Business, Unusual: How two businesses turned pandemic hardships into positive outcomes onlineJun 11, 2021 05:04PM ● By Jennifer A. Sheffield
As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic spread to small
businesses across the country and the region, various aspects of operating a
profitable venture became vague at best.
Now, with the proverbial curtain slightly lifting, behind-the-scene challenges faced by store owners and service providers are becoming part of a new script for sustaining a spirit of community, bringing together family and friends who remain apart, and introducing a potentially new way to shop local.
That is the outcome of crises faced by two sisters from Mount Carmel, Cassie and Jackie Collier, now based in New York City, and long-time New Berlin-based entrepreneur Art Lieberman. The combined strategies they encourage other business owners to embrace are remarkably similar: not only is pivoting possible, but necessary as consumers strive to adapt to a new normal.
The Colliers, who are graduates of Susquehanna University, are co-founders of the customizable board game Bundle. Lieberman is creating a video-chat-based virtual local shopping experience called S.U.N. Virtual Mall.
Part of the Bundle model encompassed hosting live social events and creating games for celebrations like bachelorette parties. Social distancing protocol threatened to take a toll on their bottom line. Meanwhile, Lieberman’s virtual mall, reportedly the nation’s first, failed to launch in February. As a result, Lieberman has redesigned the concept to help recovering brick-and-mortar shops lower their costs and increase sales.
“There is something about the pandemic that forced businesses to create more flexible experiences,” Cassie said. “It is interesting to see how the rules of social engagement are changing, and cool to see that we’re embracing the technology, but also still trying to find ways to preserve the really special in-person time, too.”
Jackie echoed this fact: when they couldn’t rely on what worked when the sisters started the business in 2017, they were forced back to the basics of how to have fun in a new situation.
“The one thing we knew how to do was Bundle,” said Jackie. “Now that we’re moving out of the pandemic no one knows the rules.”
The gift of games
Play games? During a pandemic? Cassie and Jackie used what appeared most devastating to fuel their creative drive and Bundle, ultimately, delivered.
Bundle is still sold as a physical board game for couples to play at home. Added to the product line are a virtual Bundle for friends to play on Zoom and, in response to the need for people to connect, in-person events have become virtual ones. The entrepreneurs were invited to join a virtual senior night, hosted by Selfhelp Community Services, Inc., and were guests for a virtual field trip with the Commonwealth Charter Academy of Harrisburg.
Reflecting, Cassie, and Jackie said the pandemic had actually simplified some aspects of their business: they do not miss having to order food, rent a venue or send invitations to make sales for in-person events.
“[The pandemic] has really allowed us to maximize the number of events that we are either attending and holding,” Jackie said.
The Bundle creators have been bootstrapping from the beginning, so shifting gears meant gravitating toward the familiar. Jackie remembers, early on, when they glued squares on boards by hand.
Growing up in a small coal-mining area informed how these big-city dwellers, who still live 15 minutes apart, thought about community, too. “We come from where people are close-knit and you care for them,” Cassie said.
That sentiment translated to a desire to foster connections with their customers. They came up with “Bunker Bundle,” as a way to talk about issues like toilet paper scarcity, for example. As a result, a new feature was added to their blog showcasing their customers’ at-home activities.
“We want to put out a message that we love to celebrate, but we are also here to be with you through the tough times,” said Jackie.
Going to the mall
Lieberman is no stranger to starting businesses. He owns seven of them and organized festivals and events in New York before entering and hosting in the digital conferencing world.
“I’ve only failed twice,” he said, so he is not letting a slow start-up phase set him or his tenants back. He believes that this way of doing business (which, he says, mirrors window shopping on Main Street) can add the personal touch to online sales.
Last November, Lieberman walked into the offices of the Milton Standard Journal newspaper and found out retail ad sales were down. That gave him an idea. He partnered with software company Exhibitor Connect, which uses video to connect buyers and sellers in a trade show setting, and SUN Mall took shape.
“It occurred to me that any business can have a virtual store in a mall, even if they had to close due to the pandemic,” he said.
The concept is simple. The cost to potential lessees is $400 per month, including online promotion. Participating businesses need a basic website and the ability to communicate with the consumer, via a computer or smartphone, to make the sale. The online virtual mall offers an enhanced ability to provide product details and, presumptively, make the sale.
“The idea is for people to ‘shop small at the virtual mall,’ so, we chose Snyder, Union and Northumberland as center stage,” Lieberman said.
“I need 20 stores [to make this idea viable],” he said. “The next step is attracting shoppers, and making it easy for those who don’t usually shop online to transition along with their favorite store.”
Doing business in a pandemic is not easy, but these business owners found a way.
Jackie said, “Our slogan is, ‘life celebrated, one bundle at a time,’ but our big revelation was that it is about comfort and connection over everything else.”
Her advice for companies still roughing through it?
“Drill down to the most basic things you want to do with your product, or for people. That is the sweet spot.”
Jennifer A. Sheffield is a freelance writer based in Lancaster and a contract sports and recreation writer with Paralyzed Veterans of America.