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Small Business Stories

September 22, 2020

Catching Up with Past Season Businesses on Surviving COVID-19

Small businesses are struggling today more than ever, fighting to survive the pandemic that is COVID-19. We caught up with a business from each of the past four seasons, learning how they’re adapting their business, finding new ways to drive revenue, and—in some cases—doing even better during the pandemic.

Ellen’s Bridal
Season 1: Wabash, IN

Lisa Ellen Downs is the owner of Ellen’s Bridal in Wabash, Indiana, featured in Season 1 of the Small Business Revolution. After being closed for three months due to COVID regulations, her bridal business saw a dramatic decrease in sales. Her suppliers have also been affected, with two dress designers going out of business during the pandemic.

But, Ellen’s has figured out ways to adapt and do business in a virtual world. They started offering bridal appointments online using Zoom (which means unlimited guests can join in the tradition) and are offering at-home dress try-ons for future brides.

In the shop, which reopened in July, Ellen’s limited capacity to one dressing room (versus their typical two) and one bride at a time, with two guests allowed. As of September, Ellen’s is no longer limiting the number of guests a bride can have, returning the in-shop experience to (mostly) normal—despite requiring guests to wear masks. True to tradition, Ellen’s has always offered champagne as part of the dress selection process, but now sends brides home with a complimentary bottle when a bride chooses a dress.

According to Lisa, one of the biggest challenges during the pandemic has been determining when to spend and when to hold off.

“Should we hold on to our money in case we have a second shutdown, or should we order dresses and spend the money now so we have the best inventory when brides come in?” asked Lisa.

About the future of the bridal industry and her shop, Lisa thinks virtual appointments may become a permanent offering (even though you can’t replace “experiencing a garment in person”).  She also believes retailers’ bridal shops are in this together and should work collaboratively to find a new way forward, asking for help—and offering it when needed. Despite facing so many new challenges, Lisa is confident Ellen’s will come out on the other side of the pandemic, even if doing business looks a bit different.

Discover, Learn & Grow
Season 2: Bristol Borough, PA

Prior to COVID-19, Discover, Learn & Grow served as a “home away from home” for children preparing for kindergarten. Offering an open-door policy for parents to interact with staff and other children, the daycare was hit hard—financially and emotionally—due to the pandemic.

After reopening the business post-shutdown, Season 2’s Discover, Learn & Grow experienced a decrease in enrollment with parents hesitant to send their kids back to daycare. This reality forced owners Ramona Jones and her son Marcelous Jones to look at safety in a whole new light, despite always priding themselves in taking full precautions. During the shutdown, their staff sought out resources, like webinars and teaching seminars, to familiarize themselves with the proper precautions when interacting with students and families.

Compliant with CDC guidelines, all staff and children are required to have their temperature taken up entry into the daycare, wash their hands, and wear masks (something Ramona says the children actually don’t mind). In fact, her staff has created games and activities to help familiarize the kids with wearing masks and other safety protocols.

Discover, Learn & Grow wants their students, parents and the community to know that, while this COVID pandemic is temporary, they’ll continue to serve children and their community.

Ramona is feeling optimistic. “We want everyone to know that we are grateful for being able to serve the wonderful community of Bristol, and we will remain true to our mission, being a place where ‘Young Minds Flourish.””

Bluff City Outdoors
Season 3: Alton, IL

Bluff City Outdoors is one of few lucky outliers who have actually seen an increase in business due to COVID-19. A bait and tackle shop featured in Season 3, they’ve seen more people take up fishing due to the outdoor nature of the activity that makes it easy to socially distance.

“Fishing license sales are up forty to fifty percent across the country, after a downward trend for many years,” said co-owner Mark McMurray, who owns the business with his wife Felecia (whose daughter Whitney manages the store).

When Illinois first announced that essential businesses would need to close, Bluff City shut their doors. But, after realizing they were considered essential because they sell live bait (and many household pets eat live bait), they were able to reopen after just two days of closure.

While they’re still open for in-store visits, Bluff City Outdoors has been flexible to meet the needs of customers, offering curbside pickup upon request. To adapt to safety protocols, they’ve implemented plexiglass dividers between cashiers and customers, are taking extra cleaning precautions, and requiring face masks for anyone inside the store.

Despite the increase in business, Bluff City Outdoors has experienced setbacks in other ways. Their biggest challenge has been keeping product in stock. Some of their largest distributors and haven’t been able to keep up with demand and have experienced shipping delays. Bluff City has adapted by finding smaller, family-run suppliers who aren’t facing the same supply and demand challenges as large manufacturers.

Mark and Felecia are feeling optimistic about the future of Bluff City Outdoors and are hoping to attend fishing shows this winter where they can showcase new product lines and help drive sales.

Whilma’s Filipino Restaurant
Season 4: Searcy, AR

Whilma’s Filipino Restaurant—a fan favorite from Season 4—has felt the impact of COVID-19, with fewer customers spending money on eating out. Due to state regulations, Whilma’s had to shut down the dine-in portion of the restaurant, ultimately letting servers go. They quickly adapted by offering to-go orders and curbside pickup, so restaurant owner Whilma Frogoso has been able to keep her cook on staff.

Whilma and her family, who help out at the restaurant when they can, have also taken advantage of some of the tips and tricks they learned by working with the Small Business Revolution. They’ve posted new Filipino dishes on social media to drive interest, and have started offering daily specials with lower prices (while staying mindful of profit margins) to drive traffic.

Whilma’s has kept their full menu available for customers but is no longer able to offer their Kamayan dinners (a communal meal without utensils), which increased in popularity after their episode launched in 2019.

“I’m so worried about breaking even, because I’m not sure how long this will last,” said Whilma. “I hope and pray this will be over soon.”

On the bright side, students at the local university have returned to school, which is helping increase orders. Whilma credits the Small Business Revolution for helping her become more well-known in Searcy, ultimately making it easier to fight her way through this pandemic.

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