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Retailers engage customers in new ways in response to COVID-19

by Nicole Roberts | March 23, 2020 at 4:47 a.m. | Updated March 23, 2020 at 11:08 a.m.
Luke Quinn, of downtown's American Shoe, delivers a purchase to a customer outside the front door. Like many restaurants and other businesses, the new normal for the time being is curbside delivery. Although the store was opened Friday and Saturday and likely lock the doors today but they emphasize they will be in the store to fill/deliver orders.



"Temporarily closed."

These two words are posted on many businesses throughout Jefferson City, creating an eerie feeling as customers walk by stores that have their doors locked and lights turned off.

What the public doesn't see though are store owners now FaceTiming customers to show them merchandise, responding to social media questions and walking products out to buyers' vehicles.

The novel coronavirus has turned the business industry on its head, and several retail stores are finding different ways to engage with their customers from a safe distance.

Last Friday was the first day The Schaefer House, at 618 Broadway St., did not allow in-store traffic, owner Susie Schaefer Hinds said. Instead, the business has been encouraging back-door pickup, curbside delivery and virtual shopping.

Employees have been posting merchandise on social media for customers to view. Schaefer Hinds encouraged people to comment on the posts with questions about measurements and pricing.

Customers can also FaceTime employees at The Schaefer House and text or Facebook message the business for design advice.

"We had a customer who had a place over her bed that had a picture but needed something on either side of it," Schaefer Hinds said. "She texted us and we helped her select some wall vases and created some florals that went into those vases. We wrapped it up and put it on the back porch when she let us know she was coming and picked it up."

This process helps maintain social distance and protect the safety of the store's employees and customers, Schaefer Hinds said.

"Just trying to be as inventive as we can and as accommodating as we can in a safe but constructive way," she added.

Initially Yours, at 627 W. McCarty St., has taken a similar approach to The Schaefer House, offering virtual shopping through FaceTime. It also offers curbside pickup and shipping.

Owners Matt and Trisha Sandbothe decided to experiment with virtual shopping because it allows their customers to be socially distant while still seeing the merchandise at Initially Yours. If someone wanted a birthday present for their 1o-year-old niece, Trisha Sandbothe said, the customer could FaceTime the Sandbothes and see what possible presents they have.

While customers have been slow to try the virtual shopping service, the Sandbothes said, buyers have taken advantage of the store's curbside pickup and phone orders.

"This is all uncharted territory because this is the first time we've done it," Matt Sandbothe said. "In the past, we've delivered stuff or we've offered to ship things and that's always been available, but this is more detailed service because of what's going on."

Initially Yours is already starting to feel the financial impact from COVID-19 though. The owners have seen a decrease of 85-90 percent in sales, Matt Sandbothe said. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the store that usually saw about 100 customers daily now only sees about four or five customers daily, he added.

Unlike big box stores, the Sandbothes said, they can't close their business since they still have bills to pay.

"A lot of people don't understand how that affects a small business," he said. "Safety is the number one priority but at the same time, this is why it's important to shop local."

Making some sales is also better than no sales, Matt Sandbothe added.

And in some circumstances, making that one sale during a time of uncertainty means the world to the owners and customers. For example, a customer bought wedding gifts from Initially Yours last Thursday.

"You know what? That made our day just for the simple fact that we were able to help somebody throughout these negative times," Matt Sandbothe said.

At Shop Girl, social media has become its main sales driver.

To protect herself, her family and customers, Shop Girl owner Peggy Davis temporarily closed her business, at 106 Boonville Road, last week.

Davis now posts photos of merchandise on the Shop Girl's Facebook page and customers will comment or message her if they are interested. Davis hopes to do live-streaming on Facebook soon.

"We're very lucky that we have social media available, especially in a time like this," Davis said.

Davis emphasized shopping local is key right now, especially since "small businesses are the lifeline of America." And unfortunately, she added, businesses will close because of the financial impact of COVID-19.

It's one thing to tell people to shop local though. It's another to actually do it, Davis said.

"Don't just talk the talk, walk the walk," she said. "You have to give money. No one wants to ask for money but at the end of the day, that's what you need to stay in the business."

Jill Bednar, owner of Southbank Gift Company, agreed shopping locally must be emphasized in a time like this.

Southbank Gift Company, at 110 E. High St., closed its doors to in-store traffic last Thursday.

Employees at the downtown business have taken various steps to continue engaging customers - creating a new website (, posting to social media, taking phone orders and offering curbside pickup, porch drop-off and delivery.

"Hopefully online sales will help offset the revenues that we're obviously losing by not having the capability of people to walk in and purchase," Bednar said.

A few doors up from Southbank Gift Company, Unique Creations has been staying busy because of social media, too.

The art business is selling to-go kits that contain pottery pieces, paint and brushes.

Customers can select pre-packaged kits or custom make their to-go kits, owner Lisa Kindle said.

"We just want to brighten someone's day and create some fun memories instead of all of the sadness that's going around with this virus," she said.

Once customers finish their pottery pieces at home, they can bring them into Unique Creations and employees will fire the pottery.

Unique Creations will also start offering curbside pickup Tuesday, Kindle said.

Downtown business American Shoe is also offering curbside pickup, along with $10 shipping.

In its 100-year history, American Shoe has weathered several storms, from economic downturns to wars. The COVID-19 is a new one of the business, manager Luke Quinn said, but he was confident in the family-owned, family-operated store's ability to adapt.

While American Shoe offered curbside pickup and shipping before COVID-19, Quinn said, the business didn't push them as much as it is now.

"(Our) number one priority is the health and well-being of not only our customers but our employees," Quinn said.

The store is staying busy because customers are utilizing these services, Quinn said. However, the store has lost business because of COVID-19, he added.



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