#OTGYpsi: Ypsilanti's small business owners are slowly re-emerging from the COVID pandemic
Sarah Rigg's Feature Article: Ypsi's small retailers continue innovation to stay alive in challenging "post-pandemic" landscape
Cathy Shafran: You're listening to 89 one WEMU. I'm Cathy Shafran, and this is On the Ground Ypsi, a program intended to bring you the stories of the Ypsilanti community. We bring you On the Ground Ypsi in partnership with the reporting team at Concentrate Media. And, today, our focus is on surviving the pandemic in Ypsi's business sector. Today, I'm joined by Concentrate Media reporter Rylee Barnsdale, whose online news site is reporting this week on how local businesses have overcome pandemic challenges. Rylee, thanks so much for being with us.
Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks for having me.
Cathy Shafran: So, can you give me a little synopsis about the article that we're seeing this week?
Rylee Barnsdale: So, I think one of the biggest draws to a city like Ypsi is all of the local businesses. You know, we've got all of these fun, interesting, and really unique shops that sell antiques and art and vintage clothes and things like that. And a lot of these things are also made by local artists or craftsmen. But, because of COVID, a lot of those businesses took big, big hits as far as, you know, sales go. And this article that project manager Sarah Rigg wrote, she spoke with lots of different business owners around the Ypsi area to find out exactly where they're at now, now that we're three years later. But they're still, you know, that piece of going in to see these business owners that you have these relationships with and these artisans that you have these relationships with that is really still kind of getting back on its feet.
Cathy Shafran: Would you say that the article leads us to believe that people are climbing out of the pandemic but haven't gotten back to pre-pandemic situations?
Rylee Barnsdale: Exactly. And not back to those pre-pandemic situations. A lot of businesses seem to be getting back into more normal patterns. But for some of us that don't own businesses, a lot of us might seem normal and think that's thriving. And a lot of these businesses are still...they're getting back to where they were pre-pandemic. But it's a very slow process, and not all businesses were able to get to that point.
Cathy Shafran: So, signs of hope, but we're not there yet. Well, in the report in Concentrate Media this week, Sarah Rigg talked extensively with Jen Eastridge, owner of two downtown Ypsi businesses. There's the Unicorn Feed and Supply Store and also Stone and Spoon. And Jen is actually joining us right here in our studio. Thanks very much for being with us.
Jen Eastridge: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.
Cathy Shafran: So, I think before we tackle how your business survived the pandemic, perhaps you can paint us a pre-pandemic picture of the business at Unicorn Feed and Supply. I believe Stone and Spoon actually started during the pandemic?
Jen Eastridge: That's correct.
Cathy Shafran: So, let's focus first on the Unicorn store. What do you think made business a success there?
Jen Eastridge: Well, it's so unique. First of all, it's definitely a destination shop. So, people were coming from all over. We even had people come from, like, Girls Day from Pittsburgh, where they would drive over to see the Unicorn store. You know, once they heard that there's a life-sized unicorn in there, and we're the only place like it. And so, it was becoming a destination that was known. And our social media was growing, and locals were coming in and developing real connections with the space. And our whole idea is that you leave a little happier than you were when you walked in. You know, it's a business plan based on joy. And, as strange as that sounds, that's really what it is. And we were two years--we were coming up on our two-year birthday—when the pandemic hit. And we were gaining momentum, and it was fantastic. And it obviously changed overnight. And what I had to do as a business owner was, of course, send all of my employees home. But I, of course, was sitting on a store full of Easter product, and because it was right before Easter, which is the second largest retail holiday, and, plus, you know, suddenly, parents had no way to have a normal, quote, normal holiday for their kiddos, whether it was a birthday that they were going to be celebrating or, you know, an Easter basket, or something along those lines. And I had to figure out real quick how I was going to pay bills and how I was going to meet the customer where they were. And so, I started doing shop calls, unicorn shop calls, where I would Facetime with customers and be their personal shopper. And, luckily, my family--my pod at the time--volunteered to help me with the contactless porch dropoffs and porch deliveries because people weren't leaving their homes. And so, we were just making things work. And it was a really interesting time because I got to connect with customers in a way that I never had before by talking to them over the phone. I really spent time learning about the customers and whether it was the joy of being the replacement for a five-year old's birthday party because they couldn't have a birthday party. So, we did a unicorn shop call, and I got to see their favorite coloring book or, you know, their pile of stuffed animals on their bed that they wanted to show me, you know, on the Facetime call. It was adorable.
Cathy Shafran: So, you became the face of their birthday party?
Jen Eastridge: Yeah. Pretty much.
Cathy Shafran: And how do you do that?
