The Virus Diaries

Childrenswear professionals are pivoting on the fly in a gallant effort to weather the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hang on Tight

Elizabeth Leu, owner of Fiddlesticks and Orange Bird, on navigating “the wildest ride” in nearly two decades as a retailer.

Owner Elizabeth Leu puts safety first.

How has the pandemic impacted your business?  When the shelter-in-place order was first announced in San Francisco, Fiddlesticks was in full swing. We were having a great year, and suddenly it felt like a big bucket of ice-cold water got tossed in my face. We quickly dropped to operating at 10 percent. All of my staff members were temporarily let go, and I was left holding two stores up on my own.

Was it difficult for Fiddlesticks to adapt? It was challenging, but we made it work. And if there is a silver lining in all of this, it’s that our website is now a much stronger revenue channel than pre-pandemic. With the stores closed, my attention went straight to putting a spotlight on the Fiddlesticks online presence. We offered 20 percent off gift certificates, added face masks to our inventory and began discounting our clothing. During the first few weeks, customers came out of the gate strong and really jumped on buying those gift certificates. Then, as weeks turned into months, the online business picked up and held steady. On the other hand, Orange Bird, my gift and stationary store, was 100 percent dead in the water in the beginning.

How’d you bring Orange Bird up to speed? It did not have a webstore presence, but that all changed when Faire (an online wholesale portal) approached us to bring it online. We worked closely with them to get on their new Neighborhood platform. With their strong marketing program we started to generate some revenue in May, and are now well positioned with them to create a bigger and better web presence.

Would you rank the pandemic as your toughest challenge to date? Yes, surely the most difficult hurdle I’ve had to overcome in more than 17 years of being a retailer. But hey, that’s life as a business owner. One day your business is standing tall, the next it gets knocked down to its knees. Without a doubt, this has been the wildest ride yet.

Were either of your stores impacted by the rioting  in June? Luckily, we have full window coverage with our security gates, but we had just merchandised both stores and put loads of product in the windows for curbside shopping. We raced down, pulled everything out of the windows and covered them up. And we weren’t the only ones. The entire neighborhood was out boarding up their windows. For the next few days, I was constantly waking up in the middle of the night to helicopters, alerts on my phone and checking my cameras hourly to make sure the stores were okay. About a few nights into the rioting, Fiddlesticks had someone tugging and cutting on its security gate. We had to get that fixed which required a hefty repair bill.

Have you adapted your inventory to customers’ new lifestyle? Oh, yes. The biggest pivot has been looking at our product selection and turning it on its side. Art supplies, puzzles, crafts, activity sets…Parents want things that educate and keep the kids busy. Prior to our reopening in mid-June, we spent time reordering more books than normal, lots of art supplies from Ooly, puzzles from Crocodile Creek, games and interactive toys from Wild & Wolf and outdoor activity items. We also have a large selection of kids and adult masks from Cookie & the Dude that have been very popular. As for apparel, we’ve brought in more swimsuits, tees and shorts and have a generous sale going on to help generate interest and increase cash flow.

What are you doing to keep shoppers safe? In order to enter, all customers must wear a mask and use our provided hand sanitizer. We had to remove the kids play table, close the dressing room, and take away our famous gumball machine. We are also only allowing five customers in the store at any given time. People have been very patient and receptive to our protocol. Honestly, everyone is just so happy to be shopping in-store again!

What keeps you optimistic about the future? Fiddlesticks is one of a few remaining children’s toy and clothing boutiques in San Francisco. We have been here for over 17 years and anticipate being here for decades to come. I think retail will evolve post-pandemic, just as trends evolve. We are all moving through this pandemic at the same time, and every one of us has our own struggles. The best part is we’re all aware of that fact, and it’s what’s keeping us bonded for a stronger, more compassionate future ahead.

TwEEN Spirit

Lisa Burik, owner of Frankie’s on the Park, takes on the pandemic with passion, patience and perseverance.

Owner Lisa Burik remains cool and connected to tween customers.

Pandemic Purge: I’m not a store that puts on sales frequently, but I had to change my tune during this pandemic. At the end of March, we held a big three-day sale. Seeing what was on the horizon, I wanted to act quickly and get rid of merchandise. We took 40 percent off the whole store—including sale items.  At the end of April, I held another sale. This approach was successful. I got rid of so much inventory that I was well-positioned to restock. Once people were ready to shop again, I wanted to have newness for them. So, in May, that’s when I began bringing in all new product.

