Surviving and Thriving during a pandemic year.


Can you believe it's been a year?

March 17th, 2020 we were still optimistic that we could keep our store open by reducing our capacity to 3 people in the store. In my Instagram post I happily showed that with the outdoor space and lots of room, the Distillery area would be a great place to be comfortably with everything going on. 


I remember hearing the term "socially distancing" for the first time and thinking hey we should start using that in our marketing content; marking X's on the floor with red tape to show how far apart you should be from everyone.

Then BAM the next day we were locked down. The next couple of days were a scramble; how do I take care of my staff if we had no sales coming in, would I be able to pay them? What about rent? But I reasoned that this would only be a temporary thing. We would be open again in a short time and I could live on the laurels of the first two and a half months being a record breaking start to the year, so we'd be ok. 

My routine wasn't that different, I was still coming to the store almost everyday. After about a week I laid out a plan for my staff to go on CEWS, letting them know it was only temporarily until we opened again. I forwarded them the links and the information I could find so they could easily collect. I kept 2 staff on PT but still paid them FT hours so we could alternate days working at the store.

We started to ramp up our social media, which had been somewhat dormant for awhile. Sure we were posting regularly on the men's instagram but women's was like a forgotten child. 

Our on-line store only had men's, so we added all of our women's product using staff as models. We shot men's with an iphone, again using staff as models, and realized that on-line did not have to be the perfect images with the proper lighting and pristine editing I thought it had to be. It's more just about getting the product up.

I started to quasi plan our posts for Instagram, it was always more of a knee jerk reaction of "oh shit we need to post something today". We started doing more lives, more stories and posting everyday to try and keep our customers engaged. 

I spent the time learning how to use Shopify; adding products, building collections, changing images and writing descriptions. All stuff that I had to rely on other people to do for me (but happy not to do anymore!).

We launched Virtual Shopping (again) and Trust us kits, where we would send product to our customers houses for them to try on at home. 

It was basically a time of let's throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks.

Then summer came and we re-opened in June and it was glorious. I personally have a love / hate with the Distillery. I love the store and the area but sometimes had to grit my teeth with the people; too many tourists, the constant "oh my god they charge $150 for a shirt" and women shoppers (I have never dealt in women's before; never sold it and personally don't even know how to style myself, so they kind of scared me). I was used to my guys walking in with a purpose "hey, I need this for this for this event / work / wedding I'm going to" and being able to tell them what size they are with one glance.

But summertime in Distillery during a pandemic was amazing, it was all local tourists. People from around the city (who hadn't been to the Distillery in years), people from around Ontario and the rest of Canada, who were happy to be out shopping, talking and ready to spend.

As summer turned into Fall, I started to work on an idea that I'd talked about for years. Doing smaller private parties and events at the store (I have actually always wanted to run a secret after hours speakeasy during our King West store days!) At this point inside gatherings were limited to 10 people, so we launched a private Dine and Shop series for the store ( We kind of got shut down before we started as indoor dining was totally banned but not before BlogTO ran a click bait headline (Retail Store allowing indoor dining but restaurants can't) and I had to deal with the ire of hundreds of nasty comments. But at the end of the day, there is no such thing as bad press.

Outdoor dining was still allowed so it was still busy in the Distillery (the best area for huge patios). Again the customers were amazing and the vibe was great. The Christmas Market was cancelled for the year (again have a love / hate with it) but they were still doing the lights and music so the area still looked magical.

Then the unthinkable happened, they locked down all retail again (except of course big box retailers) in November just as stores were heading into their busiest months. We do 25% of our sales in the last two months, its kind of our gravy months were we make all the money for the year. 

Sure the rent and wage relief helped, but for retail stores our biggest expense is our inventory. Suppliers wanted to ship us our Holiday deliveries, boxes were still showing up at our door and we were closed. 

The only saving grace is that I didn't pull the trigger on the hundreds of hats, gloves and other cold weather accessories that we usually have in the store for the Christmas market (wasn't able to cancel the women's gloves in time though, so still have a few hundred of those around).

We pushed through the next few weeks; launched a new website, doubled down on social (with Lester and Marin joining the team) and lamented on having the quietest Nov and Dec in my entire 15 years of being in retail. We tried more things like shopping by video and Live shopping on Black Friday, where Brandon and I did a shot for every live sale made (20 shots later....). Got the staff involved to start doing Insta reels, lives 3 times a week (with the Natasha, Lindsay and Sherry all killin it on insta and Tik tok!), and trying to stay positive. 

As the weeks turned into months I learnt that there is no point getting mad at a situation that you can't change, the only thing you can do is to not let it get you down.

I look back on this year grateful that we closed our Bathurst store when we did (we decided not to renew our lease when the landlord wanted to increase our rent) and closed the store at the end of Feb - literally two weeks before everything was locked down. I went from feeling like a failure to thanking the stars for having the best timing ever! I've found that I have a renewed mission to my business, I was always focused on scaling (and again felt like a failure when I didn't) but now I know I can scale without having the headache of more stores, more leases, more staff and more inventory and just be super profitable with one location with a digital strategy to grow. 

I'm actually excited for what the upcoming year will bring for retail and how we are going to change with it and at the end of the day thankful that this pandemic didn't beat us, it only made us stronger.