Home » Creative News »
How Retailer blis is Weathering the Pandemic
When the going gets tough, the tough get creativeby Page Leggett on February 9, 2021
We’re used to hearing about restaurants and retailers that started online or at pop-up locations and then made the leap to brick and mortar. blis did that in reverse.
Like most retailers, blis started small.
“We used to call the original store ‘little blis’ and the newer store ‘big blis,’” said Whitney Ferguson, co-owner of blis, a retail store that moved from Founders Hall to online retail in late 2020. They built such a devoted following that even the recession didn’t destroy them.
But, the pandemic threatened to. Shortly after vacating their Founders Hall space last fall, a Charlotte publication announced that blis had closed for good. Ferguson and her mother, Susan Young (who handles the finances), had to remind people: The new world of the pandemic required many businesses, including blis, to find a new way to make money.
“I used to tell people we survived the recession,” Ferguson said. “I wore that like a badge of honor.” That was before the pandemic changed everything.
Business Owners Have to be Creative
Starting in 2004, uptown workers who needed a birthday, anniversary, graduation or hostess gift – or who wanted a treat for themselves – headed to blis in Founders Hall.
It was a bustling shop. Ferguson and Young loved the business and the busy-ness of it all. They also loved championing the small business creatives whose products they sold.
“I’m not a maker,” Ferguson said. “Even though I’m not talented enough to be making my goods, I’m still creating gifting from those really talented people on the other end. I love working alongside those makers and being a part of that community.”
COVID Changed Everything
When we first began sheltering in place – remember that from a million years ago? – most of us figured it would be for a month or two, and then we’d resume our regular lives.
Ferguson did, too. She thought the order would be lifted, and everyone would go back to work. But when shelter-in-place was lifted, people didn’t return in droves to uptown offices.
Even the few people Ferguson knows who went back to the office part-time told her uptown was a ghost town: “The climate is one where you just don’t come down for coffee anymore.”
blis owners were able to terminate their lease last September. “We realized we just could not recover – not with a 2,000-square-foot store,” Ferguson said. “We were in a really bad situation.”
They had to make a change.
‘Luckily, we had Instagram’
“I’d put as much merchandise as I could in tubs, put them in my car and take them home,” she said. “My reaction from the get-go was that, luckily, we already had the platform of Instagram. I decided to come home and keep trying.”
She started posting more pictures on Instagram at @blisuptown and it took off from there.
Since it became an e-tailer, blis has gone from about 900 followers to more than 2,300. Ferguson used Instagram to remind people “You’re going to need puzzles while you’re stuck at home. You’re still going to send someone a birthday gift even though we’re going through all this. People still need to be celebrated.”
Making the switch also required investment in their new digital storefront. If mom and daughter were going to turn their business online-only, they needed a website. (Once again, creatives come to the rescue.)
“We were connected through Charlotte Center City Partners to a wonderful web designer who built our website – www.curatedbyblis.com,” Ferguson said.
“It launched in mid-November, and we couldn’t have done it without web designer Mitchell Phillips Design and photographer Kyo H Nam of KyoHNam.com.”
Popping into New Business Practices
blis doesn’t rely solely on the internet. Ferguson held 22 pop-ups between June and December. Friends hosted socially distanced pop-ups in their driveways; Ferguson hosted in her carport.
Ferguson has had to summon her creative powers over and over again to weather this storm. She began offering “curated by blis boxes,” which she calls “a whole experience in a box.”
To experience a little blis, order the gift boxes Ferguson has put together – there’s one just for snacking, another for celebrating and even a COVID-themed box. Or build your own as a baby gift. You can even send someone happy hour in a box.
“I never wanted a click-to-buy website,” she said. “I can’t compete with Anthropologie and Amazon. That’s why I started the curated boxes – to give people a chance to build a gifting experience.”
Jump In and Learn as You Go
Ferguson has had to figure all this out on the fly.
“The financial part is stressful,” she said. “We have a storage unit full of inventory that’s not quite what people want right now or harder to sell virtually. We used to sell tons of books, and they’re hard to sell now. No one’s buying cards online, and I used to sell tons of cards. We had 10 different card spinners at the store and sold 400 cards a month. It’s been a huge learning curve. It breaks my heart to think of all the vendors I can’t buy from.”
“It’s literally one order at a time, one follower at a time,” Ferguson said.
“I’m doing what I can do and buying very purposefully. I’m buying from companies that are mission-driven. I always tell people: When you buy from me, you’re supporting other small and women-owned businesses.”