Open Sesame: We reopened in early June, and the first weekend was great, and it continues to be great. Since we only allow two families to shop at a time, volume is still down. I also think a lot of people left town. But my overall business remains up from last year, which includes my website, which is still really crankin’! We also started selling masks early on, which was a huge help for my bottom line. I sold thousands and thousands of dollars in masks.

Playing it Safe: As I bring in product, I’m sticking with vendors I know I can trust. I want to be loyal to them, and I want to know the quality of what I’m buying during an already uncertain time. To still offer newness, I’m resorting to brands I used to carry long ago. For instance, I haven’t carried PJ Salvage in years, and I just brought it back. The comfy sweats are perfect for my customers’ stay-at-home lifestyle. As for trade shows, I will not be attending any. Honestly, I’d spend money on doing a pop-up before I did a trade show. Anything customer-facing will take priority right now over anything back-of-house.

Online Optimism: I’m very fortunate to have had a website prior to the pandemic. Although online was always a very small part of sales, it has quickly become the vast majority of my business. Shifting from around 10 percent to about 90 percent of my business in March and April, the traffic to my website has been phenomenal—something I’m hoping I can sustain.  I’ve added lots of new functionality and processes to ease the process of putting products up and making them shoppable. While online sales still don’t make up for my two closed brick-and-mortars, I’m grateful for the opportunity to finally focus on my online presence.  I’ve been sending more emails related to new product launches. I’ve also been posting more on social media. Frankie’s on the Park has 21,000 followers on Instagram, but I never really use social media as a direct selling platform. I will occasionally do a soft sell, allowing the visitor to click on the picture that takes them to our website, but the real selling always happens through my emails.

Dreams Do Come Digital: Frankie’s is a destination and lifestyle for tween girls, more than just a place to shop. We’ve always held a fashion camp on the second floor of our store in Chicago. Girls learn to develop their own brand with guidance from guest speakers and fashion mentors. This year, the camp was completely virtual, welcoming girls from all over the country! The program is $375 per week, and we sold out in seven days. The camp has been great for pushing inventory online and simply bringing community to young girls during this challenging time for everyone.

The Next Chapter: Overall, I feel optimistic. Girls are growing, people have birthdays, holidays aren’t canceled, and kids will have to attend school in one way or another. In case we’re forced to close down again, I want to continue investing in our website. We’ve really learned a lot from being closed, adapting on the fly and learning to do more on our own. For instance, when we couldn’t have our photographer in the store to shoot merchandise, we decided to send boxes of clothes out to girls who would photograph themselves. I must say they did an amazing job! For now, we’re just taking one day at a time. I’m going to buy much more cautiously. I have a huge business in bat mitzvah dresses and a huge business in camp, so those obviously didn’t perform during this time. So, I just have to think carefully about how and when to bring the product back and to what capacity.

Now More Than Ever

Lisa Gurwitch, president of Delivering Good, on how the industry charity is answering the call for assistance, like never before.

Delivering Good donates goods to front-line workers.

How has Covid-19 impacted Delivering Good? Our work to help lift people out of poverty is needed now more than ever; the pandemic and the job losses have brought hard times to a lot of people who were previously getting by. Our national network of community partners is working hard to meet existing and new needs. Luckily, we have received and are distributing almost 7 million donated new items, from toothbrushes and toothpaste, to socks and underwear, furniture, clothing, and all kinds of products to help people overcome adversity and live life to their full potential.

Where does the pandemic rank in your disaster relief efforts? Our current challenge would likely be the greatest in our 35 years of helping people in need. The economic environment is so bad for so many people now, and we don’t have a clear sense of when it will improve. With a hurricane or a tornado, at least you know when it is over. Right now, both we and our donors can’t predict where we will be in three months. The good news is that we have been through many challenging events before, and we do have great donors providing new merchandise for people in need now.

What have you done as a company to pivot amid this new normal? Our entire staff of 13 people are all working remotely and using Zoom, Teams, Skype and more to stay in touch. We even had three new staff members come on during this time. Unfortunately, our June 11 Women of Inspiration Luncheon had to be postponed until September 17. However, we broadcasted a 28-minute virtual event over a Zoom call on June 11, which included insights about Covid-19 challenges from past and current luncheon honorees. Anyone can go to www.Delivering-Good.org to watch the program now.

What sort of community outreach initiatives have you introduced during this pandemic? We have been contacting all of our regular donors to secure donations for the greater need that our community partners will face the rest of this year. We also have been contacted by many first-time donors giving us substantial amounts of excess new product. An important ask we are making now is for cash support to cover the extra processing and shipping costs of the large donations.

