Image: American Express

According to recent findings from the American Express Shop Small Business Recovery for Singapore study, which explored the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on Singapore businesses, 59 per cent of businesses owners would currently describe their business as “surviving” while 28 per cent would describe theirs as “thriving”.

Seventy-one per cent are optimistic their businesses can thrive in the new normal, and the changes they reckon are crucial for adapting to this new way of life include increasing focus on e-commerce, communicating more with customers through social media, and adding new products and services. That said, it is still an uncertain time given the growing number of virus variants and the restrictions put in place to help minimise the spread, so only 45 per cent of business owners have a long-term strategy compared to 84 per cent before the pandemic.

A local business that has managed to do well in spite of the challenges is The Closet Lover, which made the bold decision to halt new launches to keep their staff safe but eventually managed to open their fourth retail outlet at Takashimaya recently. We ask Brianna Wong, Director and Co-Founder of the apparel company, how she not only kept the business afloat, but made it possible for it to flourish.

How did the Covid-19 pandemic impact business?

We faced fluctuations in the demand of our apparel and also saw a shift in consumer behaviour.

The pandemic meant that customers were no longer looking for dressy items or outfits for events. They now want basics to wear while working from home, and staples they feel comfortable in and that they can switch out easily for errands. As such, we had to quickly change up our styles to suit their needs. We treated the initial adjustment time frame as a trial period, and  we also felt a sense of uncertainty as we deviated away from our usual apparel style.

Sales picked up and that, to us, was a clear sign that we were heading in the right direction. There was definitely a greater impact on our retailer stores since footfall at malls are closely linked to the dining restrictions. When the dining restrictions were tightened, we saw a visible fall in store traffic, but we had braced ourselves for this, since we knew that shopping was an accompanying activity that was tied to dining activities.

How did you ensure the well-being of your team during the circuit breaker?

We had to make the tough decision of whether to continue running our e-commerce store. There was nothing stopping us, but was it really worth it? That was a question we had to ponder over for days before making a final decision.

American Express

While operating the store meant more revenue and thus minimising our losses, it also meant that our logistics team would have to go back to our HQ to work on fulfilling orders. That would put them at risk of contracting Covid-19 since most of them use public transport to commute to work. Having personally faced auto-immune diseases and health issues, we knew the importance of staying healthy during this period.

Ultimately, we decided that the health of our staff mattered more than the revenue of the company, and we decided to stop operations entirely for a month to ensure that our team’s exposure to health risks would be minimized as much as possible. We had to scrap all our campaigns, and entirely change up how we ran our business. We also had to find ways to continue to engage with our community and customers despite being unable to connect with them face to face.

We also recognised that mental well-being was very important for our staff, so we hosted digital team bonding sessions to strengthen internal team connections. We prepared staff welfare packs that included essentials and food items, and made sure we made an effort to let our staff know that they are always on our minds.

What sort of challenges did the pandemic bring about, and how did you guys try to overcome them?

We would never have imagined having to close our stores or pause our weekly launches to deal with the situation but we did. Along the way, we also had to respond to the different measures that were put in place for workplace safety and dine-in measures, which in turn affected our team’s work environment and our retail stores’ footfall.

We also had to change up how we communicate with our customers. Physical events were no longer a viable option during this period but as a brand that values the interactions with and opinions of our customers, we had to look for alternative means to connect with them.

Learning and adapting to new media was the way to go. We started hosting live sessions to interact with our community, and share about our upcoming styles since the start of the pandemic. Customers are also no longer keen to just know product information and details, but are looking for deeper connections and relationships with brands today.

More than that, they want to hear the story about how the pieces they love and wear came about – from the design, to the inspiration, to the manufacturing process. They are no longer just buying a piece of clothing, but the story behind each piece. Our customers are not just wearing an outfit, but living out the brand values of The Closet Lover and what our business stands for.

What sort of help did the business receive, and what more do you think can be done to help small businesses?

In addition to our customers’ heart-warming support, we are fortunate to be part of initiatives like American Express Shop Small that encourages shoppers to support local businesses; this was especially helpful during the pandemic.

We also received waivers for rental for a couple of months at the start of the pandemic. It didn’t cover all the costs of the changes we were expected to make but we were, of course, still grateful that we received some form of help that helped cushion the impact of this huge change.

American Express

We were also encouraged when the malls where our stores were located reached out to us for additional marketing features. They helped in increasing exposure for our brand and we were thankful that we made it through that period of uncertainty.

Simply being a little kinder to the businesses around, to have a bigger heart and share about their services and products if you enjoyed them, and to understand that everyone is just trying to do their best in this situation would be the best way to go.

What is a piece of advice you have for fellow business owners on how to keep their businesses afloat during this time?

Be open to change and stay aware of what your customers need. Today’s business world is no longer defined by business owners, but by the customers. There are so many options and choices out there, and customers are spoilt for choice. Focus on what makes you and your business unique and different, and show that authenticity.