Following brick-and-mortar closures in March due to the coronavirus, local retailers and small businesses were finally allowed to reopen at the end of May. (COVID-19 has now claimed the lives of over 4,000 Californians and a total of over 107,000 Americans, according to the L.A. Times and the CDC.) We had reached out to L.A. entrepreneurs in recent weeks to find out if and how their strategies had changed after social distancing and store closures.
Then the protests hit.
Since May 27, thousands have taken to the streets in L.A. and beyond to protest George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis, prompting stores to once again close up (and board up). Angelenos stepped up to help clean up businesses damaged by looters, and some Melrose Avenue store owners whose locations were damaged recently shared their optimism despite losses thanks to the double whammy of the pandemic and protests.
"I think a lot of us are dumbfounded with our businesses being ransacked on top of the pandemic," Wax salon owner Lindsay Pierce recently told UncoverLA. "Most of us strongly believe in equality and Black Rights Matter and fighting for this movement, but it's really disheartening and it's hard to reconcile the two." L.A.-based Orris Perfumery co-founder Linda Sivrican said she was lucky that her Melrose fragrance boutique was only damaged with graffiti.
"We feel for our neighbors and their losses. Personally we are not upset about losing profits right now. It is temporary and we hopefully will be okay," she said. Given that COVID-19 continues to pose a health threat in L.A., we're sharing the conversations we had with local entrepreneurs several weeks back.
We recently spoke to Alleyoop founder Leila Kashani Mansoory, Benjamin Salon founder Benjamin Mohapi, Training Mate founder Luke Milton, Sweet Flower chief marketing officer Kiana Anvaripour, and Kinn founder and jewelry designer Jennie Yoon to find out how their business strategies shifted, how customers have responded to their brands' changes, and more — read on below.
L.A. County received state approval today to reopen hair salons and barbershops. Given that things have shifted so quickly, how has the pandemic affected short- and long-term strategies for Benjamin Salon? [Editor's note: This conversation took place the evening of Friday, May 29.] All plans are out the window! There really is no tomorrow in our world right now. Especially today.
As the opening order came through this morning we're scrambling like crazy to get everything ready to open. I still have all the same goals for the business and honestly, the shut down enabled me to really focus on those goals and I have done a lot of work that I would not otherwise have been able to. But, all that can wait until the tsunami of reopening is over.
What has the response been like among customers, both before the reopening news and today?
We're inundated with calls already. Everyone seems to have been glued to the news at the same time as within 15 minutes of the news dropping we haven't stopped getting calls, texts, and emails. It's totally crazy. Any doubts that people had about whether the business would come back needn't worry anymore. We plan to open our phones Monday and take clients from Thursday. It was always the worst-case scenario for us to be told without notice, but you can only work with what you have, and we only have today!
What was your first move for your multi-tasking brand after the stay-at-home orders and retail closures?
It was scary as a founder — 50% of our business is retail. We shifted the whole business and made it really about content. The biggest thing for us is we have a community of 200 people on our Slack channel. We turned to them to ask them, "It doesn't feel right to sell product right now, so what kind of content are you all looking for, what is resonating with you?" We got a lot of feel-good feedback. I went through a similar roller coaster. We really close to China [because of our manufacturing] and it was one bad toxic informational overload [from them]. So we made a promise [to our community] to just share good news. With our Mother's Day video, we're really poking fun at the craziness. All bets are off. Let's just poke fun at the things that we can laugh about in the moment.
What are some unexpected things that have happened?
[We found that] this is an amazing opportunity to take our Slack channel and build a social media community. We had a lot of people applying to join; we usually get 50 to 100 DMs a week asking to be content creators for us. That number doubled. It's also an amazing opportunity for us to market in. [Multi-billion dollar consumer products corporation] Procter & Gamble is always advertising. Since the shutdown, they also shut down advertising. That has allowed our voice to grow. Communication is changing because of the fact that there's a lot less noise.
How has Alleyoop's business strategy changed during the pandemic?
We had to let go of paying attention to the revenue numbers. But if we look at those numbers, we saw exponential growth. We saw e-comm make up for the retail [losses]. We also want to support our community. For small businesses, it's a lot about being flexible — this is an opportunity. We gave $10,000 worth of product away to frontline workers but captured no content [because that wasn't the point]. We also had a fan that emailed us to say, "My best friend just lost her job. I was wondering if I could get a discount for her to get a Gratitude Journal." So we thought, "Let's give the Gratitude Journal for free."
How has your staff been handling working from home?
We had a new employee that was supposed to start, and it was really hard for us. It felt like we couldn't give her a taste of our office culture, but in hindsight we have built deeper relationships with her. You're forced to have real conversations instead of talking the usual water cooler talk. What's your best advice to other small business owners? Just like a Gratitude Journal, look at those areas that are working and magnify those and amplify those. Focus on organic community building.