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Full Steam Ahead

As the coronavirus turned the world upside down, these new businesses had to adapt and think creatively to get off the ground.

Shannon Latham, founder and designer of Little English and Bisby.

The pandemic and subsequent recession ravaged many established businesses, both big and small.  Since stay-at-home orders took effect over a year ago, companies have struggled to sustain their operations due to sharp declines in revenue. Many brick-and-mortar stores have closed for good. Established brands have filed for Chapter 11.  Retailers big and small closed 12,200 stores in the U.S. last year, according to composite research released in January by commercial real estate firm CoStar Group. All the while, some brave startups weathered the storm during their businesses’ formative period and persevered through the pandemic. These nimble-minded founders have taken the leap and are on track for post-pandemic success. 

“I have always said that you keep finding a way forward. If you hear no, that doesn’t mean it’s no everywhere. You have to be resourceful, but you have to be committed and truly adapt to move forward,” says Shannon Latham, founder and designer of Little English and Bisby.

Her instincts and resolve not only led her to launch a whole new line, Bisbee, but also to expand sizes in her established brand of timeless childrenswear. Following through on plans that began in March of 2019, Ms. Latham never looked back.  “We had put so many man-hours and so much money and effort into planning the development of Bisbee and the extension of the line. We worked with our PR company and several other marketing firms and captured an amazing group of influencers to help us launch this line.  I didn’t want to miss that opportunity. I decided while everyone else is pulling back, we’re going to push the throttle forward and be ready.  ” she explains.

At no point during the development, building, and opening of Alara + Zane, a children’s retail store and play space in Raleigh, NC, has founder and owner Sanaa Alyemeni considered giving up her vision.  “I worked so hard with a lot of different people to build the space. I worked with marketing and branding experts as well.  Everything came together so well, and it is built out perfectly. I know we are providing the best experience to each family that comes in,” she remarks.

Bisby offers girls a fun palette of colors, textures, & prints.

But these exceptional founders are not immune to the hurdles the pandemic has presented. They have had to overcome and adapt to the same challenges faced by other retailers.

“It’s such a challenging time, but it does make you sit back and be more creative with your business offerings. It’s kind of interesting. I think that it challenges your creativity. I’m always thinking of how do we offer experiences that will bring in and engage people,” says Ms. Alyemeni.

Along with private shopping and play appointments, curbside pick up, and nation-wide shipping, Alara + Zane also offers a gifting service. “Someone can message us on Instagram or give us a call and say they want a gift, tell us their budget, who they’re shopping for. We’ll put together three gift ideas. We’ll send them pictures of the options. Then they’ll select one, and we put it together, wrap it. We then bring it out to their car or ship it where it needs to go,” she explains.

While capacity limits and decreased foot traffic have been pain points for store owners, logistical issues have been particularly challenging for manufacturers.  “We faced slower production times. Factories were being shut down in Central and South America for months at a time. Our facilities in China as well were shut down. It took a lot of planning and changing the logistics of how we got our productions on.  We had to very quickly make decisions on how we were going to get some things produced,” recounts Ms. Latham.

But founders who can stomach the risks of this uncertain time can reap great rewards.

“Our sales were up 48% for fall. So we’re heading in the right direction. In our guts, we knew that if we offer Little English to size 14, we would see a very good response. For Bisbee, we showed it in Atlanta in January. And its did just bang-up. I mean, we had stores writing great orders,” notes Ms. Latham.

While there is still uncertainty with retail spaces, Ms. Alyemeni sees the glass half full. “Even though every month is still really challenging, the silver lining to it is the people who come in; whether they come in one time or they’re coming in multiple times a week, they have such good things to say.  If it’s from a grandparent that says, ‘Gosh, I really wish this was here when my kids were young’,  to an aunt that’s shopping for her niece or nephew saying how adorable the clothes are and how you can’t find anything like this in the area. It’s great to hear that. We’ve worked so hard to execute on something that is what people want. There’s nothing better than your customer’s feedback, whether it’s good or bad.  That’s how you learn and you grow, and you adapt your business,” she states.

Playtime meets retail at Alara + Zane in Raleigh, NC. The play-integrated retail space stands out as a unique shopping experience.



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