PHOTO: BY INVITE ONLY

I remember feeling very excited when I opened my first physical By Invite Only store in Wisma Atria back in 2017, eight years after I started my online business. It was the culmination of everything I had worked for and I had so much to learn.

Business was great until Covid-19 hit two years later.

At first, it didn’t seem like a big deal, as I was in primary school when Sars – Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – happened in 2003. Everything had gone back to normal after a few months. We understood how serious it was only in 2021, when the team began falling ill with the Delta variant.

We had already expanded to two stores and six staff when the first circuit breaker was implemented. That period, along with the heightened alert, were our most challenging moments. We kept everyone on the retail team employed but that was the hardest decision we had to make.

We began haemorrhaging money – up to six figures per month – because nobody was shopping and we still had to pay rent.

The stress and uncertainty kept me awake at night.

But we had come too far to give up. We took those few months to recalibrate, and to redirect sales from the store to online.

Many stores started to close down. The malls became increasingly desperate and were more welcoming to local brands.

We were offered space in a prime location. The terms were so good we had to seize the opportunity despite bleeding cash. We had plans to expand anyway. After all, American billionaire and business magnate Warren Buffett did say: ‘Buy when everyone else is selling.’

We thought things couldn’t get any worse and were betting on things picking up by the fourth quarter. Now all we needed to do was manage our cash flow.

Unfortunately, our Bugis branch opened weeks after Covid-19 was detected at Bugis Junction. People were spooked, the mall was empty, morale was low. The team wanted to work elsewhere.

But Covid-19 had taught us to pivot and we changed our SOPs quickly. We held a mini sale of exclusive pieces and ran promos to attract crowds. We also allowed our staff to earn more by reducing our sales targets.

The situation began to improve in the third quarter of 2021 for the festive season like we hoped it would. I didn’t feel relief; we were in the red and had to make up for losses incurred over the year. We were in fire-fighting mode.

We managed to close 2021 with five stores and 100 per cent growth, compared to a year ago.

The crowds have returned since measures were lifted, but their spending habits are different now. They want to make more thoughtful purchases – being a local, sustainable brand helps.

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I finally contracted Covid-19 last month. My husband got it first, and we isolated ourselves. I now have over 40 staff and key people that we trust, so being sick didn’t affect day-to-day business.

I suppose it all boils down to luck as well.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.