This story is part of a series about Washtenaw County businesses' response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.
Ann Arbor resident Karen Cross launched a successful business just as the COVID-19 crisis hit Michigan – with a little help from a business incubator program for women, as well as her lifelong enthusiasm for bargain hunting.
Cross' eBay store, Simple Pleasures Life, launched in March. It's a curated marketplace featuring everyday items that promote the enjoyment of life's basic delights. Migraine relief, beard balm, a portable manual typewriter, and a plush Chihuahua are just a few examples of the merchandise on offer. To Cross' surprise and delight, the business did $4,000 in sales just in its first month and things are not slowing down.
Cross says a number of factors conspired to bring her to her present success. After a lengthy career in educational administration, including roles at Washtenaw Community College and a 10-year stint on the Ann Arbor Board of Education, she found herself wondering what retirement would look like. One of her concerns was how she would continue her passion of bargain hunting. So profound is her appreciation of a good deal that she's purchased pet-related products even though she has no animals in her home.
When one of Cross' children suggested that she try her hand at retail arbitrage, it got the wheels in her head turning. Then she spotted a flyer for a program called EmpowerYou. Run through the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living, the free small business incubator program is designed to guide women, particularly women of color, who want to start a company.
"It was perfect because I had a lot of drive, but not a lot of time, and didn't know how to get started," says Cross, who will graduate from the year-long program in November.
She says EmpowerYou laid the groundwork for her company's structure and gave her much-needed emotional support. She was leaning heavily on that support in February when the EmpowerYou Program Director Cheranissa Roach asked Cross what was holding her back from moving forward with her business idea.
"The question made me reflect and I realized then that I could make my dream happen. Nothing was going to stop me," Cross recalls. "And then the pandemic hit."
Luckily, COVID-19 was an unexpected and timely boon to Cross' business. When the Ypsilanti Wal-Mart store announced a closing sale with 90% markdowns, she sprang into action. She "grabbed a mask and flew through the store," filling a cart with what would become her initial inventory.
From there Cross has focused on anticipating what people will want or need as the pandemic unfolds, and making sure she's selling those coveted items.
"In the beginning, it was hair clipper sets. People couldn't get them fast enough and those hair clippers really made my business," Cross says. "Next it was dumbbells and weights, then it was puzzles, and now I'm selling a lot of candles."
Cross is not certain what the next hot-ticket item will be, but she'll be ready for it. She recently expanded from her eBay platform to sell on Amazon. And her own website is currently in the works.
"I'm thrilled that I'm able to monetize something I've just been doing for pleasure throughout my entire life," she says.
She underscores that running a small business isn't always easy, and it isn't always the case that stores are offering 90% off everything. But she's committed to staying the course.
"I'm helping people bring a bit of happiness into their lives and by doing so I'm happier at the same time," she says. "Plus, now when I retire I have something that makes me feel less guilty about my personal passion."
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of Karen Cross.