The COVID-19 pandemic has forced everyone to adapt to an ever-changing world.
And no one can relate to that need to be malleable better than small business owners venturing into the world of entrepreneurism in 2020.
“If you had told me while I was doing my business planning that I would encounter a pandemic within four days of opening, you just can’t plan for something like this,” said Regan Dickson-Nerbas, co-owner of An Honest Room, a home interiors shop in the heart of downtown Okotoks. “So hopefully if you can make it through a pandemic, you can make it through almost anything.”
Dickson-Derbas, with a background in architecture, interior design and visual merchandising, sought to open up her own business that combined her interests.
“It’s kind of the best of both worlds,” she said. “I get to do a little bit of visual merchandising and buying and then I also do design, both in the store and for clients.”
She found the ideal location to launch her business on North Railway Street, just steps from the Olde Towne Plaza, and adjacent to a number of small shops.
“To me when you walk into a store it’s got to have a great feel to it,” she said. “If you’re finding things for your home and selling a lifestyle it’s got to feel great when you enter.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with being in a strip mall or a more industrial area, but I knew I wanted the building I was going to be in to reflect the character that I wanted the store to have.”
With the location in place, the business was readied to open on March 14 with new flooring, paint and new electrical and other renovations made prior to opening day.
“That week leading up to it is kind of when all hell broke lose,” she said. “We were watching the news, we were paying attention to it, but everything ramped up so quickly with the coronavirus. For my husband it was (the NBA) being cancelled, he was like when they start cancelling professional sports that’s when you know it’s big.”
At this stage, the business had already sent out invitations and advertised its grand opening on March 14 and moved forward with it.
“There was also a snowstorm that day so it was a little bit of a weird beginning,” she said. “It was quite a crazy time. Thinking back now, we were so excited to open and literally the next day school was cancelled and right away we were looking at whether or not to close.”
Within four days, the difficult decision was made to shutter its doors and switch to an online-only model.
“I had a landing page set up just saying that the store was going to open, but I really didn’t have my website populated at all,” Dickson-Nerbas said. “As soon as we closed I just switched my focus to loading everything online and it’s actually a ton of work, you have to weigh everything, measure everything, if your suppliers haven’t provided a photograph you have to photograph everything.
“Honestly, it was probably a job that would have taken me a lot longer to do and I would have dragged my feet on it had the store been opened.”
With large quadrants of society working from home and largely staying home at the onset of the pandemic, mobile usage and internet inquiries were on the rise and that was felt at An Honest Room.
“I read a statistic that people were on their phones 40 per cent more than they had been before everything shutdown,” she said. “So I actually got quite a few online orders which is something I did not expect at all. A few people had heard about it before and shared about the store, people that maybe hadn’t had a chance to come in and take a look went online.
“Between getting everything on the website and then doing deliveries here and there and answering questions it was a really nice, positive experience and one that I hadn’t anticipated.”
Within about a month, An Honest Room was able to re-open its store to the public now armed with an impressive online component to the business.
“It’s been really steady,” she said. “A lot of people have just been coming in to see what it’s all about, they’ve either heard or wanted to come in before.”
Another major impact of the pandemic has been the reallocation of money towards home improvement, from decks to gardening to interior design.
“That has been an unexpected perk,” she said. “I’ve had so many people come in and say we’re not going away on vacation, we know winter is coming, it’s going to be a long haul and we just want to make our house as enjoyable as possible.
“I’ve been going on design consultations a lot and it’s pillows, blankets, artwork, people are really focusing on their homes.”
Supply chain issues have caused some delays, but it’s not unique to their business and customers have largely been very understanding, Dickson-Nerbas said.
“I know it’s made me re-evaluate how I buy things both for myself and for my store,” she said. “You focus more on what we have in town, what we have in Canada that we can sell and support because that’s the only thing we can really rely on.
“That will be something I take forward with me even when we move past this pandemic.”
No Monkeying around
Though not launching a brand new business, Derek and Christina Mazur faced the unenviable task of relaunching the Monkey Mountain amidst the pandemic after purchasing the independent toy store in February.
“It was in discussion for quite a while. It wasn’t going to happen, it wasn’t in the cards, it was too much money, too much commitment, we have small children,” Christina said. “We are really good friends with the family who run this business before and through the process of them trying to sell we were hearing that nobody was interested enough.
“And I was like well the toy store can’t close, it just can’t.”
With the help of the Okotoks Girl Guides and countless friends in the business community, the Monkey Mountain re-design was made a reality with plans to open the store in mid-March.
“It was Friday the 13th with a full moon when everything got shutdown,” Christina said. “I had other things going on in my life with girl guides so I was very focused on that and just thought the store is just going to fall into place.
“We were not prepared to go online at that point. We thought the store was going to open and we were going to have months to open our online store.”
With businesses being forced to close at the beginning of the pandemic, it gave the toy store staff a chance to get a head start on the online side of the equation.
It was a herculean effort on the part of the staff and many friends to take pictures of the varied inventory and get it all online. The website went live the first weekend of April, kicking off with a Facebook Live event, and they hit 500 orders within the first month and a half.
“All of our manpower went towards creating this website,” she said. “And then I heavily relied on friends and their husbands who are tech savvy to help, friends, kids they were all in here with different laptops loading pictures and getting descriptions and getting it all on the website.
“We’ve had a lot of friends and a lot of community helping us asking what can we do? How can we help?”
Monkey Mountain was able to finally open its doors to the public on May 25, by appointment only to begin withs, which gave families a chance to come in and check out its wares.
“It was a crash course on many levels,” she said. “I’ve never received inventory, I’ve never had to purchase, I’ve never received freight, labels, displays, all of it was new and then throw in that you now have to be just online and I thought wow we sure have a nice warehouse. How long is this going to last?
“So it was good to get people back in (the store) and I think people were excited to be back out again and doing stuff.”
And with folks spending more time at home, there was a rush for items such as puzzles and escape room games along with the demand for more at-home learning and educational products.
Monkey Mountain also reinforced its birthday party businesses, with store mascot McRae the Monkey making visits to help spread cheer for those celebrating milestones at home.
“Monkey Mountain has always had birthday boxes, it’s actually a trademark to Monkey Mountain,” she said. “But because of COVID and no birthday parties I thought if I was a kid in this time how devastated would I be that my friends can’t come over.
“So what can we do? There were a lot of birthday parties and McRae would go and be there for the parade, wave at the kids going by, bring any gifts people had purchased at the store and bring them to the house.
“Most of the time it was really well received and people loved it.”
New to entrepreneurship, but not necessarily small business, Christina said there has been many a learning curve in working in retail.
“It’s been a lot of trial and error and relying on the reps to be like ‘help me get the best stuff, this is my vision, don’t step outside my vision and if you’re not sure let me know’,” Christina said. “Just really trying to make the store more for everybody, not just little kids. You can come in here and find something for grandma, something for mom or dad or whoever you’re looking for. It’s not just kids toys, it’s everybody toys.”
Because inventory was largely ordered prior to the pandemic, Monkey Mountain hasn’t experienced some of the supply chain issues other business have. Christina said they’ve made a point of ordering from local, Canadian suppliers.
And through the hectic 2020, the need to roll with the punches and adjust on the fly has certainly been reinforced.
“There are things you thought were predicable that are not,” she said. “It’s just a weird thing to have to deal with because there’s no bit of your imagination that would think ‘yes, there’s going to be a problem with the supply chain, this just won’t get manufactured,’ having that interruption has been a huge learning curve in itself.
“There’s been so many things.”