When COVID-19 wiped out most opportunities for Ypsilanti crafters and spouses Bill Pemberton and Amy Balzer-Pemberton to sell their wares at festivals, they decided they had to get creative if they wanted to keep their businesses alive.
So three times this summer, they created a pop-up shop in the backyard of their Ypsilanti home, featuring their businesses: Pemberton's Professor Pemberton's Wands, which offers handmade magic wands; and Balzer-Pemberton's Clever Creations by Amy, which specializes in supplies for fairy gardens.
"We'd have customers schedule a shopping time and have a socially-distant personal shopping time in our backyard," Balzer-Pemberton says. "... It was really enjoyable. We hadn't seen or talked to anybody in such a long time, and we were so excited."Amy Balzer-Pemberton.
From pop-up shops to expanding product lines, Ypsilanti-area crafters and makers have been responding to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in creative ways.
New pop-up shops spring up as traditional venues dry up
In 2019, the Pembertons had experienced a good response selling their wares at Harry Potter festivals and were feeling confident about sales. But all those events were canceled for 2020.
"We've just been doing a lot of selling via word of mouth, and doing a lot of local delivery," Balzer-Pemberton says.
The couple also began vending at the Ypsi Pop-Up Markets sponsored by Back Office Studio, a coworking business in downtown Ypsilanti. The pop-up shops were offered each weekend on a portion of North Washington Street that was closed to car traffic during the events. Additionally, Pemberton finally carried out longstanding plans to establish a Facebook page for his business.Bill Pemberton.
Balzer-Pemberton says the public's interest in home gardening during the pandemic also helped her business.
"People were looking for fairy garden items, wanting to be outside and spending time in their yard," she says.
Pittsfield Township resident Robin Carter, owner of She's Simply Beautiful Maxi Dresses, also took advantage of the Ypsi Pop-Up Markets. Carter sells a lot of her product online but says she prefers to interact directly with customers.Robin Carter.
"I do better with my business when I'm doing events and can talk to women one-on-one. It's more up close and personal to feel the fabric of the dresses and even try them on," she says.
She adds that working events is a great networking opportunity, and that networking is vital for crafters and small businesses.
"The best part of the business is meeting other people who are passionate about what they're doing," she says. "They love to share the next event coming up or exchange email addresses so you can stay in contact."
Ypsilanti resident Cherisa Allen also began hosting outdoor pop-up shops focused on Black-owned businesses over the summer and autumn months. The events, called Sip, Shop, and Eat, were held in the Key Bank Parking lot in downtown Ypsilanti and, more recently, at the SKY & ICU Mobile Detailing parking lot on Emerick Street.
Kenyasia Jackson, owner of candle company Scented Solutions, brought her wares to several Sip, Shop, and Eat market events, and says craft fairs and pop-up shops are vital to the success of her business.
She has other avenues for sales, however, including having her candles featured at a retail shop in Belleville. She says word of mouth and promoting herself one-on-one to people she meets are key to her marketing strategy. However, the pandemic has forced her to shake up that strategy.
"It definitely affected my business a lot at first. I almost had to start all over. My main [client] had completely stopped all business, and I had to do some research and testing and start all over," Jackson says. She tweaked her marketing message to focus more on self-care, as well.
Her advice to other crafters struggling during the pandemic is to "do your own thing."
"Be aware that you're in competition, but put yourself into your brand," she says.
New product lines to meet new needs
Ypsilanti resident Tracy Davis has had to reinvent herself and her business multiple times, and not just in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She resigned from a full-time job in 2015 and first explored entrepreneurship as the owner of Tracy's Sweet Taste Bakers. She later rebranded as Tracy's Sweet Touch Production as she began to focus less on baked goods and more on crafts like customized cups, tumblers, ashtrays, and other items.Tracy Davis.
Since March, Davis has emphasized her crafts even more, since her COVID-19 marketing model involves porch drop-offs, and many of her baked treats would not be well-served by leaving them on a recipient's porch.
She has also expanded into making face masks, experimenting until she came up with exactly the design and materials that she wanted. Finding fabric, thread, or any kind of elastic was difficult early in the days of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's Stay Home, Stay Safe order, so Davis tried ribbons and then paracord for her masks' ear straps. She says sales of her masks have been "really tremendous."
"I've stopped counting, but the last time I counted, I'd sold over 600, and that was months ago," Davis says.
She's also been creating what she calls Diva Wreaths, decorations that involve the silhouette of a woman's head, with wreaths at the shoulders and head. She says people like decor that is "pretty and different."
"You have to be creative in order to survive," Davis says. "You have to see what people want, what people are liking. That's how I started doing my Diva Wreaths. They're time-consuming, but customers love them."
She's been attracting business through word of mouth as well as by attending pop-up shops like Sip, Shop, and Eat, as well as any craft fairs that haven't been canceled. She recently stopped taking any Christmas-related orders because she has to finish the many orders she already has to fill before the holidays.
Take control of your brand and don't give up
Ypsilanti resident Jerome Stuart Nichols is the owner of Butters Hygienics, a brand he started in 2016 with a vegan, body-friendly personal lubricant and moisturizer. He's since branched out into other bath and body products.
Stuart Nichols started by selling person-to-person, then at the Ypsilanti Farmers Market and some events like DIYpsi, an annual makers event that was canceled for 2020. Now, Butters Hygienics products are available online through his website and at about 20 retail locations in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
Not only did the COVID-19 pandemic fail to hurt his business, but the demand for hygiene products during the pandemic helped his company achieve its biggest year in revenue to date. Jerome Stuart Nichols.
"We are one of the rare success stories," Stuart Nichols says. "Last year, our revenue was about $53,000. This year, we're looking at $200,000, which is kind of an insane level of growth."
He offers advice for other crafters and makers who are much earlier in their entrepreneurship journey.
"Take control of your product pipeline as much as humanly possible, and make sure that you have alternative lines for all the things you could possibly need," he says.
He notes that getting supplies was difficult in March and April due to shipping delays, causing him to drive many miles to pick up supplies so that orders could be filled on time.
"Also, make sure you have a team, people who can help you by giving you ideas and support, who can keep the plate spinning when you're not around," he says. "Even if you're just a one-person business, find a partner, friend, or an online community."
Davis' advice is to have a passion for what you do and to keep going, even when times are tough.
"Don't give up. Perfect what you're doing, love what you're doing," she says.
The Pembertons encourage networking and learning from other crafters.
"Don't be afraid to ask other people how they're doing things," Balzer-Pemberton says. "One thing I notice with the craft circuit people is that they're really welcoming and they'll tell you which show was good for them. Or they might say, 'I went to this one, and it was not a great fit for my products, but maybe it would be better for you.' People are really helpful and want each other to succeed."
Carter says crafters just getting started need to "trust the process."
"There are going to be some dry times, but don't get discouraged," Carter says. "Take advantage of those down times to learn your product, and listen to conversations other business people have with their customers so you can learn how to talk to anybody successfully. Don't give up. It can be discouraging sometimes, but if it's something you believe in, it's worth it."
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.