Pre And Post COVID - How To Bounce Back - AND BE MORE HUMAN (With Guest Jen Burris Of Ivory Closet)
As a business owner, you've been through a lot - a rollercoaster. Today I sat down with small business owner, Jen Burris of Ivory Closetboutique women's clothing store in Memphis, TN, to share how COVID-19 changed her business forever. And while the pandemic brought her out of the in-store environment to a more online landscape, she adapted, and it's paying her back now as the world opens back up. Jen has a ton of great insights that all businesses can incorporate to just be more human, especially with our email marketing.
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Pre And Post COVID - How To Bounce Back - AND BE MORE HUMAN (With Guest Jen Burris Of Ivory Closet)
In the spirit of the crazy times we're living in, I want us to start weaving in how we open back up. I am excited to chat with a small business owner, Jen Burris, of Ivory Closet, a niche woman's clothing boutique located in Memphis, Tennessee. In this conversation, we're going to learn how Jen had to pivot her marketing tactics when COVID abruptly hit and how she's preparing to open back up, especially since she offers a brick-and-mortar location in the heart of Memphis. You’re going to enjoy this one.
Welcome to the show, Jen. Thanks so much for taking the time.
Thank you for having me.
I am excited to be able to jump straight into the trenches with you as a business owner. Working to navigate this transition back to normal, I'm sure it's been an emotional roller coaster.
It's been insanity and there are lots of ups and downs. A rollercoaster is a very good way to put it.
We have many readers who almost completely forget what it was like before the whole COVID pandemic. We can start by having you tell us a little bit more about Ivory Closet. In the pre-COVID times, what made you guys unique?
This is what's funny. I purchased the company in October of 2019, which is the very end of 2019. There was a normal before I acquired the company. Once we did the transition and I purchased the company, we went straight into the holidays and into COVID. I don't know that there was never a normal for me. It's been straight chaos the whole time.
What made you acquire Ivory Closet?
I was in the music business and I went to the extent that I wanted to go with that, and I wanted to transition into the fashion world. I was hand-making my pieces at the time. I have a very good friend and she's an incredible human being. She came to me and she said, “I'm ready to sell my clothing store.” She had been doing it for eight years and franchised it out at one point. There were seven locations and she's like, “I'm tired and I want to go back and get my Doctorate. I'm not passionate about this and I see your passion.” I jokingly said that she Willy Wonka-ed me.
She trusted me and my ability to take it in a creative direction. She had built the foundation of this company up over an extended period of time. I thought it was an incredible deal. We have a turnkey operation, one that's profitable. There were an enormous amount of structural changes that I wanted to make to it, but I was like, “This is a good foundation. What an incredible place to start.”
Part of it came with the ability for me to have my clothing line, which was what sold me. It always had gotten into my head that I wanted to have my own clothing line and hand-making everything. It became a passion for me and it seemed aligned. The stars aligned on it and so we were like, “This has got to be it.”
Before we talk about your dream, then jump right into COVID, tell me about how the holidays were. Did you find any certain marketing tactics that worked for you to draw people into the store? What were the holidays like before the March of 2020?
We say that like doomsday. We were so ignorant and naïve back then. It was busy and we didn't make too many structural changes in the beginning, so we were essentially running Alexandra, the prior owner’s model. We were running for business and we were doing all what she was doing. We were using the email list and social media. She was contracted in to help us for six months to make a smooth transition. She was a big part of that process too, and she's a local influencer. We were using influencer marketing, social media, and emails to reach out to the customer base.
Was there anything in particular you found helpful to bridge the gap between the online email and bringing them into the store? Were there any promos or nuggets that you were able to find success in?
Yes. We would always run little custom deals in the shop. We have one location, and we could make it personable because I’m a local personality, too. We had Alex and me in there being personal with people, letting them know when we'd come in, be able to style them, pulling people in that aspect of being personable. That worked for us.
You're living the dream and then COVID boomed in March 2020. Walk us through some of the pivots that you had to make to adapt pretty quickly.
It happened so fast. I remember calling Alex when things started to get scary. I called her and I was like, “You wouldn't happen to have a pandemic contingency plan, would you?” She was like, “I'm sorry, no." I was looking to my husband as well because he had owned businesses prior. I'm like, “I don't know. Do you have any advice for me?” She's like, “No, I don't.”
What we did was actively, day by day, looking at shifts in the market and the economy. At one point, we realized there's not too much we can do for our segment of the market, specifically within our demographic with where we are. The demand shifted so quickly for what we had to offer that we were like, “We're not going to be able to fight that.”
What we did was we did pivot a little bit into some homewares because the first thing I thought of is, “Everyone's stuck in their house. Let's do candles and pivot as far as what we offer." We started selling these needlepoint pillows with funny phrases on them and people loved them because you're stuck in your house, and to have a little bit of sunshine for your home, that was one of the ways that we were able to do that.
