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Retailers shift to reach customers in 'digital mall'

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LavedaMae Boutique

LavedaMae Boutique opened last November offering "beautiful sizes" for women and is now working on ways to capture sales with coronavirus-related closures.

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When owners of LavedaMae Boutique opened their retail shop for sizes XL to 6X last November, delivery service of their items was already written as part of their business model.

It was a way to offer service to clients who were either uncomfortable trying on clothing in a store or for a variety of reasons unable to make it to the shop.

Now the delivery service is a strategy that may help the downtown Walla Walla business survive.

With public school closures, nonessential government office closures, work-from-home directives, cancellations of events, and the governor’s proclamation closing restaurant dining rooms, among other things, to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 virus spread, retailers that can meet the hygienic and safety provisions have a diminishing walk-in market to serve.

The scramble is on to reach customers and stay solvent.

“We are definitely pushing a message of support small businesses any way you can,” said Kathryn Witherington, executive director of the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation.

“These are very challenging times. On the west side (of the state) they’re seeing businesses are already closing.”

Witherington said brick-and-mortar retailers already operate on thin margins, and many are prepared to get through a Walla Walla winter. Typically the uptick starts March 1. With the pandemic and closures though, the financial strain will be too much for some.

“That’s why we’re doing all we can now,” Witherington said.

The foundation Monday rolled out a “digital mall.” The concept compiles all willing Walla Walla County businesses on a listing on the foundation’s website. Membership to the organization is not necessary, Witherington said.

The idea is to provide a place where local residents can go to find businesses, driving traffic to local websites for goods and services.

For LavedaMae Boutique, adding a website wasn’t possible until Monday.

Co-owner Betsy Hadden said she had been slowly chipping away at building one for her new business with a plan to complete it in the first quarter of the year. But instead of waiting until the end of the month to complete it, she dedicated hours over the last three days in order to go live.

That, along with a live FaceTime event tonight to showcase clearance items, and regular video posts and still photos to highlight inventory are part of how the shop is staying engaged.

Co-owner Traci Krebs, who is also a nurse, has maximized her trips working in the Tri-Cities by being able to deliver clothing to their clients.

“We’ve always had the delivery service, but now we’re shouting it loud and proud,” Hadden said.

Other merchants are getting creative with their offerings, too. Book & Game Co. is offering free delivery on purchases to Walla Walla, College Place and Milton-Freewater.

Showtime Shoes has offered a 10% discount on purchases to customers who bring in a receipt from another local business.

Media firm Discover Walla Walla is also working with the foundation on a comprehensive listing of local business offerings from restaurants to wineries, breweries to retailers and even community organizations. A video service is also expected to be added.

In a news conference on the social distancing measures across the state Monday, King County Executive Dow Constantine said continued support of businesses is as vital to the economy now as efforts to isolate.

“If this pandemic is symbolized by the medical mask, then perhaps our resilience is going to be represented by the takeout box,” Constantine said.

He encouraged people to continue to support the arts and other businesses as a way to play roll in bolstering the economy and our neighbors, “helping them hang on until the day we can lift these orders and get back to life as normal.”

How to continue spending when many people are also out of work at the moment is another challenge.

Witherington said it’s a matter of scaling appropriately for each household.

“For the person who can buy some candy at Bright’s for their kids — awesome. Spend that $5 at Bright’s,” she said. “At the same time, if you can buy that $500 gift card to Walla Walla Clothing Co., do it.”

She said if each person who follows the downtown foundation on Facebook spent $10 it would infuse $90,000 into the economy.

“To me, this is a really good opportunity to explore all the unique things we offer,” she said.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 509-526-8321.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.

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