Why might you be optimistic going forward? I’m pleasantly surprised at how adaptable most everyone can be during a crisis like this. What we’ve been through is so disrupting, but it can lead us to new opportunities or solutions. The generosity and compassion we’ve always seen in the fashion, home and children’s industries is still there, and there seems to be a renewed effort to get through these times and move on to better days.

What is the biggest takeaway from all this? A big lesson we’ve learned is that everyone wants to help, and everyone wants to offer hope in this difficult time. Delivering Good lets companies and individuals be part of that hope when they support our mission. For every $10 donated to Delivering Good, $100 of new merchandise can be distributed to families in need.

Giving Back

Fred Pannek, president of Mud Pie, details the gift company’s nimble, multi-faceted approach to supporting it’s partners during these unprecedented times.

CEO Marcia Miller proudly reports donation of over 50,000 N95 masks.

Brace for Impact: Mud Pie has been around for over 30 years, and we’ve witnessed a lot of challenges—9/11, market crashes, industry disruptions, warehouse automation, but Covid-19 wins as the most disruptive across every area of the business.

When the pandemic hit, it was like someone flipped the off switch. Everything just stopped. Samples were stuck in transit, retailers shut down, orders were returned to the warehouse. While Mud Pie quickly transitioned the majority of our workforce to a work-from-home model, a skeleton crew remained at the office, including our senior leadership team and a limited number of warehouse associates.

Ready, Set, Pivot:  Our first order of business was to protect our work family. We quickly implemented technology that allowed most of our staff to work from home. We then partnered with retailers to assist with orders, terms and support them in whatever ways we could help. But, most importantly, we continued to do what we do best: design great product and build in margin opportunity for retailers. We launched all of our new collections on time and our OneCoast Mud Pie Sales Division reps were very active, selling on ‘the virtual road.’ Our marketing presence has remained strong over the past several months.  Some creative partnerships, like a virtual baby shower with @mckennableu and participation in Earnshaw’s Buyer Box, were well-received.

Mask Market: The Miller family was able to secure 50,000 N95 masks that they quickly distributed to front line healthcare workers. But even more importantly, Mud Pie has continued to support its ongoing Give Back partnerships at a time when non-profits are seeing huge losses in revenue.  Mud Pie will continue to work with American Cancer Society to provide free wigs for cancer patients and with Operation Shower to provide baby shower gifts to military families.

A New Normal: Mud Pie is strongly positioned for continued growth. Our supply chain is strong and we expect to ship most of our new introductions by the end of July. Our workforce returned to our Stone Mountain headquarters in early May with many new safety protocols in place including temperature screenings for employees and additional staff designated for cleaning throughout the day. We are equipped to work with retailers in whatever way they feel most comfortable. We are launching a new Digital Showroom and are also preparing to attend August gift shows.

The Bigger Picture: Great products and strong relationships count. We have very strong relationships with our retailers and have worked very hard to support them during these difficult times.  In turn, our retailers have been supportive of Mud Pie. They know that Mud Pie product sells and, in a difficult business environment, that counts for a lot!

Stronger Together

Sari Sloane, co-founder of Everafter, sounds off on the power of a dedicated team and why better days lie ahead.

Pandemic Pivots: The pandemic proved we can modify our business model and still have a customer-first philosophy.  In return, our customers showed us incredible loyalty. Our associates were incredibly successful with selling on Instagram, consistently sharing new arrivals that fit in with our customers’ stay-at-home lifestyle. We focused our attention on e-commerce and were able to ship to our clients in a timely and safe manner. We shifted our inventory to include more comfy merchandise, such as matching lounge sets and cozy PJs. Remaining flexible was the key to our success, and we couldn’t be more grateful for customers’ support.

Back in Business: Our boutiques just reopened for curbside pickup in New York. Outside of New York, we’re offering personal appointments and limited capacity shopping. As you can imagine, our teams are thrilled to be back in the stores. To ensure everyone feels comfortable, we provide masks to all clients and access to hand sanitizers. Safety is our number one priority.

Better Together: We partnered with many friends on social media over the course of the pandemic to stay engaged with our clients and offer some of the unique experiences we would offer in store on social media. We had an Earth Day initiative where kids submitted artwork for a giveaway. We had a baking seminar with Dana’s Bakery. We had a mommy and kids yoga seminar. We chatted with Karolina Kurkova on kids’ health.

Looking Ahead: I’m optimistic about the future. Even amid a pandemic, we have incredible clients, a dedicated and adaptable team and a niche market.  As a fairly new business, this ranks as the most challenging experience we’ve faced. But I don’t necessarily view this as a challenge. Instead, it’s a way to show growth and adaptation to our community.   


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