Clothing lines should encourage people to get up and get dressed, even though there are many things happening in the world. They must continue to be supportive and creative.
We were trying to hit a little heavier with online sales in the beginning and there were a few things that made my decision to say, “The best thing that we could do is cut as many costs as we can and lay as low to the ground as we can. This isn't going to last forever. We can't fight the absence of demand. It will rebound. What we should do is trim the fat, cut the costs, lay low and don't try harder to sell.”
I had a moral conundrum about some serious stuff going on in the world and I feel bad trying to sell to people right now, especially within the community. I don't want to seem insensitive. There was a lot to think about. I made the hard call to lay low and be patient. That has paid off for us tremendously now, but we had to do nothing and to accept it. It was almost like accepting your fate and not trying harder to go, “This is what it is right now, and we have to go with the flow. We know that it's not going to last forever. Be patient and accept the reality of what's happening right now.” It's paid off for us in the long-term but that was the hardest thing to do.
It sounds incredibly difficult because probably day by day you were doubting, “Am I making the right decision?” That seems much like a hard decision to make, but it sounds like it worked out. The one thing I'm curious about when you say you laid low, did you do any outreach or how did you feel like you tried to maybe retain those customers that you had worked so hard to gather in that real store-to-store feel?
It's funny because I came from the music world and took more of an entertainment approach to it for people who like fashion. I wanted to make funny videos for them. One day, I encourage people to clean out their closets and we've got all this time. I'm encouraging people to still get up and get dressed, because there’s socially a lot of stuff happening. To try to be supportive and still be creative.
I took less of a sales aspect and more of an entertainment aspect to take people who still love fashion. Maybe show them something they might have in their closet, show them different ways to tie a scarf, try to keep them engaged, still exist in the realm of fashion but not be salesy or pushy. That was the approach that we took.
I'm such a fan when it comes to email. Not always thinking that every single email you send has to be a promotion. It's like, “What about the education we can offer our customers?” I love that you did that. You were taking this, “Let me show you how and let me entertain you.” I'm almost 100% certain that you gave them value. Did you find that you had some more online sales or were they engaging with you still through that non-salesy approach?
I don't know if it was appreciated exactly. “Are people caught on to what we were doing?” I'm not sure, but we did. We were doing well in the online sales. What's been interesting is they've lifted the mask mandate here in Memphis. Since they have done that, we saw a massive dip in our online sales. Everyone is wanting to get out. It's like Christmas every day. It's more like people are so thirsty to be personable. Since things improved, our online sales have gone down since then. It's funny. We've had a lot of people, and from the entertainment approach too, come in and they're like, “You're Jen.” It’s been interesting. I'm like, “Yes.” It’s been a way of you're the person that was trying to be funny and be a bright spot in the whole thing. It's been interesting to see the customers who connected through that.
Seeing your pivots are outstanding. I love a story where you can create a brand that's based around no real sales tactics. That is the coolest thing ever. They're probably spreading the word.
We went from being an absolute famine to a feast. The problem I'm having right now is having to figure out how to keep my inventory. We went from the opposite issue. It's been wild.
We're starting to see things reopen. People are getting excited and they get to go in-store again. I understand what you said. You had a very personal shopping experience. Do you think that you're going to merge that online in-store presence? What are your thoughts on doing that for the future?
Honestly and subjectively, with our business model, what we do is offer something that is very personable. I would like to have more website growth in the future. Our meat and potatoes are for someone to walk into the store. We've got our clothing line in the store. The person who created that clothing line can sit with them, talk to them and pull sizing for them. I liked the personal aspect of it. There are online companies that I can't compete with. I don't have the infrastructure, but what we offer is something different, something that people will always desire.
If I learned one thing in COVID and good Lord, I would online shop to keep myself sane. I realized a lot of negative aspects of online shopping. You have something that looks good in a photo. You get it and it fits awkward. It doesn't look right on me. It doesn't look the same as it does on the model. You have to deal with sending it back and working with the customer service department and all that stuff.
What we offer is when someone comes in and if something happens, they talk to me. We don't have a customer service department. I enjoy being able to have my hands on almost all of it and being able to make it very personal. That differentiates us. I enjoy being able to sell online and we were selling all over the country. One of the things about COVID that shifted my perspective is how important it is to interact with other people. That is something that I treasure being able to do now.
The one thing that I feel like I learned a lot, especially working with many eCommerce companies, is that when you're solely online, you sometimes completely forget what it would be like if your store interacted with people one-on-one. For some of these eCommerce companies, it's like you get an email from them a few times a week. It's always a new sale, and you get to the point where you're like, “I don't even know if I want to pay attention anymore.”
