Zelda levels up
When Libby Hartung closed her high-end ladies shoe boutique in downtown Portland in March, she didn't know what to expect. The coronavirus might be a threat of just a few weeks, or it might linger for months.
What she did not expect was that it would force her to think the way she has done retail all her life — and change it for the better.
Hartung stresses, four months in, that she is still only doing 50% of the business she was doing in July 2019, and she's only paying half her rent. But she's found a way to make selling shoes more fun and attain higher spending per customer.
After sitting at home for several weeks, Hartung, the owner-operator of Zelda's Shoe Bar, which has been in Northwest Portland then downtown for 30 years, reopened by appointment only.
She found women will keep appointments for a half-hour of socially-distanced one-on-one shopping.
"People who make appointments come with more intention," Hartung told the Business Tribune when we checked in with her last week. "They're usually much faster. I can come down and do $1,000 in 30 minutes, where before COVID, it was a great day to do $1,000 in eight hours. I love this. I can go and get stuff done at home, doing social media and whatnot."
"I did try reduced hours a month ago, Friday and Saturday just for a few hours and that worked if I already had appointments. But then downtown has just been a ghost town. One day I sold $18, and I thought, 'Well, this isn't working, standing there waiting for nothing.'"
She has always sold custom shoes that can't be found in Portland department stores or even on Zappos and Amazon. Her customers are accustomed to trying on a shoe than waiting a couple of weeks while it is made in the preferred size and colorway.
With that in mind, Hartung has taken another radical retailing step: she has cut right back on inventory.
"I've been working closely with a couple of vendors that send me their samples, which allows the customer to see a much larger line than I ever would have bought for the store. And these are people who stock the inventory. They're made in Italy, but they stock that inventory for their stores in the U.S. So, if I sell it, I can pull from their store to get it to my customer, and they have it within like a week. It works out beautifully because I'm not investing in the inventory."
She can have a total of six people in the store at once because of social distancing. In late July, she invited jewelry maker Lisa Esztergalyos and clothing designer Bea McCammon down from Seattle. They stayed in their corners, showing their wares while customers came in three at a time. They had set times, but when some customers came at different times, they were happy to wait outside.
"I did as much in that day that in good times I would have done in 10 days," says Hartung. "It was phenomenal. Probably 18 people came over the whole day."
The atmosphere, with sparkling wine and personal service, was closer to the new retail model, where the brick and mortar store must host events that make shoppers feel special.
"I don't ever want to be open full time again."
Like the person who vows never to sit in traffic commuting to an office again, Hartung has gotten the remote bug. Zelda's Shoe Bar is getting more like e-commerce, in the sense that she is no longer tied to the brick and mortar. She can do paperwork on her laptop in her backyard in Beaverton. Much of what she does is social media, keeping shoppers interested by posting on Instagram and Facebook.
"I can be at home working in my yard and get pings all the time about people who want things on social media," she says.
She did a Zoom trunk show, where 100 people came to the Zoom call through Instagram and YouTube. They Zoomed in and looked at the clothes. Hartung and a friend modeled the shoes and held the camera down at their feet. People who liked the look of them made purchases on the spot. But it was old school: there were no Venmo or Amazon affiliate links. Hartung took their credit card numbers over the phone and typed their orders into the iPad, which is also the cash register. She uses Talech, a cloud-based point of sale system recommended by her bank, U.S. Bank.
"It was really rudimentary because they were texting me what they wanted or they would say 'I want to see that and two more.' And then when the meeting was done, there's just one of me."
She sold 20 pairs of shoes in a day, which surprised her.
Zelda's has picked up more followers on social media since COVID-19 hit in March.
"I think they're trying to follow maybe smaller people, or people that they didn't have time to follow before."
Mobile or moving?
There's no temptation to move to a suburban brick-and-mortar location. Downtown Portland still has its pull, especially with a Ritz-Carlton hotel due to open in two years a block away. A boutique still has potential from travelers looking for some sales tax-free shopping.
Meeting the customer is a constant challenge, especially now that all commerce is mobile.
"I'd love to get an Airstream and trick it out with my inventory and go to people. They could gather up 10 girlfriends, and I could go to their house in this cute little trailer."
Some of her customers are older. She had one woman in her 80s who just bought four pairs of shoes. "They do Facebook and Instagram, but they're not the ones who really want to spend their time shopping online. They want an experience. And they want to support locally-owned, small, women-owned businesses. And they like beautiful things."
Another day, she had a customer come back for an appointment after attending the pop-up. She's excited about the undivided attention. "She was bought a bunch of clothing, but she didn't get to focus on shoes because so many people overlapped."
For now, even at half-business, things are looking good, because the future has potential.
And one more note on this radical rethink of her business. Staffing. What about bringing back employees?
"I don't think it's really necessary at this point. I mean, I could use an extra pair of hands
during our pop up, for sure. But I was trying to limit the number of people in the room."
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