February 1, 2022 will be the 6th anniversary of my retail business, named ZÖE, which is the Greek word for life. I have been thinking about the future of this business as it has been on life support since March 2020 when COVID19 descended upon the world. In thinking about the future, it's helpful to understand where we've been, in order to understand how far we have come. It's a valuable perspective, especially on those days when it feels like we spend more time going backwards than going forward.
In October 2015, I created a vision and business plan, and let me say while my vision remains in tact, the business plan is essentially a creative writing project, for many reasons. Assumptions that were made based on history proved to be untrue. In retrospect, there are questions that I should have asked. I did consult with others who had experience in retail businesses, but their advice was essentially outdated the moment it was articulated, given the events that would follow both in our community and in the world.
In 2015, the world was a very different place. Online shopping had started to become a factor in retail, and it was clear that was a market place to be explored. It was also clear to me at the time that the small retail business model was breaking but I saw a different business model. And I would say now, 6 years later, with COVID19, small retail as we knew it, is officially broken.
Looking back, what I could see and envision was exciting to me. I could see a place that made space for people to come together in community, a place where independent makers could be seen and loved, and a place that was unlike any other, any where.
I rebranded the name from Zoe's Boutique (named after cute dog over 30 years ago by the original keeper of the name) to ZÖE, which means life. The new brand would translate to the online world, and it would welcome those who love unique shoes, clothing and objects anywhere. I created a new look and feel and refreshed the product line.
In the first year of business, there were surprises, such as learning that my lease was not going to be renewed due to a “planned“ renovation, a risk that I was informed was minuscul.
So just months after opening, rebranding and renovating my business, I was looking for a new location, which was difficult to obtain in the downtown environment at that time. By November of that year, I moved the store into a beautiful new neighborhood community with many other retailers that had been displaced as well. It was a chance to create the dream space that I had envisioned from the beginning.
November 2016 I closed the first location of my business and opened the second location. I capitalized the business, added new product lines, and worked tirelessly to promote my business and the unknown location. The first years were not on par with the business plan, but they were respectable and moving in the right direction toward the business plan projections.
In July 2017, I launched www.zoesshoes.com - an online shopping site to add value to my customers in the city and beyond.
By 2018, however, the area started to fail, and the other businesses moved out one by one. I had to make a decision - to let my business go, or try to save it. I chose the latter, and relocated to a new downtown location after a 28 day build by me and my husband. That proved to be a good decision, as the business recovered in six months.
In 2019, the economy started to suffer, due to multiple conditions, but mostly related to government policies (isn't that always the way?) and the quickening of online shopping. We were seeing a drop of 35% over the previous year, consistently across all the businesses in my area. There were other factors too, such as online shopping, which was driving dollars out of our community. I remember that December going to a yoga class - you know where the most community minded people gather - and one couple told me their Christmas was great - no need to shop, because they "amazoned" it 100%. My heart sank.
In 2020 I decided to implement the “by appointment” business model in order to accommodate my customers' busy schedules, and to accommodate my ability to pursue consulting work.
In March 2020, COVID19 also descended upon us, and we were closed by the government, along with everyone else, except for big box stores who were able to sell everything from toilet paper to food and footwear. The COVID19 life accelerated online shopping, and so I set my attention to promoting my online shop through social media while my beautiful shop was silent.
I remember coming to work in my office, and seeing the downtown streets deserted. People were working from home, and those who were still in the office were not venturing out, because to be honest, it didn't feel safe to do so. The daily news was a daily death toll. Stay home. Stay safe. Sales dropped 80% in 2020 and 2021, leaving the business in an unsustainable state. To be honest, I did consider closing it, but it was impossible to sell inventory even at 70% off because nobody was going anywhere.
It's almost Febuary 2022 now, and they are saying that the pandemic will shift to endemic status, but there are no plans of economic recovery evident, and as a small business owner, I can only do so much because I am not the environment. I do not set policy. I do not make the streets safe again. I do not bring people to work. And I do not know if shopping in person is a thing of the past.
What is life after COVID in this shoe story? Will we see an 80% increase as dramatically as we witnessed the decrease - which I would characterize as dropping like a rock into a bottomless ocean. Will there be a meteoric rise in recovery? And if so, how would a small business devastated by the COVID-19 economy run by one woman support that recovery? Would she be prepared to take on more risk and more debt in the hopes of a recovery? If I were advising this person, I would say the risk and responsiblity is too great for one person to absorb in an unsupporting and broken environment.
The next phase of ZÖE will be different. It will be realistic in the new world, and it will be a jewel, just as it is now.