In the months leading up to the long-awaited re-openings of local retailers and restaurants, numerous establishments that could not survive the extended closure are littering the landscape.
Concord resident Valli Hilaire’s Write That Down, a stationery and gift shop in downtown Walnut Creek that opened Jan. 2, is among the hardships left in the pandemic’s wake.
Within a month of the March shelter-in-place order, the 39-year-old growth marketing manager had her online business up and running at writethatdownwc.com. It was a move she anticipated doing eventually, just not at this early stage of her fledgling business.
Hilaire dearly wanted to hold on to her shop, but she was bleeding money on rent to keep the commercial space. It was finally shuttered in May.
“Having a physical space was my biggest marketing tool,” she said, noting that transitioning to a strictly online presence has been “a learning process and experimentation process to learn what works.”
“It’s hard to expand your audience beyond the people who already know you,” she said as she ventured into Google and Facebook advertising and encouraging customers to “buy a gift card now and save later.”
No help from the government
Like other small business owners, she tried to tap into the patchwork of government bailout programs that were quickly assembled as unemployment numbers skyrocketed. But her hopes for support from the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) quickly dimmed because her business was too new.
The experience has left her frustrated and angry, especially as the store was on track for sales to continue to grow month by month. She spoke of doing all the prudent steps that one is supposed to do to start a business: writing a business plan and consulting with a business advisor; obtaining a business loan from a local community non-profit, which Hilaire said she still has to pay back; getting business insurance and security equipment; and joining networking organizations like the Chamber of Commerce.
“I did all the things many months before the store actually made its debut,” she said. “I get the feeling that I was supposed to somehow know to not start a business when there was a pandemic coming that no one knew about.”
Hilaire voiced disdain for the federal government’s lack of aid for everyone on all levels. She was never expecting to access huge amounts of money but wanted enough to continue paying her lease.
Fortunately, Hilaire said she has been able to maintain an amicable relationship with her landlord during this crisis – “giving what I could” in rent for April and May.
Hoping to work from home
The dream of having a brick and mortar presence – “the best version of me in shop form,” as Hilaire described it – may have been short lived. However, knowing her business plan remains, she is committed to reopening it some day in Concord or Walnut Creek.
Until then, Hilaire, who was laid off from her growth marketing manager position with a tech company in mid-May, will continue to actively look for a new job that will go hand in hand with her online business pursuits. She sees a lot of companies that are open to remote workers and is determined to find such a role in her field that will enable her to continue her online venture.
One attraction of her shop was creative class offerings such as calligraphy, brush lettering and flower arranging, which would get people in to peruse her wares.
“There is still a need for that,” she said. “I believe in that wholeheartedly.”