Ypsi's small retailers continue innovation to stay alive in challenging "post-pandemic" landscape

Retailers we spoke to used a variety of strategies to survive and even thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic – and are still working hard to court business despite a general perception that the pandemic is over.
Jen Eastridge, owner of two downtown Ypsilanti businesses, says she has mixed feelings when someone tells her, "I'm so glad you made it through the pandemic and you're still open."

"Just to be clear, businesses are not through the pandemic," says Eastridge, who owns Unicorn Feed and Supply and Stone and Spoon. "Loans have to be paid back, walk-in business will never be the same, and we're trying to figure out how to stay relevant."

Ypsilanti-area retailers we spoke to used a variety of strategies to survive and even thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic – and are continuing to innovate in an environment that remains challenging despite a general perception that the pandemic is over.

"The innovation we saw, particularly in the first few months of the pandemic — that led to so many different places in terms of new operations, new customer bases," says Andy LaBarre, a vice president of the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber. "It's a testament to the fact that these brick-and-mortar shops have real people behind them who are iterating in a real-world environment and succeeding. That should not be missed."

Short- and long-term strategies

Many businesses innovated quickly in the first few months of the pandemic, whether offering classes online or adding curbside pickup.

At Unicorn Feed and Supply, Eastridge offered "personal unicorn shopper" services where she'd walk clients through the store on Facetime so they could pick out items they wanted to buy. Black Stone Book Store and Cultural Center started curbside pickup. 

Morgana Grimm, owner of Twisted Things Organic Apothecary and Curious Goods, says her shop was affected differently from traditional businesses because it is a teaching co-op for artists.
Twisted Things Organic Apothecary and Curious Goods owner Morgana Grimm.
All art shows around the country came to a screeching halt, and since that's the primary way many artists like Grimm make a living, she says, "we went into the hole a little bit."

"One of the main ways I ended up making my income was that I started working with artists, showing them how to do websites and different selling platforms [online]," she says.

Businesses are likely to hold onto some of those innovations in the long term – for instance, the ability to order online for either shipping or curbside pickup. Black Stone co-owner Carlos Franklin says he never wanted to bother with an official e-commerce website for the store, but he's glad he did.
Black Stone Book Store and Cultural Center co-owner Carlos Franklin.
"Literally the day everything shut down was the day our website went live," he says. "It was a blessing to be able to reach out to people who were not even local."

LaBarre says that shift has been a win-win for many local retailers.

"If you can initiate the transaction online and then go get the product, that seems to work best for everybody, both on the store end and the customer end," LaBarre says. 

Providing an experience

Eastridge says that while many small retailers were struggling even before the pandemic, she thinks her two shops continue to succeed in part because they're not just a place to buy things. These days, she says, she sees the brick-and-mortar retail industry as "more aligned with the entertainment industry than with retail" because it "provide[s] an experience."

At Unicorn Feed and Supply, that includes the staff offering shoppers body glitter and opportunities to take selfies with Reggie the Unicorn. The "experience" aspect of retail also inspired Eastridge to open an art gallery in the previously-unused second floor of Stone and Spoon. She says that was an opportunity both to "activate that space" and to help creatives who were hit hard by the pandemic.

Grimm says she believes her shop also offers an experience, showing that "art can take all kinds of forms."
Jen Eastridge in the art gallery above Stone and Spoon.
"There's an art to blending teas, an art to chainmail, and an art to the mummification of animals," she says. "You never know what you're going to find in here."

LaBarre says local foot traffic in retail stores hasn't quite bounced back to pre-pandemic levels. However, he's been hearing a lot about how much people enjoy returning to in-person events, and generally interacting with people – including not just friends and family, but also business owners.

"Even if you're just buying a trinket, the fact that you can buy it in your backyard from someone you know and like — there is value there beyond dollars and cents, but rather a human equation," he says.

Though the pandemic was difficult on local small businesses, it also had at least one upside.
Black Stone Book Store and Cultural Center co-owner Carlos Franklin.
"The loyalty of the customer base has been strengthened for many of our small retailers, just because folks understand the value of having those shops in their communities," LaBarre says. "There are real people working there, helping that store be a part of what makes Ypsilanti great."

Franklin says that the public's desire to learn more about racial issues helped out Black Store in the early months of the pandemic.

"The key is, now that you have their attention, you need to keep it," Franklin says. While that boost helped, he says customer loyalty has kept his store in business for the long term.

The consumer's role

Local shoppers who want to make sure their favorite stores stay in business can do so in part by spending money at them, but there are other ways to help.

Grimm suggests attending workshops and classes at local businesses and maybe bringing a friend along. Eastridge suggests putting a regular event on the calendar, committing yourself to supporting local businesses regularly.
Twisted Things Organic Apothecary and Curious Goods owner Morgana Grimm.
"Maybe one Friday night a month you come downtown and walk around shops or maybe one Saturday afternoon you have brunch," she says. "Be intentional."

LaBarre says each business will have slightly different needs. 

"Maybe things are really good except for the fact they don't have enough labor and can't stay open as much as they'd like to," he says. 
Jen Eastridge with customers Kaitlyn and Natalie Fritz at Stone and Spoon.
In that case, putting out the word to friends and neighbors that the business wants to hire might be most helpful to the owner.

Word of mouth is a huge help for most small businesses, and Grimm says people might need to be reminded that their favorite places didn't disappear.

"Shout-outs on social media help more than you would think," Grimm says. "Just talk about small businesses and remind people we're still here."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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