A Small Business Story: Surviving on Authenticity and Hustle

Localogy Insider is checking in with the small business owners we know to find out how they are coping with the COVID-19 crisis. This is the first in a series of conversations with business owners, where we ask them how the crisis is impacting their business and how they are adapting to the “contactless” world we are living in right now. 

Larisa Olson, who operates the Chantilly Lace lingerie shop in Wilmette, Illinois, on Chicago’s North Shore, acknowledges she has an edge over many other small businesses in the current COVID-19 crisis because she is serving a privileged community. That said, no one is taking small, independent lingerie shops like hers off the endangered species list anytime soon.

Larisa made a quick decision last week to close her shop to the public, even before the State of Illinois decreed that all bars and restaurants (but not retail stores) must shut down for dine-in patrons. She did this largely to protect a clientele that includes many elderly. However, Larisa continues to sell her inventory while the shop is closed. She’s even restocking some key items.

She told us that over the past weekend, sales were on par with pre-pandemic levels. 

What we learned from Larisa’s example is that a combination of hustle, smarts, authentic communication, plus an insane focus on customer experience is giving her business a fighting chance. All the work she has done to build a close connection with her clientele is paying off today with their loyalty and patronage.

Below are some experts from our discussion with Larisa.

On the Value of a Close Connection with Customers

Larisa has keep up communications with her clients during the closing, through her newsletter, texts and emails, FaceTime messages and more.

She hasn’t been afraid to ask her customers to help her get through this rough period. But she is also doing whatever it takes to make it easy to do business with during this unprecedented event. This includes, with her teenage son’s help, personally delivering orders to her customers’ front doors (and leading them inside the door to avoid contact).

Critically, she hasn’t cut her prices, though she did say she will have a blowout sale once the store re-opens.

“The thing with my business is that I really know how to connect with my customers,” Larisa said. “That has been key right now, that I have so many relationships. I know them by name. And it is because of this that people are really stepping up. Even if they don’t need stuff, they want to be part of it.”

On the Importance Communicating Authentically

Larisa was critical of what she has seen from other businesses’ response to the crisis. She said sending out emails with generic statements like “We’re still open” and “We’re here for you” fall flat. She said now is the time to be real, even vulnerable, and show your customer base that you are willing to do what it takes to survive.

“People need to see small business owners be leaders in the community, look out for their customers and hustle to show they will do everything they can to make it as easy as possible for the customers to help support them,” she said.

On Delivering Better Customer Experience in This Crisis

Larisa said it isn’t too late for a small business owner to step up, even if they weren’t masters of CX before the crisis.

“They still can find ways to keep the connections they do have,” Larisa said. “For example, personally texting their customers.”

Also, don’t leave voice mails. As Larisa notes, “That’s so yesterday.”

One of Larisa’s secret weapons is her newsletter. Quirky, intelligent, and often very personal, it’s played a large role in building a loyal following. It was crucial to rallying her clientele to her side when the quarantine hit and she was forced to close her doors.

What we know is that by pulling out all the stops, Larisa has kept up sales thus far, without slashing her prices.

What we do not know is if hard work and staying connected with customers will be enough if the crisis lasts for weeks or even months. Larisa is acutely aware of this. So are small business owners like her across the country and around the world.

Some of you may remember Larisa from a video series we did last year where we talked to small business owners about how they use software to run their everyday business lives.

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