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HUNTINGTON — COVID-19 totally changed the way The Haute Wick Social does business, according to owner Ashley Casto.

“The pandemic blew up my whole business model,” Casto said. “We went from an in-person experience to an online and social media experience.”

The Haute Wick Social, located in Heritage Station in downtown Huntington, opened as a place where people would gather to make their own candles together.

“There was lots of hand-on, touching and smelling here, but due to the pandemic, we felt it was best to close temporarily to the public,” Casto said. “We closed our doors to the public on March 17, thinking it would only be a couple weeks. I quickly moved into selling online through Facebook Live sales and promotion through our social media accounts. Live sales saved our store; I knew I had to pivot immediately or we would become a statistic of the pandemic.”

More than 97,966 businesses have permanently shut down during the pandemic, according to Yelp.com’s Local Economic Impact Report. Some small businesses in Huntington avoided being among those by embracing e-commerce.

Under the new business model, The Haute Wick Social is now shipping candles all over the country without people smelling them first, which Casto called “incredible.”

“During the Facebook Live sales I explain what the candles smell like and the best places to burn them,” she said. “The outpour of support from our customers has been incredible. Thanks to them I’ve been able to maintain the shop. Going from a store that was an experience to completely retail was a huge shift.”

Casto said she and her staff now hand pour and make all of the shop’s in-store products, candles, tart melts, body butter and whipped body wash.

“We also expanded gift items product lines, now carrying Mud Pie, Naples Soap Company, and Sweet Water Decor,” she said. “I had to make up lost revenue from losing events and parties.”

Casto said while she plans to bring back the in-person experience once the pandemic is over, the new business model will also remain.

“Our sales have stayed consistent, and our May sales were better than the previous year before the pandemic,” she said, “so we will continue with this e-commerce business model even after the pandemic is over.”

According to new data from IBM’s U.S. Retail Index, the pandemic has accelerated the shift away from physical stores to digital shopping by roughly five years.

In the first quarter of 2020, department store sales and those from other “non-essential” retailers declined by 25%, the data showed. This grew to a 75% decline in the second quarter.

The report indicates that department stores are expected to decline by over 60% for the full year. Meanwhile, e-commerce is projected to grow by nearly 20%.

Websites, social media to drive sales

Noelle Horsfield of Full Circle Gifts & Goods at Heritage Station closed her shop in March, but she has managed to navigate the difficulties of doing business during a pandemic.

“I have Crohn’s disease and am immune compromised, plus we also help take care of my parents who are in their 70s, so we have some extra challenges when it comes to dealing with this virus and running a business,” Horsfield said.

Full Circle closed to foot traffic on March 12 and has been operating mostly online ever since that day.

“I personally built the shop’s website, which now offers 2,000 plus items to customers all over the world,” she said. “We had a website prior to the pandemic, but we had maybe a tenth of what we have in the shop on the site.”

Full Circle, which began in 2016 as a tiny retail space within a ceramic studio, has evolved into a unique shopping experience where visitors can choose from entirely handmade one-of-a-kind ceramics, apparel with Horsfield’s original designs, eclectic greeting cards, repurposed porcelain items with edgy designs created in house, handmade jewelry and other gift items from makers across the country.

Horsfield owns the business with her husband, Scott, who said the transition to more online sales had its challenges.

“Noelle was working on the website nonstop for a month to six weeks, so she wasn’t creating her handmade stuff, she wasn’t designing anything and she just totally focused on the website because we knew it was that important for us to stay in business,” Scott Horsfield said.

Pre-pandemic, online sales at Full Circle represented less than 5% of total sales. Today it’s nearly 100% of all sales.

“In the beginning of the pandemic, I think, many small businesses thought they would just do what they needed to do to get through the next few weeks or next few months, but I knew all along I need to make the website better, and that was always a goal,” Noelle Horsfield added. “The pandemic forced me to make it a top priority. Now we have this awesome website that is generating sales locally and from around the world, so this is the one positive thing we can take away from all of this.”

Strategy encompasses all marketing channels

Nomada Bakery, Cafe & Eatery at Heritage Station made the decision to close on March 16 due to the pandemic.

“It was our six-month anniversary,” Shawn Schulenberg, co-owner of Nomada Bakery, said. “We were planning to keep going, but we made the difficult decision to close after a meeting with our employees.”

Schulenberg’s partner, Ariel Barcenas, who is also the chef, said being closed for a month gave them some time to try to figure out the best way to reopen and keep the business going.

“Some people started calling to see if I could make some cakes or special orders, so I started making things for curbside pickup on the weekends,” Barcenas said. “Then we knew we had to start working on our website to update our menu and how we were going to change marketing and packaging our products and services.”

Barcenas said not everything can be pre-packaged, so a lot of thought had to go into the process of the new website redevelopment.

“We started modifying the menu in terms of what do we keep on the menu, add to the menu or take away for now,” he said. “We had been planning on doing this with the website when we first opened, but the pandemic made it the only way to go forward.”

Schulenberg said it has been critical to have a strategy that encompasses all of the marketing channels available.

“The month that we were closed allowed us to evaluate what worked and what didn’t,” Schulenberg said. “It was challenging, but the response has been amazing. We have had some weeks recently that have been better than the same weeks last year.”

Schulenberg said Nomada Bakery now has a business model that can adapt no matter what happens with the pandemic.

“So if there was a second shut down, we are ready to go,” he said. “We still following all health and safety guidelines, but if there is a second shut down we are now capable of handing it and are ready to go.”

Nomada Bakery recently opened the counter inside to foot traffic. Anna Adkins was there Wednesday picking up an order.

“Now, more than ever, it’s so important that we support and take care of the local businesses that we love,” she said. “Even if I go online to shop, I prefer to go to the local businesses’ websites. Without local support they may go away, and that would have a negative impact on the entire community.”

COVID-19 has boosted online sales

With only a few weeks until Thanksgiving, U.S. consumers have already spent $21.7 billion online this holiday shopping season — a 21% year-over-year jump, according to a recent study by Adobe Analytics.

U.S. consumers spent over $2 billion on Nov. 2, the day before the U.S. presidential election, a 31% year-over-year increase. And they spent $2.0 billion on Nov. 3, Election Day, which was a 27% jump year over year, according to data from Adobe Analytics.

The Greater Huntington Park & Recreation District manages the shops at Heritage Station, and interim director Kathy McKenna said despite the pandemic things are going well.

“We have many shops open for business and all are following health and safety guidelines,” she said. “I think as far as the Christmas season goes, I believe the shops will continue to do well. The shops here seem to have a very loyal local following and I’d hope that with the current climate people will get out and support our local shops.”

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD or email him at fpace@hdmediallc.com.

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD or email him at fpace@hdmediallc.com.

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