By Gina Malone
No one can deny that small businesses have been hit hard by COVID-19. Business owners, however, have risen to the occasion with creative, new ways of offering shoppers access to merchandise, including outdoor pop-ups, curbside pickup and home delivery. Many have also added online shops or enhanced ones they already had in place.
Judith Oster of Caravans launched her online store in mid-March. “We offer our beautiful collection of clothing, jewelry and accessories on the site,” she says. Sale items are available, she adds, and new items are added frequently to her collection, uniquely curated from designers all over the world.
Offering exceptional customer service is part of making the experience almost as good as shopping in person. “We are always available to answer questions, offer suggestions and send additional photos of items if needed,” Oster says.
She hopes to see an uptick in online sales over the holiday season. “Obviously, nothing can replace the actual in-store experience of trying on, feeling the gorgeous fabrics and having a great time,” she says. “However, we are here for everyone either in-store at Grove Arcade or online. We have strict policies in the store on keeping our employees and customers safe.”
In November, Oster marked the store’s 24th anniversary. She opened in Rockland, ME, moving the store to Asheville in 2012. Of all the years, 2020 has been the most challenging, she says, but adds that she has just finished buying inventory for Spring/Summer 2021, “fabulous and bright” pieces that herald the bright future she’s anticipating.
Lucy Clark, owner of Lucy Clark Gallery & Studio in Brevard, also invested time and energy in creating an online shop once the pandemic began. “I was standing alone inside my gallery, cleaning and changing the windows and realized that I had some hard decisions to make,” she says. “I could either close down in the midst of the uncertainty or I could pull up my big girl panties and figure out how to be innovative.”
A grant from the Transylvania Tomorrow Relief Fund provided the funds to hire a web designer to create the online shop. “My online store offers a multitude of items from all of my artists ranging from $35 handmade face masks to paintings and 3-D sculpture,” she says. “I have worked to create an inviting website that allows people to dig into each artist I represent.” To complement the experience, Clark has launched Art Talks with Lucy Clark: Conversations Between Artists, a podcast series in which she talks with each of the artists represented in her gallery about their process and passion for creating. “I have found in this virtual climate, which seems to be growing in popularity, that people want more ways to connect on a deeper level,” she says. “This gives them the opportunity to listen to the artists’ thoughts on creating and whatever else organically shows up.” The podcast is available on her website and on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts.
Bill Bowers, like many artists, found himself working to get up to speed and take advantage of social media and online marketing when the pandemic hit. “But where there are challenges, there can be growth,” he says. He created an online store that includes original works for sale, a hand painted reproduction and a series of affordable prints and posters on paper as well as miniature prints of larger works. “Keeping in mind the parameters of size and scale of the art, the budget that fits anyone’s needs and the ability to meet that demand is something I am keen on fulfilling,” he says. He also works with clients to offer custom, site-specific commissioned pieces.
Many other galleries, studios and shops offer online shopping, including ArtMoB Studios & Marketplace, Bella Gallery and Asheville Gallery of Art, whose members also added an online shopping opportunity in response to the pandemic. Most sites offer merchandise and artwork in a range of price points. And, even if artists have not yet set up online stores, many are happy to work with clients in old-fashioned ways. “Most of my current business comes from social media, galleries representing my work and my existing client base,” says Richard Baker, who often works via phone or email with clients who find new work on his website BalsamRidgeGallery.com.
Laura and Hal Mahan, who own The Compleat Naturalist, are experienced in online merchandising, having had a website store since the late 1990s. “Our online store specializes mainly in the science segment of our business,” Laura says, “hard-to-find learning tools such as microscopes, binoculars, telescopes, magnifiers and nature books and guides.” Their offerings cater to science lovers of all ages and levels of learning, she adds.
Their Biltmore Village store includes all of that and more, including nature-themed gifts such as real leaf ornaments, handmade pottery, puzzles, books, games and nature art and photography. They have cut hours there slightly because of staffing, Laura says, but adds that they are grateful for customers being “100 percent cooperative with mask wearing and waiting six feet apart.” Curbside pickup is also available. Meanwhile, online sales have picked up greatly since the pandemic began. “We are grateful to be ‘found’ by folks from all over the country,” she says.
Online shops, while not providing the sensuous experience that physical shops and galleries do, offer conveniences like shopping from the comfort of home and at all hours. They can also serve as chances to browse ahead of time even if you do decide to visit in person.
While picking up gifts, don’t forget gift cards and certificates, especially ones for local restaurants. Jargon and Bottle Riot are among those offering online gift card purchases. And, if you work up an appetite from either in-person shopping trips or at-home ordering, don’t forget that many regional restaurants like Green Tea Sushi, Mellow Mushroom, Village Wayside and Suwana’s Thai Orchid offer online ordering from their menus.
Find online shops at CaravansNC.com, LucyClarkGallery.com, BlueDharmaFineArt.com and CompleatNaturalist.com. Check our advertiser index on page 80 for online and safe, in-person shopping and dining opportunities.