As soon as Amy Rutherford heard news of what was happening on the West Coast in early March, she knew it wasn’t going to be long before COVID-19 made its way to the DMV. The owner of Alexandria home goods stores Red Barn Mercantile and Penny Post says, “On March 17, we closed both stores to the public, but continued to do business online, via email, phone and social media. We would have done it through smoke signals and telegraph if that was necessary.”
We spoke with Rutherford about her experience, and how the brand’s have come out of the worst of COVID, looking to the future. See highlights from our conversation below.
After you closed your stores’ brick-and-mortar locations in mid-March during the stay-at-home orders, what were your next steps?
Thankfully, we had just launched a small e-commerce presence for Red Barn Mercantile, so it was ready to be loaded with goods. And, thanks to the quick actions of one of our team members, Penny Post got a new website practically overnight. We went to a skeleton team and I stopped paying myself and shifted that money to payroll. In the early days, we were curating Easter baskets and care packages and selling all the puzzles we could get our hands on. It was stressful to say the least, but it was amazing to see the community rally around us. Our customers are amazing and we are so grateful.
How has your business strategy changed over the past five months?
My strategy has been to stay nimble and be ready to change with each new day. As a small business, we can do that, which has been our saving grace. Most importantly, we are meeting our customers where they are and providing a shopping experience that correlates to their comfort level. If they want to shop online, then we can do that. If they want to shop in-store, then we don our masks and sanitize the living daylights out of everything. If they want in-store pickup, done! And, for those who want appointment shopping, we will be adding that in September.
Are there any new brands or products you’ve recently added to Red Barn Mercantile or Penny Post that shoppers should know about for the upcoming season?
Because we have to keep the selection fresh for our repeat and loyal customers, we have so many new things at both stores. At Penny Post, I’m most excited about our new card line, Spaghetti & Meatballs, and our new candle line, Cancelled Plans. Both have had spot-on messaging for the times. And, at Red Barn Mercantile, I’m most excited about a gorgeous and very cozy new blanket line from Maine, and all our beautiful new puzzles based on vintage ephemera. Both will be perfect for fall and winter evenings at home by the fire.
How were you able to get involved in local community efforts during the pandemic? Did the stores host any special events or fundraisers this year during the pandemic?
Collaboration and philanthropy are cornerstones of our business values, so absolutely we have been busy. In April, we took part in the DC Shop Small event and in Spring2ACTion, Alexandria’s day of giving. In June, we worked with three other retailers to put together a virtual edition of our popular Makers Mile. Also in June, we spearheaded a new philanthropic initiative with the business and nonprofit community called Good. Works. Alexandria, where, for one day, participating businesses gave a percentage of their sales to their customers’ charity of choice. We partnered with restaurants on family game nights and Mother’s Day initiatives. And, we have plenty of plans for collaborating with other businesses this fall and winter.
What keeps you hopeful right now?
That the case numbers are holding steady even though we are opened again. It means people are being smart and cooperative. That our sales numbers are inching back up as people get used to the new patterns and routines is also great. Last night, my 14-year-old daughter mentioned that she saw videos for “cute hairstyles while wearing a mask” on YouTube. Oddly, that makes me hopeful. It means the tides have turned, we are taking this seriously, people are making the best out of a terrible situation and we can do this. It’s resiliency at its most creative.
What are you most looking forward to about fall home decor trends and shopping in the months ahead?
As a natural homebody, I’m looking forward to all the stay-at-home themes. Self-care through journaling, enjoying at-home, spa-worthy treatments and picking up a new skill like calligraphy or brush lettering. Baking and cooking at home will continue to be a thing and we are 100% behind that with tasty treats, fun and beautiful kitchen essentials, and gorgeous tableware. And, handmade is key. Blankets from Maine, pottery from Vermont, pillows from California, cards and paper from all over the U.S. and candles from Richmond and Brooklyn are just the tip of the handmade iceberg at both stores.
What’s next for Red Barn Mercantile and Penny Post?
Next up is the holidays and two brand-new custom websites. After that, who knows? We have taken this time to assess our stores and shore up the weaknesses and find new opportunities. There is definitely room for improvement and growth, so stay tuned.
If you could go back to January 2020, what would you tell yourself about the road ahead?
I would tell myself that times are going to be tough, but you will also witness the amazing creativity and intestinal fortitude of your team, your community and your country. You will be tested, but you can do it. And the old ways of doing things will be changed forever, but, for some, their time has come and that’s a good thing. // Red Barn Mercantile: 1117 King St., Alexandria; Penny Post: 1201 King St., Alexandria
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