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Black Voices in Childrenswear: Michelle Vanderlaan

Michelle Vanderlaan, owner of Sugarcup Trading in Oak Park, IL, on the resilience, creativity and flexibility of small businesses during even the most trying times.

Michelle Vanderlaan, owner of Sugarcup Trading

How’s business? We are grateful for the continued support of our community. This is a challenging time to be a small business, but we remain optimistic as we move back towards regular operations. Every order, call of support, mention of our store on social media beyond our community has been appreciated! We are approaching reopening in phases. Our doors open for in-store appointments starting June 5. We want to prioritize the health and safety of our customers and team members, while also taking into consideration the government guidelines. On June 12, we will fully open our storefront.

How has the pandemic impacted Sugarcup Trading? This pandemic caught all of us by surprise. When I closed my storefront on March 15, I initially thought we would be closed only for a few weeks. I made the decision to keep my entire team employed. I felt responsible for everyone’s livelihood and felt that I needed to do whatever it took to keep my team intact. It’s now been almost three months, and it has been challenging to say the least, but there have been some silver linings. 

How have you managed to still drive sales? Although we are generating much less than our normal revenue volume, over 90 percent of current revenue is generated via e-commerce.  I felt we had to change our mindset and completely flip our processes and the way we do things. Instead of having a brick-and-mortar with a website (95 percent in store sales to 5 percent online), we now have an e-commerce business that has a physical showroom (90 percent online, 10 percent via phone/virtual). We had to focus on order fulfillment, delivery processes and shipping. The team had to be quickly retrained and focused on e-commerce, social media and web maintenance. We have learned so much over the past three months in regards to e-commerce and social media. Ironically, due to the closure, we now have the time to learn about e-commerce and build the necessary  infrastructure that will support us now and in the future. 

Any other “positives” to come out of this pandemic? I think one of the silver linings from the pandemic is the immense ground swell of people wanting to shop and support local businesses. They want their neighborhood stores and restaurants to reopen. They have a huge sense of gratitude for first responders extending beyond healthcare workers—grocery store clerks, restaurant workers and  delivery people. This sense of community really gave me fuel, hope and inspiration to continue to push through to not only get my business up and running but to also to help the business community as a whole. As a result, I recently joined Oak Park’s Business Recovery Task Force which is designed to work with the Village and other officials to get the resources needed to get local businesses back open.

What strategies have been particularly helpful to pivot amid this new normal? We have been able to prioritize the optimization of our e-commerce platform, working to ensure that our customers have a great online shopping experience and that all of our products are online. One of the best decisions we made was offering same-day free local delivery, making shopping with Sugarcup fast, convenient and safe.  Our online website paired with this instant delivery service was a game changer. We were now beating out Amazon’s delivery capacity along with our customers supporting local. It truly was a win-win. We also layered our online and delivery service with events, such as a Virtual Warehouse Sale, Virtual Concierge Shopping and Virtual Zoom Shopping Parties for loved ones who were sheltered apart.

Have you participated in the Black Lives Matter movement? Our team members have participated in conversations on social media and within our community, as well as made donations to multiple non-profits and groups supporting peaceful protestors and the pursuit of justice. I think it is important to show leadership in Black Lives Matter movement. Many of our customers have reached out wanting to know how they can help or support. In addition to protesting and contacting local leaders to change their policies, support can come in many different forms. Whether it’s donating to organizations such as, buying books to educate their kids on race that are written by black authors or have black protagonists or seeking out or supporting black-owned businesses in the community are a few ways that customers can support this movement and make a direct impact.

Did the looting and vandalism in Oak Park affect your store at all? We are grateful we have not been directly affected. Unfortunately, a few local businesses in Oak Park and on my street were vandalized and looted. It was quite unsettling to think that after the long closures caused by the pandemic, that you are now concerned about rioting and potential destruction of your business. This is the first week that many businesses are trying to reopen.  It’s really a tough situation for small businesses. I have many colleagues across the country who have had to board up and abandon their businesses.

How have your vendors responded to this turbulent time? In regard to Covid-19, many vendors really stepped up to help retailers. This is the time where we see true partnership. Some of the companies that stand out are Tea Collection and Kickee Pants, who not only allowed retailers to cancel their spring orders and modify their fall orders, but they also gave a 20 percent discount if/when we are ready to take the order.  Red Caribou’s response was simply outstanding. They gave retailers free masks to use as a traffic driver (gift with purchase) when stores reopened. They also teamed up to supply giveaways and promote specific businesses on social media.  Companies such as Molo, Mayoral, Brandworks and Me + Henry, held inventory in warehouses until we were ready to open our doors. These are the type of vendors I call true partners and will make sure I continue to build my business with them.

Regarding Black Lives Matters, many of our vendors have posted a black screen on Blackout Tuesday. There are a few that stand out for having direct, transparent conversations or taking noticeable action. A few of these standout vendors are: Tea Collection (direct conversation, education and donation), Livie & Luca and  Eeboo (they create products that directly support Black Lives Matters) and Baby Bling (direct conversation). They may not have all the answers, but they are willing to take action and to talk about it.

What’s your biggest takeaway from all this? Community matters.  Supporting local is here to stay. The customer’s shopping expectation is forever changed. All small businesses must embrace e-commerce and find creative ways to leverage social media.  Small businesses are resilient, creative and have unbelievable flexibility.

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