Jen Eastridge: Their parents would give them a little budget to spend. And I would ask them, you know, "What's your favorite animal? What's your favorite color? Or what do you like to do?" And I would wear special, like, big birthday cake earrings for the shop calls and, you know, put glitter on my face and introduce them to Reginald Peppercorn, the unicorn in the shop. And then, we would go around and look at their favorite things, and they would get to pick out, you know, their birthday presents or, you know, but in that time, it became about establishing a relationship and really just spending time and having fun together. And the parent would laugh and kind of guide them along. It was great. It was awesome.
Cathy Shafran: And, during the pandemic, when you were reaching out to customers, did you have to rely on the customer base that you already had, or were you able to establish new and additional customers?
Jen Eastridge: Yeah, I think a lot of it really was established customers because they were already following us on Facebook and Instagram. And so, a lot of those people, you know, made a point to try to support us in ways that they could because they knew that things were just changing, and they wanted to continue supporting some of their favorite local businesses. And, like Rylee was just saying, you know, you have the ride-or-dies, you know, you have the die-hards that will make a point to support the local businesses because they realize that that's a direct effect on the vitality of their downtowns and the safety of their towns, the walkability of the communities.
Cathy Shafran: Were these new techniques of yours able to keep business where you needed it to be to survive?
Jen Eastridge: Not alone. I will say I was very fortunate to be the recipient of the PPU grants that, you know, were helping with payroll once I was able to bring people back. At that time, you know, I wasn't paying myself. So, I was just really making enough money to try to pay the basic, you know, rent and utilities and things like that and to keep the Internet going and stuff. But I also had to go for loans. And that's a scary thing because now it's interesting because people come and they're like, "Oh my gosh! I'm so glad you made it. You got through the pandemic, and it looks like you're doing great!" And I'm like, "We're here!" You know, "So happy to be here! So fortunate!" And we are here because the community showed up. But a lot of us who were fortunate enough to get loans, now we have to start paying those back. And we're still trying to figure out what our new normal is because we will never, and this is not me being negative because I'm actually a very optimistic person by nature.
Cathy Shafran: Sparkles and unicorns!
Jen Eastridge: Yeah, exactly! But, really, I try not to think about what it was like before the pandemic because it really limits what we're able to do moving forward. Right now, we're trying to figure out our new normal and how it is that we can fill the gaps in the community and what the community needs and how we can meet that in order to thrive as a business and to grow. And so, that's where we're at. We're all still figuring out our new normal, and it's really critical. I think, now more than ever, that the community shows up and walks through the doors of the local businesses because we're trying to doggy paddle right now and continue to be a part of the downtowns and the business districts. The reality is that many of us in society globally now get, like, our necessities and things that we deem as just the necessities online. And that's totally okay. So, what I really have seen--I try to keep my eyes open and my mind open--is that the retail industry, as far as brick and mortar goes, are more aligned with the entertainment industry than we are with retail because we are providing people something to do.
Cathy Shafran: If you were to look at the totality as much as you can of the business climate in Ypsi right now, are we post-pandemic? Have we recouped?
Jen Eastridge: No.
Cathy Shafran: And you say that because?
Jen Eastridge: Because I continue to talk to other business owners. Actually, I have the two shops. I have the gallery over Stone and Spoon, you know? And, no, it's still a scary time to be a business owner because of the fact that we've invested, I mean, I say we, but many of us have invested all of our lives and money into this. It is our livelihoods. And it changed forever. And to be able to change with the world's evolving, you have to really be scrappy and resilient. And you have to have energy that you've never been able to tap in. You have to dig deep. It's exhausting.
Cathy Shafran: So, let's leave this on a happy note then.
Jen Eastridge: Yeah.
Cathy Shafran: What do you see as the future, and how is this going to evolve to return to a time where it's less scary?
Jen Eastridge: Absolutely. I really feel like there's a pendulum effect. In the big picture, that totality of it, I feel like, with the pandemic, many of us, many community members, are now working remotely from home, and I truly believe that the intrinsic need to connect with humans and to connect with each other will bring people back out. And so, again, we will begin to serve that need, just maybe in a little bit different way. And so, you are seeing many more retailers offering classes or offering, you know, interesting theme nights because we are meeting the customers where they need us to be. So, I really do feel like there is a lovely light at the end of the tunnel, but we're still making our way.
Cathy Shafran: Jen Eastridge, owner of Unicorn Feed and Supply and Stone and Spoon, thank you so much for joining us today.
Jen Eastridge: Aw, thank you.
Cathy Shafran: Also, Rylee Barnsdale from Concentrate Media. Thanks for being with us.
Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Cathy.
Jen Eastridge: Appreciate that.
Cathy Shafran: I'm Cathy Shafran, and this is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti. Public Radio from Eastern Michigan University and online at WEMU dot org.
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