Whitney Mayhew is the owner of Broken Spoke Boutique, which is located in Valentine, Nebraska. She runs the store, which stocks women’s and children’s clothing, as well as high-end accessories. We sat down with Whitney to ask what she’s done as a boutique owner to keep her shop going during the coronavirus crisis.
Robin: Thanks so much for meeting with me, Whitney. So, where do your sales normally come from?
Whitney: Most of our sales tend to come through our store front, that’s normally how we operate. We also have an online website as well.
Robin: What do you sell?
Whitney: We focus a lot on women’s clothing, children’s clothing, and offer a variety of other accessories. We have a lot of handmade items, from Abound and other vendors that make their products here in the US. We focus on those items because they’re very unique and you cannot get them anywhere else. We also offer home decor and a little bit of everything!
Robin: So right now, how is your town being affected by the coronavirus? What’s the status of in-person shopping in your area?
Whitney: We’re a small town, with a population of 3,000. But we service the community around us within about a two hour radius. So a lot of people come to our town for their shopping needs.
With the coronavirus, a lot of people are practicing social distancing and staying at home, which has caused a decrease in our sales.
We have all seen it, and there are some businesses in town who are working hard to adapt to this situation. It’s been difficult, but we have to find ways to change so that we can continue to stay open.
Robin: Boutique owners who want to keep their shops going during coronavirus have had to focus on ecommerce. Have you always had an ecommerce site as well?
Whitney: Yes. We have had our website for over three years now and have a following. During the past four weeks, we’ve had to focus more attention on our website and social media.
We’ve been taking more pictures of our products to post on social media, and showing our clients how our products can be used. One of the things we like to promote is to give a gift to someone during this time. It puts a smile on their face and that is what we need right now!
One of the things that we’ve implemented with our online ordering is in-town delivery. We can also set up a time for you to pick up your item in the store or curbside. Even though our storefront is closed, we are still working in the shop and we are shipping orders out all over the US.
We’ve had to work with our social media content because that is what everyone is looking at right now. They’re on their phones and their computer while they are at home. We’re trying to provide more of a shopping experience. I try on the clothing to show them how it fits a woman who is 5’7”, 150lbs, and a size 8. Or I’ll work with people taking pictures and FaceTiming with them so they can see the products we have.
We have also had to increase our social media posts. That way you’re having your viewers see more content and have them interacting more, because we all know the algorithm is always changing. One thing I recommend is posting multiple times a day, and switching between different formats like live videos and regular posts to increase interaction. Even if I’ve posted something last week, I may post it again just to bring familiarity to our customers.
We have been using these techniques for a long time, but we have had to amp it up. We’re 100% online right now, but I’m still working the entire day, getting content together for our customers so they can have an easier and more convenient shopping experience.
Robin: All that makes total sense. So, I’m curious about what your thought process was like, and what your initial thoughts were about being a boutique owner needing to keep a shop going during coronavirus. I assume you didn’t have a folder in your office labeled ‘In Case A Global Pandemic Breaks Out.’
Whitney: You know, when everything first started happening, before they really recommended staying at home, my husband and I were already talking about what to do.
As boutique owners that wanted to stay safe, but also wanted to stay open during coronavirus, we went ahead and started implementing what the CDC was recommending with cleaning your shop and making sure you had hand sanitizer available.
We would clean throughout the day, but we also noticed we did not have as much traffic when people were staying at home, especially since the schools were closed and the parents had their kids at home with them.
So after doing that for just over a week, we decided to limit the amount of people coming in. In a boutique, you have a smaller space and you want to make sure people feel safe and their space is respected.
We had that in place for another week and after that we realized that even though we were following the CDC guidelines, we felt more comfortable with the storefront being closed.
From there, we’ve been working hard to build our online presence, and making a safer environment for everyone.
Robin: What was the process like of starting deliveries? That seems like a logistically hard thing to do on short notice.
Whitney: I know some of the bigger cities and boutiques that I follow deliver within a certain mile radius of their shop. For us, it’s within our city limits. I can go across town in a mile and a half. So, it’s easy to do deliveries, I can just put products right on the customer’s doorsteps. They do not have to worry about interacting, they feel safe, and they are able to get the items they’ve been wanting without going out.
Robin: How are you feeling overall? Obviously none of us like this, but just in terms of your business, how are you feeling in terms of hopefulness for the present moment and the general future?
Whitney: One thing I have been seeing through social media and from my friends all over the US, is that they support small businesses. We are all in this together and it is through the support of one another we will get through this.
It’s uneasy trying to predict where things are going. They keep extending the period to stay at home, and so I wonder, how is it going to continue to work for us and the local businesses?
We’re staying positive, and hope, in the long run, when this is over that people will come back into town and do all the activities they’re wanting to do out here. We’re hoping that they are going to shop and support small businesses.
There’s a lot of hope and prayer, but I do believe we will all get through this, it just takes a different mindset and strategy to try your best to stay positive through this situation.
Robin: That’s great advice. You totally don’t have to answer this if you don’t want, but I’m curious, have you had a talk with your landlord about paying rent during this time?
Whitney: Thankfully, I do own my building, so I do not have to worry about a landlord to pay. Our bank has already reached out to us and told us that they are here for us during this time.
One thing I’d recommend for businesses is to try and have a savings account. Do your best during the good times to put money back in case you need it for bad times. Normally this time of year tends to be a slower retail time in general. You want to make sure you have a reserve fund set up for any kind of unexpected events.
Robin: Yeah, definitely. Just like a lot of things, it seems like some of this is based on personal relationships where we all have to be understanding and do whatever we can if we’re in a position to let people off the hook a little bit.
Whitney: Definitely, and I hope that would be the case. Sometimes landlords have a loan they have to pay on the building, and some of them own their buildings. So if there is an issue then be open and talk to them. You never know until you ask, and most of the time people are going to try and help.
Robin: Yeah. So out of all the different techniques you’ve started doing are there any you’d say are the best?
Whitney: One thing we’ve been doing is creating our own memes! We’ve been doing this in-between our inventory posts. It helps our newsfeed to look more attractive, and I’ve also noticed that we get more interactions on social media, which is great for your followers.
Also, do not be afraid to post about yourself. People want to know who you are as a person. This also increases your social media reach.
For example, we renovated our whole entire building, every year we post about it and we get so many interactions because they’re seeing what we’ve personally done to our building. By being yourself, it lets people see who you are and develops that relationship with you and the business.
Robin: Yeah, definitely. This isn’t about how shop owners can keep their boutique going during coronavirus, but I’m curious what your general philosophy for buying product for your store is. What are some qualities a product can have that really make you want to stock it?
Whitney: One of the comments I hear about my store is the variety we offer. I can have women who are 80 years old come in, and at the same time have a teenager come in. I love it, that’s my goal right there. I also love natural and organic items, so whenever I’m buying any candle or skincare items, I want to make sure they are going to be safe, because if it’s not safe enough for my children, I’m not going to sell it to you and your children.
Before I moved to Nebraska and had my boutique, I always loved going to vendor events in Charleston, SC and Asheville, NC. I would always come back with handmade jewelry or something unique made by an artist. I wanted that in my boutique and I love it because I want people to have a unique experience when they come in. I want people to find something they’re not going to find anywhere else, and I want people to enjoy themselves and feel comfortable here as well.
Robin: Well, thank you so much! Your posts are really standing out.
Whitney: Thank you!