is bringing her inventory online one category at a time. New groupings of items, such as Dress-Up or Books and Toys are coming online daily. Still, she says, the process is “insanely complicated and time consuming, taking 8-10 hours a day.” Like Abbott, she has laid off her employees and has children at home and out of school. Both shop owners lament the loss of income during what is normally their busiest season. Spring brings the heaviest traffic at Hoot-N-Annie’s, and Mother’s Day is the biggest day of the year for Gurton’s.

Todd Williamson, co-owner of OmBase yoga: “The nature of what we offer to our students is needed now more than ever. A lot of people are so stressed by their daily lives that they really rely on places like OmBase right now. So we want to keep offering what we do now.”

OmBase closed the doors early in the pandemic, wanting to protect their teachers and students and do their part to help bend the curve on the infection rate. In the first pivot, Todd Williamson, who owns the studio along with his wife Vittoria, spent a few weeks figuring out how to bring yoga classes online in a way that preserves the interactivity. The next pivot came once he started applying for small business loans and grants. As many have reported, the application process was problematic and by the time his applications went through the money was gone. A payroll loan would have allowed him to pay his teachers and offer online yoga for free, but without the loans he had to shift to a fee-based system so that he had revenue coming in to pay his teachers.

OmBase now offers livestream yoga classes almost every day of the week. Not all of his teachers are back online, but enrollment rates have been surprisingly high. Yoga teacher Ginny Kauffman says that “a positive is that people are still doing yoga, and it gives us all a sense of normalcy.”

What comes next? Small business loans to help pay expenses or employees have been tantalizingly close, but still out of reach. Almost universal is the frustration with the online application process for government loans. Hours of pushing an unresponsive “submit” button caused many applications to be delayed until funds were depleted. Additional federal help for small businesses has been approved so there’s hope for second chance. Many local small business owners report that their landlords have been extremely supportive with lease extensions and delayed payments, but concerns remain about what will happen once the economy is open again: the recovery will most likely be gradual, presenting business owners with a new set of complications as they try to replenish their inventory and pay more staff.

Creating an online store for Hoot-N-Annie's.

Abbott is not buying any new plants right now, so when she is able to open the doors again she will have to find the money to replenish her stock. The inventory at Hoot-N-Annie’s is strictly consignment, which is both a plus and a minus at this point. Donnaloia doesn’t have to invest money in merchandise, but while the doors are closed, no new inventory can come in. When her doors do open again, it will take a while to build up inventory.

Keeping it virtual Most everyone who has been forced to go virtual has been pleased and surprised with the results and say that online business will remain important from here on out. The retailers now realize that a portion of their customers prefer to shop remotely. Teachers at OmBase, including Ginny Kauffman, point out that distance learning allows people to participate in yoga classes who might not otherwise be able to attend sessions in person because of health or mobility issues. Kauffman has students who have moved away but can now continue to take her classes in this new online environment. The move to online has had an unexpected and welcome benefit for Eugene Lewins, also a teacher at OmBase. Lewins’s mother, 80 years old, in fragile health and homebound in England, has been able to participate in his yoga classes for the first time. “It has been very heartwarming to have my mum in class,” he says, adding that of his students, who have heard Lewins recite his mother’s poetry in class, can now meet her and hear her recite her work. --Valeurie Friedman

Considering adopting a houseplant? Gurton's Julina Abbott points out that if you find yourself at home more than usual these days, this is a good time to observe the natural light in your house throughout the day. “Plants can be good company during quarantine,” she says, but she cautions people not to go overboard as they do require care and could be overwhelming if you buy too many at once.