Owner Sara Villari says she needs the storefront—her second in Collingswood and third overall—to keep up with holiday shopper volumes in retail conditions limited by the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Matt Skoufalos | August 20, 2020
State-imposed limitations on business activities during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have forced companies of every kind to make major decisions on the fly.
The impact of those rule changes has been felt most heavily in the food service, entertainment, and fitness industries, which still haven’t reopened fully, if at all.
However, right behind them are brick-and-mortar retailers like Sara Villari, whose gift shop, Occasionette, has been operating at reduced customer capacity while New Jersey muddles through efforts to contain the pandemic.
“As a retail, non-essential business, I’m bracing myself for the idea that we could be shut down at any time,” Villari said. “It’s a crazy way to live when you have a business and full-time employees who depend on you.”
When non-essential businesses were shuttered in March, Villari pivoted Occasionette to an online-only shop. That move was “a tremendous amount of work,” she recalled. It didn’t save her from having to furlough employees, and only helped recoup a portion of what her normal sales might have been.
In the brick-and-mortar world, retailers rely on a couple of high points to get them through the calendar year. The first, Mother’s Day, was almost entirely a wash in 2020, even with online sales and curbside order pick-ups. Villari doesn’t want to roll the dice on losing the second: those three weeks in December where seasonal holiday shoppers provide 35 to 40 percent of her annual business.
“I’m basically really hoping that everyone in the state of New Jersey stays smart, and makes good decisions, and we will be able to stay open in some limited form,” she said. “But at 50-percent capacity, as we are now, we need more square footage.”
Hence Villari’s decision to lease the recently shuttered Frugal Thrift and Vintage storefront at 740 Haddon Avenue in Collingswood.
The closure of Morgan Robinson’s clothing boutique after 10 years left a void in the Haddon Avenue streetscape that Villari filled in “an effort to get our business up to what it would normally be.
“If we’re only having 12 people in the store at a time between now and the end of the year, even if we were open 24 hours a day, it wouldn’t be possible to do the numbers we would do at holiday,” Villari said.
“[Even] in a best-case scenario, we needed more space.”
Nonetheless, Villari said she’s excited to launch the Occasionette Joy Shop this fall. Just six doors away from her first Collingswood location (724 Haddon Avenue), it will be her third storefront, counting the original shop on Passyunk Avenue in Philadelphia.
“Collingswood has been so supportive of pretty much everything we’ve done,” Villari said. “That gives me the confidence that, as long as we’re able to have anyone in the store, we will have people in the store.”
The inventory at the new location was itself also conceived as a reaction to the pandemic, Villari said, and will be built around a theme of self-care, which she said is “something that we all need right now.
“Our mission in general is to make everyone happier than when they came in, through thoughtful products; thoughtful gifts,” she said. “I think this winter, once the weather doesn’t permit us to be outside, people are going to be into what they can do to pamper themselves.”
The Occasionette Joy Shop will feature skin care products, including facial masks, soaps, lotions, and bubble baths.
Among her best-selling items are “really fuzzy cozy socks,” Villari said; they complement a selection of robes, slippers, DIY kits, candles, jewelry, and puzzles, all curated by her careful eye.
And the extra room at the new location will allow both Collingswood shops to offer the brand of retail therapy upon which her customers also rely for self-care.
As important as it will be to make up the volume of business at both locations, “if you just want to come in and browse mindlessly and leave, we want to be there with you,” Villari said.
At the same time, her shops will continue to offer online ordering with curbside pickup. In Philadelphia, where customers have often browsed shoulder-to-shoulder during the holidays, Villari also is considering offering private shopping by reservation.
“It’s a very different world there than here right now,” she said. “We’re really taking seriously what the limits on our space are.”
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