‘Find a Way or Make One’: Missouri Boutique Leverages Social Media for COVID-19 Pivot
October 2019 was a different time for Stephanie Campbell’s Blue Willow Boutique. Her Maryville, Missouri, retail operation that sells clothing, shoes and accessories was growing. In fact, after just three years in business, she was ready to expand and add a second physical store in St. Joseph, Missouri, following the success of her original location 45 minutes north.
And then came 2020. For a lot of small businesses, to say the early months of 2020 were challenging is understatement. But Stephanie found a way to keep hitting her sales targets, even when both stores were shuttered.
So how’d she do it?
To answer that question, we have to go back to how she started the business, laid the groundwork and developed an entrepreneurial mindset that would help prime her for a stylish and successful pivot.
Goodbye, corporate. Hello, small business.
Stephanie started Blue Willow Boutique in 2016 after she relocated to Maryville, Missouri, from Kansas City and, like many entrepreneurs, decided to forge her own path after she’d had enough of the corporate life.
“Sitting behind a cubicle sounded like a death sentence,” she says.
Plus, she says that running a small business was a great way to connect with her community.
So about three years after she started down that entrepreneur path, Stephanie opened her second brick-and-mortar location—months before the pandemic spurred mandatory shut-down orders.
You’d think that would’ve been a death knell for her business … but it wasn’t, and it stemmed from a move that all MVP entrepreneurs develop sooner or later: the pivot.
The pivot that started on social media
And March 2020 wasn’t the first time Stephanie was forced to pivot. When she launched the original location of her boutique years earlier, she started selling home decor but then realized that women’s apparel and accessories were a bigger draw for customers. She pivoted.
And it wasn’t just pivots that she leveraged for success; it was also being a business owner who seeks out and engages customers where they are. For years, her Facebook Business page has been a boon for her business (along with product-promoting powerhouse Instagram). She’d built a foundation and a fan base promoting her wares on social media, and then reached further with online selling and marketing in Facebook Groups.
That early work on her social media presence primed her business for success in an era of social distancing, when we’re all glued to our computers and smartphones even more and probably browsing social media a lot more, too.
“We started a Facebook Group in Year 2 to develop more engagement with our following and use it as a platform to show new arrivals, in addition to what we were doing on our online store and Instagram,” she says. “All these platforms we nurtured early on helped us pivot now.”
Before COVID-19, the boutique’s revenue was doubling every year, but just a quarter of the sales came from online orders. And when businesses were forced to shutter their physical locations, she wasn’t exactly sure how all this would play out. But she knew she just had to get to work.
“I’m a brick-and-mortar girl; I believe in what we do on Main Street,” she says. “When we made the decision to close the store, we panicked for a few days. I thought people weren’t going to buy online, but I shook that out of my head. I knew I had built a community and invested in it. I knew customers would support us: I just had to give them a way to do it.”
So Stephanie leveraged her Facebook following and put a new spin on a familiar tactic.
Going once, twice … SOLD
She created her own mini version of QVC using Facebook Live, the social media platform’s baked-in live video tool, to create a buzz for her items. She learned that by assigning a number to each piece of clothing she showcased on Facebook LIve was the easiest way for customers to tell her exactly what they wanted in the video chat feed and, as an added bonus, as items were snatched up in real time, created that “buy it before it’s gone” feeling.
Plus, it was a genuine way for her to connect with her followers and form a stronger bond, while also enabling her to take her showroom online during some of her biggest sales days of the year, like Mother’s Day and her annual sidewalk sale.
In addition to leveraging the Facebook algorithm to reach more eyeballs with live video, she discovered that Facebook Ads would make her new marketing push more potent.
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Getting into shipping shape
Shipping was also a shift for Stephanie. Before things closed down, she shipped to 27 states; now, she’s shipping to 40. And where she shipped wasn’t the only thing that changed. Pricing was another variable she had to pin down.
She originally shipped her products at a flat rate of $5.95, but there was no way that price would work with a primarily online business because she was shipping hundreds of packages. At first, she tried free shipping because she says she felt pressured to match other online retailers but then realized a base rate of $4, plus a dollar for every additional item, was the sweet spot.
And it’s not only the logistics of shipping each item that she’s tweaked to her advantage, but also the addition of a more personal touch, like including a little present and a note from her inside each box she ships.
“I’m definitely working more than I have ever worked,” Stephanie says, “but I’m energized by my community.”
And all that hard work paid off. Before the pandemic, the business generally grew by 40% - 50% by design (because Stephanie says any more growth would strain her cash flow).
Yes, with both stores’ physical locations closed, she was worried about a drop in sales, but with all the hard work she put in to pivot, she still hit those numbers with just a primarily online store, with local pickup also being an option for customers in the area.
“The lesson here is to find a way or make one,” she says. “Because soon enough, we’ll be back on Main Street doing what we do best.”
A new era for the small-town boutique
Even with all the challenges, Stephanie says the shutdown enabled her to tackle some things in her business that she wouldn’t have otherwise.
“This is an interesting opportunity to become a butterfly in your business,” she says. “We’re usually all just caterpillars who get lost in the weeds of day-to-day work.”
Because her shipments have increased, she says she’s had a lot of alone time when she boxes up items to ship out, and that’s when some of her best ideas have come to her about tweaks she can implement to improve her business.
She says even as things open up, she will keep up her efforts to continue online customer acquisition and selling online. But she’s still looking forward to when things return to normal on Main Street.
“I can’t wait to see people in the community again.”
Stephanie Campbell spoke during a webinar series created by Missouri Main Street Connection, a Resource Partner in the MOSourceLink network, that aims to enhance the economic, social, cultural and environmental well-being of historic downtown business districts in Missouri. You can watch Stephanie and other entrepreneurs and experts on the organization’s website.
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