When customers purchase a bouquet from Flowers for Dreams, the money they spend boomerangs back to surrounding communities. The floral business, which is headquartered in Chicago, Illinois and has locations in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Detroit, Michigan, buys its flowers from area farms, employs local staff to arrange the bouquets, pays local drivers to deliver the flowers by hand, and donates a portion of the profits from each bouquet to a local charity. “All aspects of our supply chain are local, from our sourcing to who we give our money to at the end of the day,” says Steven Dyme, who is co-founder and CEO. It's just a part of who they are.
Like many community-oriented businesses, the pandemic has brought disruptive challenges for Flowers for Dreams, which relies on events and weddings for about half of its business. With in-person gatherings on hold, the enterprise has had to rely on the support of its day-to-day customers, who have been remarkable, according to Dyme. “It was pretty incredible how much our core group banded together and said, ‘We’ll do whatever is needed to keep you guys in business on the other side of this,’” he says.
While Flowers for Dreams’ model is unique, patrons of small businesses everywhere have long known that when they shop local, their money tends to stays close to home.
Amy Hansen, who owns a popular candy shop called Amy’s Candy Bar in Chicago, has regularly donated items such as gift baskets and chocolate-making classes to benefit local schools. She says that many of her regular customers remembered those donations during the pandemic. “People mentioned ‘You’ve always been so supportive of our school,’” she says. “I know that came back to me.”
Hansen says that in recent months, she’s felt a deep gratitude and appreciation for her customers, who’ve made enough purchases online as well as in-store (one family at a time was allowed in because of social distancing measures) to prevent a large decline in retail sales, even though her store hours were drastically reduced. “The total customer count was down coming into the store, but my average sale was up, so people were buying more,” she says. The candy shop, which is in a family-filled neighborhood on Chicago’s north side, has long been a destination for neighbors looking for scoop of ice cream or a homemade candy bar. It’s a part of the community, and the regulars wanted Hansen to know that. “To this day, people will come in and just be like ‘We want to make sure you’re here when this is all over,’” she says.
I love our little shops. They’re unique. They bring in something that most often you don’t see anywhere else. I don’t want that to go away.
—Patricia Naylor, founder, Rumeur Lingerie
Even the compounding financial and economic stress brought by COVID-19, small business owners have been finding ways to give. According to a 2020 MetLife & U.S. Chamber of Commerce Small Business Coronavirus Impact Poll, which surveyed 500 small business owners and operators in the U.S., two-thirds of small businesses have helped out those in need in recent months. Britney Winters, founder and CEO of Upgrade Boutique in Houston, Texas, which uses human hair extensions to make custom wigs, donated wigs to a number of different people, including an area high school graduate for graduation photos and three essential workers, including a nurse, constable and grocery store employee. “That was a great feeling,” says Winters. “People are working these long hours away from their family, exposing themselves to the virus, we wanted to do something to show our appreciation.”
Winters, herself, has worked hard to transform her business during the pandemic. In March, her store primarily operated as a salon, and most customers came in for services, while some ordered wigs online. When she was forced to close by government mandate, her business model changed to e-commerce, with stylists working from home to color and customize wigs that would ship to customers ready to wear. Now, customers from across the country can place orders, but Winters says it’s her local customers who have really shown up for the business. “A few of our customers that are used to having their hair installed by a professional were a bit skeptical. But they trusted us and they wanted us to succeed so they continued to support us when we moved to online, and that was really impactful during that time,” says Winters. “Shoppers in our community have been instrumental in keeping us going.”
Before COVID-19, Patricia Naylor’s specialty at her boutique, Rumeur Lingerie in San Diego, was helping customers find the right bras and lingerie. “I would go in the fitting room with women and get them into the perfect-fitting bra, so we’re up close and personal. I couldn’t keep doing that during COVID,” she says.
She adapted by adding comfortable pajamas and lounge wear to her inventory and got through the shut-down via online orders. “We’re all doing the same thing right now—we just switch from our day pajamas to our night pajamas,” she laughs.
Now that the store has re-opened, Naylor says she’s looking for ways to get people to shop again, amid the pandemic fear. An initiative that’s resonated is a bra drive collecting gently used bras to donate to homeless people. In exchange, customers receive 40 percent off an item. “It’s been very successful and people have been sharing it, so I feel lucky that people are excited about it and want to come in and help the community,” says Naylor.
A Supportive Network
Small businesses bring personality to Main Street. They’re candlemakers, delis, apothecaries and gift merchants. They’re florists, handcrafted candy stores, wig boutiques and lingerie shops. They’re what distinguish one intersection from another, this neighborhood from the next. And at the heart of every small business is a small business owner who knows the work it takes. Every business owner interviewed for this story said they spend their money at other small businesses, too, as a way to invest in their own communities.
Winters says she makes it a priority to shop at female and/or minority-owned businesses, like her boutique. “With a small business, you’re supporting people just like you that are simply trying to make it and provide for their family,” she says. “When you support a small business it’s like you’re supporting one of your own.”
For Naylor and Hansen, spending money locally helps keep the neighborhood special. “I love our little shops. They’re unique. They bring in something that most often you don’t see anywhere else. I don’t want that to go away,” says Naylor.
“If we weren’t around, the only place people could go is a big box store. Small businesses bring a different flavor to the community,” says Hansen.
Dyme warns that with the financial impact of the pandemic on small businesses, customers must step up to support them.
“When you walk out on the street in a few months, are you ok with seeing rubble? Or do you want to see a restaurant still there? It was never this black and white. If you don’t patronize that shop on the corner, or that restaurant downstairs, or the florist around the corner, they won’t be there,” he says. “If you don’t want it to be boarded-up, empty retail, you have to be the hero of your own community’s story.”
Photo: Getty Images