Success Hinges on Connecting With New Customers
By ALAN OLSON
The COVID-19 pandemic struck businesses to different degrees, and though their need to connect to customers is constant, their ability and means to do so have not been.
The Fat Apple, a bakery in Bridgeport, was allowed to stay open during the pandemic — as a food service business, it was among the “essential” businesses permitted to remain in operation.
Owner Don Rhodes said the bakery has kept the public engaged by increasing the number of promotions it puts on. In addition, Rhodes said the Fat Apple has worked with several fundraisers during the pandemic, which has helped expand the bakery’s wares to new customers.
“People will buy something from a local fundraiser, whether it be a girl’s softball team, or a baseball team, whatever the case may be — they’ll get an apple, fudge, around Valentine’s Day strawberries were big — and they like them so much, they come on in,” he said. “A couple places had asked us, if when we do a fundraiser, we do a coupon for 10% off. … You wouldn’t believe the amount of response we got with that. A lot of those were first-time customers who hadn’t been here before, and it really made a big difference.”
A portion of the new customer base, Rhodes said, was likely from people trying out any new business they could that was open during the early weeks of the pandemic. As the Fat Apple was still in business, customers looking to get out of the house and support a local business came in droves, and kept coming back.
The Fat Apple is located at 225 Main Street in Bridgeport.
Cat’s Paw Art Studio, a much smaller business in Wheeling, has had to change its business model, through a combination of slower traffic due to the pandemic and a move to a new location.
Owner Amanda Carney runs the store by herself and said her business strategy has had to change — with a former location at Centre Market, the store got more foot traffic and had more walk-ins, which helped the business sell art supplies, while custom frame work was ongoing in the back.
Over the course of the pandemic, however, the cost of rent, on top of the COVID-19 closures, drove Cat’s Paw to its new location in North Wheeling, where Carney has set up shop.
Now Cat’s Paw is back up on all fours. There, she said, she maintains a steady customer base, mostly through word-of-mouth and by being one of few shops able to provide the custom framing service.
“Not a lot of new customers, no, but I have been coasting on previous customers … My move was incredibly rushed and fast — I don’t think I retained all my customers … ,” she said.
“The move happened in September. I was all in here in October, and I started right back in November and December, which are usually the busy months.”
At the Centre Market location, Carney said it was common for customers passing through or grabbing lunch to stop in and pick up an art print, or maybe some supplies. With the pandemic — and a wet, cold winter besides — Carney said the shop has had to lean more fully into custom framing.
“More people would walk in, maybe pick up a print, and that would be a good little transaction. Now, the business is purely running on the sales I make doing custom framing. It’s a high ticket item, it’s a very big amount of money, and it takes more time for me to put together. It’s not so much quick and dirty, in-and-out sales.”
While the shop maintains a social media presence, Carney said she’s just not able to dedicate much time to engaging with new and prospective customers or running online ad campaigns, as her job keeps her busy.
“There hasn’t been a lot of time, and I’m definitely not in the right mindset to be like, ‘Hey, new customers! Come on in!,'” she said. “… I’m so focused on running the building, making it work, and producing the work that will make us money, … sometimes I can’t be that social media person. Sometimes there are aspects of running a business that get put to the backburner as other aspects come forward.
“For one person, such as myself, that’s probably an impossible task,” Carney continued. “I think it would be better to hire someone for that, but it’s just not in the cards right now. It was barely in the cards before all this. Maybe someday I’ll have that little pot set aside again, where we can consider getting help, but everything was drained just in the move, trying to survive.”
She added that many assistance programs that are available to businesses are targeted at those with employees — as the sole employee at the business, Carney said Cat’s Paw is not eligible for many of them.
Carney said the best she has been able to do to attract new customers is to schedule appointments outside the store’s normal working hours to accommodate everyone’s schedule, which is possible, in part, due to her new location’s proximity to her home — she lives a few minutes away on foot.
Cat’s Paw Art Studio’s new location is at 600 Main St., Wheeling.