Grand Rapids shops ‘pivot’ for pandemic, life afterward

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As Michigan’s economy slowly starts to reopen, local entrepreneurs are changing the way they do business in hopes of surviving the pandemic.

Rebel, a quirky and beloved gift shop in Eastown, switched to survival mode by selling merchandise online as well as offering curbside pickup. Even so, the normally successful business took a hit by shutting down its in-store shopping to comply with the governor’s executive orders.

“We’re at least 50% down (in sales) from what we should be this time of year,” Rebel co-owner Dan Boyles said. “But that’s better than 100% down.”

Down the street, another small business has a similar setup. After three years of booming business, the Wax Poetic Candle Bar is making some big changes to adapt to the current environment.

While the experience-based business was designed for people to create their own custom scented candle in store, owner Jill Bromley-Sung is staying afloat by enhancing e-commerce options and offering a do-it-yourself candle-making kit.

Wax Poetic Candle Bar in Grand Rapids; Eastown neighborhood. (May 7, 2020)

“I think for a lot of us, we’re going to have to pivot,” Bromley-Sung said. “We’re going to have to change how we do things and think about how we can stay relevant and what we can do and what we can offer.”

Even when it’s deemed safe for businesses to reopen, these local entrepreneurs are preparing for a new normal. They anticipate a change in consumer behavior.

“We’re looking at ways that we can transition the store,” Bromley-Sung said. “Moving things around so we could potentially be taking out our bar (and) putting in tables so people will feel more comfortable coming in being with their group and allowing more distance.”

She has also thought about switching to a reservation-only business model as opposed to the current walk-in system.

After realizing the in-store shopping experience may never be the same, Rebel’s owners are preparing for a future filled with more health-cautious consumers and less frivolous spenders.

“We’re a store that sells gifts and luxury items that people can live without,” Boyles said. “Our strategy going forward, [will be] adding products that that we feel are practical and useful, yet something that is beautiful that can be given as a gift.”

The scramble for economic survival comes as the Small Business Association of Michigan released a survey showing one in seven small businesses don’t think they’ll be able to bounce back after the financial hit.

“The answer was not surprising, but very disappointing,” SBAM President Brian Calley, also the former lieutenant governor under Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, said about the findings.

While Calley applauded the innovate spirit embraced by many small business owners, he said there are some professions that have had no option but to shut down completely.

“You can’t ‘take out’ a haircut,” Calley said. “Those (industries) are the ones struggling the most.”