Starting out as a small business owner during the best of times has got to be one of the most ambitious endeavours that any one person can pursue, a task that is perhaps only surpassed in difficulty by the effort required to maintain and grow the business. However, launching a store during the onset of a pandemic is a completely different proposition altogether. It’s an undertaking that would not only require a general acumen and understanding of retail fundamentals as well as the ability to apply them effectively to their operation, but would also necessitate a level of bravery, courage and passion from the entrepreneur not found in most people. Fortunately for the natural food market chain, Simply For Life franchisee, Rukhsana Khan, is not like most people.
A Healthy Passion
A certified holistic health and life coach who also holds a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Certificate, Khan describes her foray into retail as a “dream come true”, the fruition of a venture that she’s desired to embark on for some time. With a passion for health and nutrition, a penchant for the sourcing of best-in-class natural product and a strong belief in the power of human connection, she opened her Simply For Life franchise location in Oakville, Ontario in January of 2020. She says that she was excited, optimistic, and despite her lack of formal business experience, she was eager to open up to her community and start making a positive difference through her products and services.
“All of the work that was involved in preparing the store to open was amazing,” she says. “It was such a great experience to have the opportunity to work toward a vision. I wanted to bring people together and to create a very open and welcoming environment to facilitate that. I had envisioned conducting free information sessions and health coaching in order to teach people concerning the different aspects of health. I wanted it to be very social and communal, encouraging people to get together, talk, share experiences and heal together. I’m extremely passionate about what I do and believe in this kind of personal and intimate approach. I was really pleased when I opened my store in January of last year. And we immediately started doing sessions that were really well received by the community. Things seemed to be going really well. But, when COVID hit in March, everything changed. There was definitely a moment directly afterward when I didn’t know what to do.”
Noted interior designer Glenn Dixon of Glen Dixon Design conceptualized the space from a shell. He said that he wanted to make the space immersive as well as a comfortable environment both for customers and employees.
Because Simply For Life primarily sells food products, Khan was allowed to remain open during the first pandemic lockdown. Though, she admits that traffic to her store had been reduced dramatically as concerned people across the country kept themselves and their families at home during the first wave of contamination. She says that it was an extremely challenging time for her. Without the ability to connect with consumers and a means by which to provide them with the necessary information — the vital piece of Khan’s vision and, indeed, the critical component of her business strategy to create a healthy community through education, inspiration, and empowerment — it seemed as though her business could be lost. But not if Khan could do something about it.
“Not for a second did I ever think of submitting,” she says confidently. “I had worked too hard to realize my ambition and fulfill my passion. I knew that there was a way to continue offering my products and services to customers. I just needed to find the solution that would allow me to do that.”
Khan’s thinking was decisive and her actions swift as she didn’t hesitate in digitizing her business, implementing and activating the Shopify POS System into her operations and immediately moving to get her product online and available for transaction. She describes the initiative as a monumental task as the development of e-commerce capabilities was not something that she had previously planned for the business. However, online sales have been a success for Khan and represent an intelligent and savvy pivot on the part of the Canadian entrepreneur. But, the greatest advantage to her pivot, she points out, is the ways in which her business has benefitted from her decision to transition the store’s information sessions, coaching, and communications to a virtual environment.
“I made the decision right away to make sure that I had all of the store’s products online and available for the consumer to purchase as soon as possible when physical traffic pretty much stopped,” she says. “I also moved all of our services online, conducting all of my sessions and coaching over the phone and through Zoom. This isn’t something that I had ever thought about before. But, the response from my Simply For Life community and results of this decision have been incredible. It has not only increased my exposure and engagement within my local community, but has also opened up my services to a broader audience. I’ve now got clients in places like Ottawa and New Brunswick. The pandemic has accelerated this shift for me. And it’s definitely something that we’re going to continue building in order to connect with more people in the future.”
Fulfilling Community Needs
With knowledgeable, certified staff helping to deliver services and coaching related to meal planning, nutritional consulting, and ways to live and manage a happier, healthier life, Khan has quickly developed a reputation for her store. And, given the rise in positive consumer attitudes toward self-care throughout the pandemic, it seems it’s a reputation that will serve her and her store well going forward. According to a recent Scotiabank survey of Canadians concerning their sentiment toward their financial, mental and physical wellbeing over the course of the past twelve months, an overwhelming majority of Canadians (98 percent) say that they are focusing more on their self-care habits, which they intend to maintain into a post-pandemic world. Of those surveyed, 60 percent have spent an average of $282 on self-care since the start of the pandemic. It’s a growing sentiment that Khan recognizes, and an opportunity for her to contribute in a meaningful way to her expanding community of customers.
“It’s been a really challenging time,” she says. “But, consumer response during the past year has been very positive. There are many who have taken advantage of their situation during this time, beginning to pay more attention to their health and wellbeing. It’s become more of a priority in people’s lives, resulting in better decisions about the foods they eat and the activities they engage in. I’m excited to be able to help people on their journey of self-care and the development of a healthy lifestyle. It’s a passion of mine that I’m really looking forward to offering to more and more people.”
An Exciting Future
As traffic slowly returns to her physical location, now augmented by her new digital presence, Khan is optimistic about the near-term for her business. And, despite the uncertainty of the times and the challenges faced by most small business owners in general, she thinks that their resilience and continued efforts will soon reap rewards, maintaining their status as the backbone of communities from coast-to-coast in the country.
“Small businesses are so important to the health and success of the neighbourhoods and communities that they operate in. They are crucial to their vibrancy and activity of their street fronts and will be appreciated more and more by locals as we go forward. For my business, I’m going to focus on continuing to develop my virtual communications and presence and building out more sessions and coaching services. As a result of digitizing my store, I’ve seen firsthand the value in doing so and now realize the incredible reach and opportunity available to me to provide my expertise to people all over the world. I’m excited to continue making these connections with customers and helping them realize their nutrition goals while growing my business and service.”