A recent report reveals that nearly 7.5 million small businesses across the country are in danger of closing over the next five months as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
What is now a three-boutique business in southwestern Pennsylvania began in a spare bedroom a handful of years ago. “I started making and selling jewelry as a way to build clientele while I worked full time,” said Lauren Dzadony, owner of Vintage Grace Boutique, a modern clothing and jewelry boutique inspired by vintage designs.
The shop now has three locations. Dzadony, who owns the business with her husband Adam, spent two years holding down a full-time job, hosting private jewelry parties, and exhibiting at craft shows to gain exposure for Vintage Grace before opening the first boutique in 2015. “The jewelry helped catapult my dream of owning a clothing and jewelry boutique for women in the South Hills of Pittsburgh,” she said. All Vintage Grace jewelry is still designed and created in-house.
Adam sold his restaurant in 2016 to become Lauren’s business partner and join his wife in actualizing her dream. In 2017 and 2019, they opened their second and third stores in Washington and Coraopolis.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Vintage Grace, like other businesses throughout the country, had to pivot in order to find a way to survive. The answer lied in the cornerstone of retail: know your audience.
More specifically, the store’s social media audience on Instagram. “Social media has been a huge help during this time,” Lauren admits. “It’s been a wonderful way to personally connect with customers and take the time to explain how items fit and feel.”
In March, Gov. Wolf ordered all non-essential businesses to close in order to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. That was when Lauren realized all three of her store locations would have to close indefinitely. She knew she had put all of her eggs in her store’s online shopping basket, so to speak.
One of the advantages larger retailers have over independently owned shops is that they generally have a larger following, and repeat customers know how items fit and feel. Vintage Grace, on the other hand, offers a much smaller selection of clothing and accessories, which changes regularly, and can’t rely on that level of predictability with its patronage.
Immediately, Lauren got to work. “Instagram is our preferred social platform because it is quick, it’s aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and it’s more of our targeted audience,” she explained. Lauren often narrates the store’s Stories, shot from any one of the three locations, and really strives to connect with potential shoppers.
Aside from modeling outfit combinations herself and answering questions about material and fit on camera, Lauren also came up with the idea to offer custom boxes that include items geared to a theme to keep driving online sales. She even hand-delivered many packages herself, safely and in accordance with social distancing.
“With not being able to personally shop for my friends and family, we felt that it would be a great idea to create a pre-made box that customers could purchase and that we would ship out to their loved ones,” she said. “During the month of April, we created Quarantine Care Packages, Graduation 2020 Boxes, and Mother’s Day Boxes, and have had enormous success with them. We are so grateful that our customers appreciated and loved this idea as much as we did.”
Almost a third of small business owners across the country have had to close their in-person business operations because of government regulations put in place as a response to the pandemic. According to Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s office, as of May 14 more than 40,000 state businesses sought waivers to keep their doors open, despite not being deemed “essential” under Gov. Wolf’s administration.
A recent report published by Main Street America reveals that nearly 7.5 million small businesses across the country are in danger of closing over the next five months as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Of the 603 Pennsylvania small businesses surveyed, 63% indicated that their businesses are at risk of shuttering permanently in the next five months. Nearly 80% of Pennsylvania respondents have seen revenue decrease by more than 50%.
“We were able to receive the Paycheck Protection Program in terms of relief,” Lauren said, calling the money from the Small Business Administration “much needed.” The Paycheck Protection Program is a loan designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll. The SBA will forgive loans if all employees are kept on the payroll for eight weeks and the money is used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest, or utilities.
In order for the PPP loan to be forgiven, a business must use at least 75% of the amount borrowed for payroll costs. While the SBA continues to issue guidelines in the form of FAQs on their website, many questions remain unanswered.
Though Lauren was able to secure the loan for her business, the exact provisions of forgiveness remain unclear. “Basically they have put out provisions for the PPP but there are talks about changing them, so it is very unclear as to what the final terms will be,” she said.
Now that much of Pennsylvania has moved to the “yellow” phase of Gov. Wolf’s color-coded plan for slowly reopening the economy, Vintage Grace, too, has reopened its brick-and-mortar locations. Days and hours are limited—which means fewer hours for staff—and they’re following all CDC and state guidelines. Clothes are steamed after being tried on, and extra measures for sanitation and re-stocking have been added to the daily routine.
“We hope to get staffing back to pre-COVID levels by the green phase,” Lauren said. Currently, no counties are scheduled for the “green” phase, and plans for the final reopening phase have yet to be determined.
Understandably, the past two months have taken a toll on Lauren emotionally. She and Adam have had to assess how long they’ll be able to keep all three store locations operating as the pandemic wages on. “We’ve certainly had concerns about not being able to remain open during these times,” she said. “However, I have decided to take the risk of being a small business owner and keep going. If we go back into the red phase, we will continue to adapt and find ways to keep afloat.”
Professionally, however, the last nine weeks have provided a chance to take a step back and look at what works for Vintage Grace—instead of thinking outside the box, for instance, she and Adam focused on what’s actually (literally) in the box itself as a way to make customers feel special while still making a profit for the store.
“Can’t go down without a fight,” Lauren said.