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Personalized window shopping, mini pop-up markets: how businesses are innovating amid COVID-19

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WATCH: The pandemic has hit local businesses hard, but some are innovating to keep their doors open. Abigail Bimman looks at how small companies are coming up with big ideas in the pursuit of profits and positivity. – Dec 9, 2020

When the coronavirus pandemic closed the doors of Kim Smiley’s business, she opened a window.

Unable to have customers in her store due to COVID-19 restrictions in Toronto, the fashion activist is now offering personalized window shopping sessions instead — door open or closed, at the customer’s preference.

Customers can book personalized appointments with Smiley or a stylist, and see her products either through the glass window at her storefront, or through the open main door. If it’s done behind glass, customers can be on the phone throughout the appointment, and Smiley will model pieces they’re interested in. If they make a purchase, they can get “curbside delivery” on the spot.

“Because I couldn’t invite people inside the store, I wanted to create an experience for them, so I thought, why not create an opportunity for interactive window shopping?” she told Global News.

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Smiley had run her business out of her home since 2014 and opened her flagship store just two weeks before new restrictions hit Toronto.

The Kim Smiley store is meant to be a place to both feature and create her lace-based jewelry and accessories. (They are manufactured on-site by Syrian newcomers paid a “fair trade wage.”) The store also includes an art gallery, and Smiley wanted to host workshops about empathy as part of her nonprofit, the Empathy Effect.

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“A lot of people are talking about how they pivoted. I like to think of it more as pirouetting, because it takes agility and it takes a lot of muscle in order to innovate and think of creative solutions to deal with a pandemic,” said Smiley.

Empathy courses will now be held online in January, and Smiley offers virtual shopping sessions from home, too, no window required.

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“We shouldn’t give up on beauty. Even though it’s COVID, and people are quite anxious, people are still going on Zoom calls, and it makes you feel good to get dressed up and wear some jewelry,” she said.

“People are enjoying it, because it’s light, right? It’s light, and people need light right now because there is so much darkness,” Smiley said of the new window shopping model.

Read more: Trudeau family wore designs by Toronto fashion activist during India trip

Customer Francine Phillips purchased a lace cuff and some pins for colleagues. She said she works in retail herself, and appreciates the lengths Smiley took to create a safe and clean setup.

“It’s one thing to get it online and have it in a day. It’s another to connect with people,” said Phillips. “I admire businesses that try to be innovative but still client-focused.”

Kim Smiley serves a customer as part of her personalized window shopping experience. Kevin Smith / Global News

Restaurants across Canada are facing similar restrictions and challenges. December is usually the most profitable month, a time to shore up reserves through holiday gatherings, parties and corporate events, in preparation for a usually-slow January.

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Not this year.

“I’m in my nearly 20th year of restaurant ownership. I’ve been through the boom and bust of the oil cycles and this is by far the worst,” said Stephen Deere, owner of Modern Burger in Calgary.

Read more: Half of Canada’s dining establishments at risk of shutting down: restaurant association

Deere already had a unique concept: he says his restaurants are the only ones in Canada to own their own bull, with their own line of proprietary meat.

But launching Modern Burger in March 2020 meant he had to pivot and then pivot again, said Deere.

“It’s taking every kind of creative force we have to be able to keep the doors open.”

During the first wave, Deere shifted the Modern Burger concept to a ghost kitchen, focused on takeout. And it worked: they sold close to 14,000 burgers to go.

When restaurants reopened, so did his, with sit-down options.

But now, with new restrictions in Calgary, Deere has moved back to the curbside and delivery model — offering competitive “COVID-19 pricing.” A burger is $7.95. Date night Wednesday offers two wagyu beef cheeseburgers, fries and two glasses of wine for $44.

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That’s not an option for all restaurants, with many forced to raise prices instead. Deere says owning their own product helps, and, with skeleton staff due to the closures, his labour costs are down too.

“Everything is on the table right now, about how to keep the doors open, keep profitability. So our focus is on just making it to sunnier days, and we’re doing everything we can to make it to that point,” said Deere.

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The latest statistics on the Canadian Federation of Independent Business’ (CFIB) recovery dashboard shows only 29 per cent of small businesses across the country are conducting a normal level of sales. Yet, 43 per cent of owners report working more hours than they have before.

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“For most independent businesses across Canada, 2020 has been the toughest year they’ve ever had, both emotionally and financially,” said CFIB executive vice-president Laura Jones.

A lot of those hours are poured into developing an online presence — the CFIB reports more than 156,000 Canadian businesses have done that or are in the process of doing so since the pandemic began.

“That can be over a week’s worth of work, where you’re taking photos of all your products and then you’re getting that posted. You’re learning the technology. You’re figuring out how to deal with your orders,” said Jones.

Read more: Okanagan retailers plead for shoppers to support local businesses during holidays

That sounds familiar to Heather Lee.

When the Vancouverite launched her gardening, landscaping and floral business Home & Harvest by Heather in March, she wasn’t expecting to have an online presence right away.

But to deal with the pandemic that was developing alongside her business, Lee built her own website that takes orders, launched a social media presence, and hosted online sessions with plans to expand them outside Vancouver in 2021.

“It’s been a lot to change and transition so quickly and to figure out the back end. I am not extremely tech-savvy. I don’t have a background in coding or developing websites,” said Lee.

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Craft shows and holiday markets usually mean big business for local makers in the holiday season. When it became clear they wouldn’t happen as usual in Vancouver this year, Lee took matters into her own wreath-making hands.

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“I decided to create my own holiday market and reach out to some of my favorite local coffee shops and host an outdoor market, where I was the only vendor. We had social distancing lineups, contactless payment.”

One of Home & Harvest by Heather’s pop-up markets. Submitted: Heather Lee

Her business takes up time in other ways she hadn’t imagined — due to COVID-19 she’s driving all over doing deliveries rather than having clients come to her — but she’s taking it in stride and is pleased with sales so far.

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“If I look at it as a blessing rather than a curse, I know that moving next year, or the year after, into business that I do have all of these other items in my back pocket that I can pull out. Yes, I was forced to learn how to create online submission forms. I was forced to learn how to digitally host virtual workshops. Now I know how to do it.”