By Laura and Scott Jordan
‘…as the Corona virus outbreaks in China, you should know, all is delayed, all the factories in China cannot open until this month end maybe. Hope you can understand this. We are all staying home…”
This early-February email was the first of several messages from factories. Manufacturing clothing overseas for nearly two decades, we were used to post-Chinese New Year delays and worked them into our production schedule. Slow starts after CNY were the norm. But this was a first: We are all staying home.
If they opened in early March, it would be a three-week delay. Not the end of the world. Other production was on schedule in Mauritius. It seemed like business as usual. Except for the comment, “We are all staying home…” We couldn’t stop talking about that. Can you imagine it? An entire country closing businesses and everyone staying home? It was inconceivable!
Flash forward several weeks. The ski mountain in our town of Ketchum, Idaho, closed. All the tourists left. We were told to shelter-in-place and asked not to leave the county. Blinking signs normally used to warn of avalanche danger appeared at the entrance to town, warning people to stay away.
We founded SCOTTeVEST, Inc. in late 2000 in Chicago. As a husband and wife team with the first digitally-native apparel brand, we’ve weathered a lot of storms. In the early days, technology issues were a daily event. We’ve learned to stay calm, became experts at trouble-shooting and are always ready to shift gears, coming up with Plan B (or C or D) on the fly.
We design clothing and specialize in more and better pockets. Our clothing was an immediate hit with techies who suddenly had cell phones and PDAs just as life was becoming more casual. Gadgets became lifelines as suits and briefcases were going into early retirement. To save the world from a fanny-pack army, we started SCOTTeVEST and gave people a way to discretely carry all of their gadgets and essentials. Our clothing resonated with people on the go, along with music enigma Frank Ocean. Anybody who needed to carry stuff, needed a SCOTTeVEST. In short order, our techie base was overwhelmed by travelers and many considered us a travel clothing company.
In 2003, following the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, we moved the company from Chicago to Sun Valley, Idaho. Selling online gave us the freedom to live wherever we wanted and we found paradise in a remote mountain town with world-class skiing, incredible hiking and crystal-clear lakes and streams straight out of a beer commercial.
Our family grew to include four Standard Poodles. We bought “the coolest building in town,” installed SCOTTeVEST on the lower floors and built our dream apartment on the top floor. Meanwhile, our business remained primarily online with the addition of several independent travel stores who carried a few of our styles. As Amazon grew like its namesake river, the only way to compete was to have a presence on their site. By 2019, nearly 50% of our business was done through our Amazon store.
Despite the freedom and flexibility of selling online, Scott had always wanted to open a retail store. Laura finally relented and in early 2020, we decided to convert a floor of our office space into the SCOTTeVEST flagship store. With construction underway, we started planning the opening: a huge sample sale in March. In the heart of ski season, we knew it would draw both tourists and locals.
As we prepared rack after rack of samples accumulated over the years, we considered live music, a food truck for those waiting in line and then: We are all staying home.
The pandemic hit our community with a vengeance. Our town suddenly had the highest concentration of COVID-19 in the world! Our population is small, so our overall numbers were low, but our per capita rate was higher than Wuhan. Higher than New York City.
The ski mountain closed and all the tourists left. We were told to shelter-in-place and asked not to leave the county. Blinking signs normally used to warn of avalanche danger appeared at the entrance to town, warning people to stay away.
Construction ceased on our store. The kickoff sample sale overnight became an archaic relic of days gone by—crowds now anathema. The premier vest event on the planet was canceled.
Amazon deprioritized our products. We were not allowed to send inventory to their warehouses nor could we offer coupons or any deals on our products. They added warnings to our product pages that orders might not ship until…who knows? Even though we offered Seller Fulfilled Prime and were shipping daily from our warehouse, Amazon’s warnings scared off potential customers who didn’t realize they could still order our products on Amazon and get their usual 2-day delivery with Seller Fulfilled Prime. Our Amazon business dropped by 90%.
Things weren’t much better on our website where sales dropped by 70%. It was radio silence from the independent travel stores carrying our products; not a single wholesale order from March 11th through the end of May.
Supply chain issues worsened. Mauritius went under lockdown. The hopeful early emails from China were replaced with apologies and uncertainty. And, when products were finally ready, air shipping was no longer an option. Air cargo space was either unavailable or prohibitively expensive. Granted, not many people were shopping, but we still needed to replenish inventory on sold-out styles for the people who wanted to shop.
And, let’s not forget the bankruptcies. Big name clothing stores were filing Chapter 11 and trying to liquidate inventory on their websites. We couldn’t compete with all the below-cost deals flooding cyberspace.
Bad news became like the technology issues we experienced in the early days of SCOTTeVEST, a daily event. Bombarded by problems, we needed a plan.
We had the fundamentals—excellent products, loyal customers and great customer service. We were facing supply chain and cash flow issues. We weren’t sure how long the issues would last nor could we predict how long we could swim against the tide. Nonetheless, we were committed to giving it our all and agreed on the long game.
Rather than trying to sell clothing we decided to focus on building relationships with our customers. We hoped that when things got back to normal, they would have stronger ties to our brand and shop with us.
In mid-March, we sent an email, Got Wanderlust? asking customers to share their travel photos and stories to entertain each other during the quarantine. And share they did! We compiled their photos and stories into a series of Armchair Traveler emails chronicling their travel adventures. We elected not to try to sell anything in the emails. Our goal was to provide entertainment and escape. With a great open rate and tremendous engagement, the emails helped achieve our goal.
We also put Laura’s mother to work. Quarantined solo in Chicago, octogenarian Diana was doing grocery store runs for “the old people,” becoming an amateur documentarian, sending reams of photos of our former neighborhood in Chicago (with everything closed) and racking up more steps on her tracker than you can imagine. Even though Diana was active and engaged, we realized that many people in her situation were lonely. That’s when we started our live stream, Diana & Scott Talk Travel. We invited customers to join us for a lively discussion about travel and anything else that crossed their minds.
From the feedback we’ve received, we know these activities have benefited our customers. But they have also helped us. With only the two of us and four poodles rattling around in the building (everyone else was working from home), the interaction with customers was a great social outlet. What we didn’t expect was the informal think tank that developed.
Early in the Armchair Traveler submissions, customers talked about how they’re using our products in the pandemic. