Bridal shop learned to adapt during COVID-19 shutdown

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo  series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.

Thousands of Michigan shop owners were happy to get the go-ahead to reopen for in-store sales by appointment beginning on May 26 and for walk-in customers starting June 4.
 
One of them was Adrienne Wissner, who co-owns Memories Bridal & Evening Wear in downtown Kalamazoo with her husband Derek.
 
“I was surprised,” says Adrienne Wissner who has been closely watching press conferences by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “I was incredibly excited and relieved during the governor’s (May 21) press conference. I was expecting her to push back the potential reopening date. So to have it open sooner rather than later, I was very excited.”
 
The business was forced in mid-March to close during the lead-up to high school prom season, which is also the lead-in to the summer wedding season. They start its busiest time of the year. It was forced to close The Prom Shop by Memories, its January-through-April location inside the Rivertown Crossings Mall in Grandville, for the balance of that season. And it was forced to temporarily close its 17-year-old main wedding and formal wear location at 203 E. Michigan Ave. in downtown Kalamazoo.
The very first Memories Bride Box is ready to go out to its bride. Piper Wissner, the 3-year-old daughter of shop owners Adrienne and Derek Wissner, presents the box. 
That led to the layoff of its 10 seasonal workers in Grandville as well as its 12-person staff in Kalamazoo. 
 
“The hardest thing for me was the day when we had to furlough all our staff,” Wissner says. “Our staff is like our family. So not being able to take care of them during this crazy, crazy time was really tough for me.”
 
She says the business has reopened with limited hours for the time being — “while we get a feel for what demand will be like for in-person shopping this summer.” 
 
Before the reopening order, Wissner was poised to have the staff at her downtown Kalamazoo shop ready for customers in early June, after the last extension of Whitmer’s Safer at Home executive order was set to expire. New rules allow for a limited reopening.
 
Michigan retail shops are allowed to open but only for a limited number of customers at any one time. “We’re allowed a maximum of 25 percent of capacity,” Wissner says. “For us that’s 16 people (including staff).”
 
Before the re-opening order, the business was working to be creative and flexible. It had started a virtual wedding dress-shopping business segment called Memories Bride Box.  With it, brides are interviewed by a sales staff member by phone or video conferencing. They are guided through an online video presentation of the many styles of dresses available. From that, a staff consultant picks five dresses to send to the prospective bride to try on. She can choose one of them, or send them back and ask for more choices until she is satisfied.
 
Among the first group of women to try it, Wissner says, they all found the dresses they wanted. So Wissner says the shop will continue with that “virtual” service.
 
She says they’ve also discovered it's a good fit for women who aren’t ready to shop in the store in person or who have someone important to them who can’t shop in person. Virtual shopping allows an elder member of the family who can’t travel easily or who wants to avoid exposure to sickness, to be a part of the wedding planning experience. 
 
Wissner says the store will also keep the virtual experience because there’s no telling what will happen before the nation is done with the coronavirus outbreak.
 
The limited reopening — in order to try to lessen public exposure to COVID-19 — will save the day for many Fall brides and wedding parties that were making plans for spring of 2021.
 
“We recommend girls order dresses nine to 12 months ahead of time,” Wissner says. “Usually it takes six months to have a dress made.“
 
But these unusual times mean many brides have pushed back summer weddings because COVID precautions prevented people from having large gatherings. They are now having to speed things along.
 The very first bride to patronize the shop since it reopened said yes to her dress. From left is: Jillian Willoughby, Emily Moyle (the bride) and Rachel Hansen. Hansen was the Memories Bridal shop employee who served as Moyle’s consultant.
“We knew that when we reopened we would have a lot of brides with summer and early fall weddings very eager to find their dresses,” Wissner says. “With their shorter timelines, we knew most of these brides would be looking to purchase one of our dresses right off the rack, and so our inventory specialist spent a good part of May working to make sure our gowns were in great condition and ready for our brides to take home. We are also offering rush shipping options for bridesmaids' orders to help make sure we can get dresses made in time for our late summer/early fall brides.”
 
Despite the layoffs, Wissner says,some workers have still been busy helping brides collect dresses they previously ordered and doing other things.
 
To adhere to ongoing COVID-19 safety precautions, Memories Bridal will limit the number of bridal party appointments in the store to no more than three wedding parties at any one time. The maximum number of people in any of those groups will be four. That will allow the business to maintain a staff of four people to help those parties, Wissner says. Other special precautions Wissner is taking:
 
“All of our staff and customers are required to wear masks while they’re in the store,” Wissner says.
 
The shop will promote the use of hand sanitizer stations it has throughout the store “with more coming when we can get our hands on them.”
 
It has installed sneeze guards at the cash registers.
 
Staff members will no longer enter dressing rooms to help brides get dressed. That will be left to a member of the bride’s party.
 
And the shop will steam sanitize dresses and any other items that people try on before anyone else tries them on.
 
“Since early May, we’ve had our store manager and our inventory specialist working behind the scenes processing orders, doing curbside pick-up, and helping customers via phone/email,” Wissner says. “When we reopened, we were able to bring back three additional sales staff, and this week we’ll be bringing back two more sales staff thanks to the Work Share Program. With the Work Share Program, we’re able to get more of our staff back on our payroll sooner and keep our staff engaged.”
 
The shop is normally open seven days a week, “but for now, we’ll only be open Tuesday through Saturday with limited private appointments available on Sundays,” Wissner says. “Because we work one-on-one with most of our customers, we are requiring all shopping to be by appointment at this time so that we can make sure we have a consultant available to help and to make sure we are within capacity limits.”
 

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.
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