The other part to me is I'm thinking of, “What is the probability?” It's almost like gambling at this point. It's almost like, “What's the probability that what I ordered is going to look like on me.” I'm not hating on eCommerce. I feel like a lot of people truly love it and prefer to shop that way. In some strange shift for me personally, I have a newfound appreciation for moving forward and having the ability to engage with people.
eCommerce companies reading this episode can also shift their perspective on how they can be a little more human. Some of the things you brought up were valid on how important it is to have a true relationship, especially your point that we can send you to this customer service department because what you bought wasn't what you thought you were going to buy. You get to be that point of truth. People can come and touch and feel those things in your store. The beauty is, if they leave, they might be able to still get it online if they want. You have the best of both worlds in some cases.
We do want to sell online, but also almost serves as a catalog because coming within the store itself is an experience. This is ridiculous, but we are doing a thing called Shots for Shots. I made these gorgeous Jell-O shots. They have glitter in them with a little piece of the edible 24 karat gold. They're glamorous and so cute.
People come in and there's an exciting atmosphere about being there. It's almost like you're shopping, but it's like in someone's closet, who you're also partying with. I don't know how to explain it, but it's an enjoyable thing. Even in COVID, when we reopened but people were still wearing masks, we were having people drive from other states to come in and sit and hang out in the atmosphere. It’s enjoyable. To be able to give that to people, but also have the online shop where they know what they're going to get. If you've never been to Ivory Closet, you take a look at the online store and you get a good idea of what you're going to find.
That's so cool that you've got that dual experience. To that point, I want to have you give advice as our closer here, but one more question. Do you have anything on your website? Are you capturing email addresses on the website too, and then can you leverage those to bring people in-store? How does that part work with your marketing? I'm assuming you're getting people from all over the place that might not be local. How do you balance bringing the locals into the store and ensuring that I've got email going out to everybody else?
Businesses must always watch the economy and any shifts in demand because it is changing so much consistently. Stay sharp with that.
We have two ways that we do that. When you click on the website, you'll get a pop-up and it offers a discount if you enter your email in. That's one way that we capture emails. Another way is at the point of sale in-store when someone makes a purchase, we either grab their email at that point or we'll encourage them to give us their email.
We also are paperless. Any receipts are either texted or emailed. When we do that, we have our pool of customers who don't bother and parade them. We have a lot going on enough to keep a steady bit of information going out, but we keep them informed when we have new arrivals at the clothing line. “We're having a sale.” That generates foot traffic or people going into the website and making purchases.
I was thinking that I get a lot of questions all the time about segmenting their database better. You have a perfect example of needing to know your segments because you would hate to invite your whole database to a local event in three days if you know you got that people on the other side of the world.
New York, California or something and we're like, “Come to our shoe event,” and they're like, “We don't care about that.”
You did say that people have been traveling to your events from other states.
That's what's funny. We are at this corner where we've got people were coming in from Arkansas, Mississippi and even sometimes Missouri coming in and wanting to see the shop. A lot of times, especially when I'm in there and we get to be hands-on and work with people, you never know. Maybe someone will come in from New York to hang out in the shop. I doubt it but we'll see. Fingers crossed.
Maybe you're one of those destination spots now where they're like, “I'm going to buy online, but if I'm ever in Tennessee, I'm going to go stop by.”
The ultimate goal is making it not just a store. It's like if you're going to Memphis, you got to go to this place because it is funky that people are fun. Our staff there are amazing, and you don't feel like you walked into some store, mall or strip mall. It feels like you're in something that they truly care about and have built with a lot of care.
What advice would you give other small businesses that are heading back into this newly reopened world? They're probably working hard to get new customers but also keep the ones they have.
I don't even know if I should be giving them any advice. Listening to your customers. It's still super important to be watching the economy and any shifts in demand because it is changing so much consistently. Stay sharp with that. I'm honestly still on my toes, frankly. I don't feel like I'm out of the woods yet. We went from a drought into a flood. I'm still on my toes with figuring that out for myself as to how can we adapt to the changes in demand, whether they're good or bad. We're still having to adapt. Adapt and try to educate yourself as much as possible. Stay current with what's happening in the economy and within your subjective industry with demand. That's the best I have.
If I was to say one thing again from this episode, it is that the way you handled and shifted with your customer base in this very painful time was something we can learn from. It's like how do we continue to humanize our businesses even if we're not able to come in contact with these folks live like you. That was great. Jen, thank you so much for coming on. Where can our readers connect with you if they have any questions? I'm sure you're on Instagram and all that good stuff.
Thank you again. It was wonderful to have you on.
Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
What a great perspective Jen was able to share. I wanted to challenge all of you eCommerce companies, especially to pick up that human element in your email. It was interesting to hear Jen's perspective being a brick and mortar location to talk about how sometimes, when we order things online, we're so focused on taking those perfect pictures and getting the images on our website. Sometimes we forget that that's maybe not how it's going to be received by our customers.
In addition to that human element, it was interesting to hear her tactic of being less salesy and more educational, which is a perfect example of how brands need to do a better job of making connections. Connections do not just come from promotions. There's a ton that we can incorporate in our email programs here. If you have any questions for me, reach out to Conversations@EmailGrowthSociety.com as always. Until next time, happy emailing.