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Brave New Virtual World

Enduring the weight of the worst pandemic in more than a century, our industry has been thrusted into a new “normal.”

Enduring the weight of the worst pandemic in more than a century, our industry has been thrusted into a new “normal.” Of course, nothing is normal when millions of jobs evaporate overnight, the government enforces shutdowns of non-essential businesses for months and going outside for a breath of fresh air could kill you. It’s terrifying. It’s unprecedented. It can be paralyzing, at times. Yet, with adversity comes ingenuity, and our industry is leading the way with inspiring examples of determination, creativity and adaptability.   

Experiential retail? That’s so 2019. Interactive play areas, hands-on product demonstrations, crowded stores all largely on hold until a cure/vaccine. In turn, retailers must pivot, like Camp NYC Inc. has done. After the pandemic closed all five of its locations, the family experience store reimagined its popular in-store birthday parties and arts-and-crafts sessions. Camp rolled out free, virtual, 30-minute birthday parties on its website, custom made to celebrate children’s birthdays in a group setting. The retailer also began selling private virtual parties, where customers can pick an entertainer, such as a magician or musician, from the company’s roster to perform remotely. A fee is charged for these private parties and sponsorship revenue is collected on the free ones.

The Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus, NJ, near my childhood home, immediately started reaching out to families via social media once the shutdown took hold. Its princess story time via Facebook Live was a big hit. Snow White cheerfully held court before a castle background, interacting with an active chatroom, often addressing attendees by their first name to further personalize the experience and create a warm connection with children in desperate need of a fun escape. Additional events included a regularly scheduled princess breakfast and an exotic animal show-and-tell.

More examples of pandemic-induced creativity can be found in this issue’s feature, “The Virus Diaries” (p. 6). For example, tween fashion boutique Frankie’s on the Park has been hosting an in-store fashion camp almost every summer since opening in 2008, and owner Lisa Burik wasn’t about to let a pandemic kill it off entirely. She’s pivoted to a virtual experience that includes guest mentors to educate young girls on how to build their own brand. The virtual aspect has also enabled Burik to invite participants from across the country—something she plans to do even when the in-store camps resume.

Also on the virtual front, Mud Pie, the Georgia-based gift company, teamed up with influencer MaKenna Bleu (and her 266,000-plus followers on Instagram) after Bleu’s in-person baby shower was canceled. The resulting virtual baby shower was replete with plenty of darling goodies, all unveiled within safe social distancing guidelines. Virtual baby showers have blossomed during the pandemic, not only bringing safety for Baby and Mama, but obviating the need to book space at restaurants or other venues.

Inspired by our industry’s can-do pivots, Earnshaw’s has also expanded its virtual presence, hosting live webinars on timely topics, such as our recent discussion on exploring race in the childrenswear industry. Our esteemed panelists, Anthony Bryant, owner of Little Nomad in Richmond, VA; Michelle Vanderlaan, owner of Sugarcup Trading in Oak Park, IL; and Dr. Lisa Williams, founder of Fresh Dolls, based in Southern California, revealed sobering tales of their own experiences with prejudice as well as inspiring insights on how they overcame such obstacles. The conversation included hard-hitting case studies as well. You can read more reactions from black industry professionals in our webinar recap, Exploring Matters of Race (p. 12).   

The old adage, “when one door closes, another opens” has never rung truer in these troubling times. The new door has swung wide open to a virtual world of exciting sales, marketing and retailing events that only enhance customer engagement and compliment physical stores. While the unprecedented shutdown marked some of retail’s darkest days, a ray of light has shone through. Or, to borrow another old adage, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” 

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