Over the course of the past eleven months, a period in Canadian retail besmirched by the impacts of the pandemic, the industry’s landscape has become riddled with casualties. By and large, just about every sector has suffered from the fallout of government-imposed lockdowns and restrictions. Some have suffered more than others, the severity of the impacts ranging across a spectrum. Those most dramatically impacted, however, seem to be the operations of small and independent businesses, most of which have been paralyzed by significantly reduced traffic to their stores and a general lack of activity in the neighbourhoods that surround them. With limited opportunities to engage customers in the physical environment, Canada’s small business community has come under enormous pressure to evolve, lest they become devolved. A considerable portion of the evolution required involves the digitization of the retail operation and a broadening of the ways that are enlisted to communicate and interact with the consumer. And if any doubts remain concerning the enabling force of digital channels, there isn’t a better example of the ways it can help to transform a business than Athabasca-based women’s apparel boutique, Elle’s Closet.
Enhanced Digital Efforts
Founded in late 2013 by Michelle Bishop, the boutique carries an impressive selection of fashion-forward apparel for women, including everything from sweaters, hoodies and blouses to denim, loungewear and dresses, and a host of products in between. In addition, it also offers collections of swimwear, outerwear and footwear, as well as a range of beauty products, jewellery and other accessories. The assortment and selection that Bishop’s small shop boasts had allowed her to cultivate a loyal community of followers prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to grow exponentially in the short amount of time that she’s been in business. And, unlike many other stories that have been dominating headlines with messages of a more negative and discouraging nature, since rolling government-imposed lockdowns, social restrictions and protocols started to take hold across the country, her sales have more than doubled. It’s an incredible feat for the retailer servicing a community with a population of less than 3,000 people. And it’s one that the owner of the burgeoning boutique says was supported at the heart by enhanced and sustained digital efforts.
“I’ve been using social media to engage with our customers online for about five years, and really increased my efforts two-and-a-half years ago when the Elle’s Closet website was developed and launched,” she explains. “I became pretty active, posting multiple times every day. I thought I was using it really well, but in actuality, I wasn’t. It just wasn’t a focus of the business then. We were running our store in Athabasca as well as another in Edmonton. They were both doing well, and I was spending most of my time driving back and forth between the locations. I just didn’t have the time to focus on our digital communications. But then COVID hit, and I suddenly found that I had all the time in the world to focus on these channels and the number of ways that are available to engage and interact with the customer and grow the Elle’s Closet brand. Results have been incredible, significantly changing our focus and the way we run the business.”
A Necessary Shift
The results of her brainy pivot, Bishop has managed to roll with the pandemic’s punches, leveraging social channels to support her loyal community of shoppers and the significant growth of her e-commerce business. And, according to a recent report published by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, it’s a pivot toward the use of digital communication that many other small businesses are starting to recognize as a necessary one for them to make if they are to survive this brutal period and grow for the future. The report, titled ‘Connecting With Customers During the Pandemic’, finds that since the beginning of the virus’ spread, two in five (41 percent) small businesses have reduced in-person communication with their customers, while six percent stopped meeting with them entirely. As a result, in efforts to find ways to continue engaging with their clientele, half of small business owners (51 percent) anticipate a greater need for the use of digital communications over the coming year and beyond.
The report identifies significant shifts by small businesses in their start or increased use of email (48 percent), video conferencing (39 percent) and social networking platforms (32 percent) since the start of the pandemic in efforts to maintain communication and meaningful relationships with their customers. But, although digital channels are providing a means for small businesses to achieve this goal, the report also recognizes some of the challenges that are involved in implementing digital communication strategies. Among them, one in three (35 per cent) of small business owners say they don’t know how to adopt digital channels into their business, while nearly half (46 percent) say they are overwhelmed by the time and effort that’s required to monitor all of the communications and messages. They are challenges that are understood by Bishop. Despite them, however, she says that small business owners need to embrace this time and the disruption that’s occurring as an opportunity to try something new and add value to the experience they offer their customers.
