By Sara Hodon

Small business owners know better than most how important it is to be flexible and willing to adapt your operation to meet the ever-changing needs of customers and rise to various challenges. This has certainly been the case for businesses of all sizes during the recent COVID-19 pandemic; independent retailers have had to be particularly resourceful just to keep their doors open and fulfill customer requests. Niche retailers like country stores said their unique offerings (apparel and accessories among them) and customer service continue to be hallmarks of their operation, even as they adjust how they do business.

Partner C.S. Wurzberger of the 1836 Country Store in Wilmington, Vt., cutting Vermont cheddar cheese. The store has upgraded its website due to the pandemic.

C.S. Wurzberger, partner in the 1836 Country Store in Wilmington, Vt., said their selection of apparel and accessories cater to their large tourist customer demographic. “We sell T-shirts and sweatshirts that say ‘Vermont’ along with fun, playful designs of PJ pants and matching T-shirts for adults and children, baby rompers and bibs. We also sell novelty socks with fun wildlife designs.” In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Wurzberger said they closed the store to the public, with only one or two employees in the store at a given time. “We have completely sanitized our store—registers, coolers, counters, computers, et cetera,” she explained.

Of the North Rim Country Store in Fredonia, Ariz., from left to right: Sarah Eickhoff, Tim Hager, Betsy Hager and Tyler Hager. The store has been offering free local contactless delivery to many of its neighboring communities.

Alton Country Store in Alton, N.H., carries products like gifts, apparel, and accessories from over 80 different local vendors and artisans. Owner Rachel Hall said maintaining a sanitary store has always been a priority, but she and her staff have been even more vigilant since the coronavirus outbreak. “When news first broke of a COVID-19 outbreak, we immediately closed our doors for the safety of our employees and patrons,” she explained. “Since temporarily suspending in-store sales on March 12, we have adjusted our business model to offer free local contactless delivery to many of our neighboring communities.” There may be fewer visitors to the Grand Canyon these days, but the folks at North Rim Country Store in Fredonia, Ariz., are taking the necessary steps to ensure the customers who come into their store feel safe. “We have installed Plexiglas in front of the cash registers, we limit the amount of people in the store, and we have ‘X’’s on the floor to indicate a six-foot distance in front of the cash register,” explained Betsy Hager, owner, and Sarah Eickhoff, marketing manager for North Rim. The store carries a range of essentials for campers and hikers, as well as a selection of apparel and accessories so visitors can purchase a few souvenirs from their stay: “Our best-sellers in apparel are our custom T-shirts and sweatshirts. In accessories, our best-sellers are hats for summer and winter wear, gloves, and bandanas.” The staff at North Rim is doing many of the same practices as retailers all over the country—“Just constant cleaning. Wiping down all counters, door handles…anything a customer will touch.”

North Rim Country Store Employee Sarah Eickhoff photographed with a large Smokey Bear patch collection. The store carries a range of essentials for campers and hikers.

Laura Catherine Moon, owner of Wildflower Café and Country Store in Mentone, Ala., said her business is one-of-a-kind, and customers love that fact. “It’s an experience. We have gardens outside that enchant you. We sell vegan chocolates, art in many different forms…I try to put a unique twist on things. Wildflower has a different flair than what you might find in many other places. We’re about spreading the message of love and connection, and people connect through food, art, and nature.” Moon carries an eclectic inventory of apparel and accessories, including a selection of hand-crocheted scarves and shawls, hand-painted ball caps, and original Wildflower Café T-shirts and sweatshirts, which are among the biggest sellers. “Some people will buy the crocheted items because I model them often—it makes you look like a work of art. People who want to spend a little more money will buy things like that,” Moon said. Like other independent retailers, Moon has had to modify her business’ operation. “We’re shut down but working on an online store where we’ll sell our T-shirts and sweatshirts, and certain crocheted items. We never did this before, so it’s like setting up a whole new business.” Deciding to shut down wasn’t easy, but Moon said she had to put the safety of her staff and customers first. “I live in a huge tourist destination. I didn’t want to encourage people to come to this small town, which has so many elderly people, if they weren’t already going to be here,” she said. Moon is used the “forced downtime” to brainstorm ideas for future in-store events and do some team building activities with her staff. “One of the things I’m doing is getting my staff to complete two personality tests and turn them back in to me, so I get a better understanding of my core staff. I’m also hiring an event coordinator and we’ll really start promoting events for all those people who missed reunions, weddings, and graduations. We’ll have to get really creative for how to accommodate people.”

Employee Tim Hager of the North Rim Country Store making sure all the store’s souvenirs are up and ready for its customers. The store took safety measures such as the installation of Plexiglas in front of cash registers in response to the pandemic.

Technology plays a vital role in keeping everyone connected, but never more than during the time of COVID-19. Until the global pandemic hit, some retailers didn’t realize they needed to boost their digital marketing efforts. Hall said prior to the coronavirus, her store had a basic but serviceable website; in the months that followed, Hall said, she and her team shifted their focus to improving their online presence. “Prior to this change in business, our website was a work in progress, and while it still is, we’ve had to learn how to become web designers very quickly. We added hundreds of items in a week and continue to add more each day so we can help support the sales of our more than 80 vendors and artisans,” she explained. Wurzberger said they have upgraded the 1836 Country Store’s website, as well: “We offer online sales and curbside pickup. Limited items are available on our new website, but most of our customers know their favorite items and simply call us to place their order.” Social media continues to play an important role in how retailers stay connected with their customers. Hall said, “It’s been a huge help with spreading the word of our free, local contact-less delivery. It allows us to reach thousands of people and give live updates as we make changes. It has also allowed us to make live time updates on some of our sales.” Wurzberger said social media has been vital to their sales right now: “It’s the tool that’s keeping the online sales coming in. We put together some ‘quick buy’ items for $20 with free shipping, making it easy for people to buy. We then share all the posts on our personal and business pages. Customers recognize how important it is to support small businesses during this difficult time.” They are also adding small personal touches where they can: “We’re sending out personal letters to all of our previous mail order customers from the past two years to tell them we’re looking forward to seeing them when the quarantine is over. This is a time where we all need to come together. It’s hard for everyone to be isolated. Sending, receiving, and reading social media updates, and personal notes is a wonderful way to stay connected with our customers. It makes us smile and them smile.”

A candy cabinet at the 1836 Country Store. The store’s registers, coolers, counters, computers and more have been completely sanitized.

Retailers stressed how appreciative they are to their customers for their continued support during a time that changes from moment to moment rather than day to day. Although it’s been a challenge to navigate the unpredictable business climate caused by COVID-19, Spring 2020 has been a season of change and learning. Moon said, “I’ve learned that I’m not in control. As a business owner, how you’re successful is how you control your business environment. When you literally can’t do that, it’s hard for those of us who like control. I’m just glad I have as much imagination as determination.”

Employee Tyler Hager of the North Rim Country Stores setting up a custom apparel display. The store carries a selection of apparel and accessories.