“I realized as soon as repercussions of the pandemic started to impact our business that I really needed to focus more of my efforts on social media and begin leveraging those channels as effectively as possible,” she asserts. “I’m fortunate enough to have already developed an online presence prior to COVID-19. But, because physical traffic to my store has now pretty much vanished, nearly all of my activity and communication with customers is being done digitally. When you know which channels your customers are on, and you’re able to continue interacting with them and showcasing your product, the potential to grow your reach and broaden the awareness of your brand and offering is incredible.”
The Power of Social Media
One of the staples of Bishop’s digital communication is Instagram stories. With an audience of nearly 50,000 followers – one that continues to expand every day – she’s able to continue engaging, informing and entertaining customers. Posting stories just about every day, Elle’s Closet customers receive frequent updates about new and existing product, allowing the retailer to continue driving interest in its offering and traffic to its website and e-commerce platform. In addition, Bishop also hosts an Elle’s Closet Facebook livestream shopping event every Thursday evening, during which clothes are modelled, style recommendations are suggested, and purchases are made. It’s all a reflection of the accelerated shift in consumer activity from physical store environments to online channels. Bishops says that at least 90 percent of Elle’s Closet’s business is happening through e-commerce, adding that, in addition to the shift in sales to online, her overall business actually started to grow as a result of her enhanced digital efforts.
In fact, the growth in online sales that Elle’s Closet began experiencing shortly after the onset of the pandemic was so significant and quick that she was forced to make changes to her business in order to sustain her escalating success. To support the shift and increase in her online business, Bishop decided to close her Edmonton location, and in June 2020 reinvested the money into the opening of a 2,000-square-foot shipping and receiving warehouse. The space has enabled Bishop and Elle’s Closet to cope with the increase in demand for her product. And, anticipating further growth, she’s already looking to upgrade and is currently exploring the construction of a 10,000-square-foot warehouse.
“My business has changed so much over the course of the past year,” she says. “The challenges that the entire industry has faced really made me stop and reevaluate where I was putting my money and the reasons that I was putting it into certain areas of the business. After a bit of reflection, it was pretty clear that there were some adjustments that were necessary in order for my business to grow with the increased demand. Our sales easily doubled over the past year. That success wouldn’t have been possible without our warehouse to hold products for customers who are ordering from all across the country.”
In addition to the tremendous sales that Elle’s Closet has generated during the pandemic period, Bishop says that the digital channels have provided her with the opportunity to hyper-personalize her brand and the experience that she offers customers. She describes it as the perfect platform for merchants to show customers exactly who they are, representing themselves with transparency in order to resonate with their social media audiences and engage them in ways that may not have been considered previously. And, the key to social media success, she says, is to simply be yourself.
“With respect to the Instagram stories that I post and the livestreams that I host, I’m 100 percent me,” she explains. “If you’re genuine in your approach and presenting yourself as who you truly are, you’ll give yourself and your business the opportunity to meaningfully connect with people. My customers know about my children and my husband, because I share things about my life with them. Customers really welcome that level of honesty and openness and appreciate the fact that there’s a more intimate and personal relationship that’s being built, as well as simply knowing that there’s a real person behind the brand and the product.”
Preparing for Future Growth
The incredible growth that Elle’s Closet experienced throughout 2020, growth which continues unabated today, is certainly testament to the transformative potential that’s posed by channels of digital communication and the benefits that could result for businesses. However, it’s more so an inspiring example of ingenuity, and a reminder of the capacity of small business owners across the country to cope with change and overcome adversity. With respect to the savvy and innovation shown by Bishop, she says that she’s incredibly proud of the choices that she’s made for her business. But she isn’t going to dwell on her recent achievements, explaining that she’s got one eye on the future already.
“There will come a day soon when people will start to feel more comfortable and will go out to shop at their favourite stores again. And we’ll be ready to welcome our customers back to the physical Elle’s Closet environment when that happens. A piece of my heart will always be in the physical store which will remain available for our local customers. But what the pandemic has taught me is that the greatest potential for the growth of my business is online. That’s where I’m going to be putting the majority of my focus, continuing to build and engage with the Elle’s Closet community on social media and expanding our presence beyond Canada and into the United States. I see so many possibilities to continue growing and developing the Elle’s Closet brand and improving on the experience we provide for our amazing base of current customers, as well as those who might not be aware of us yet.”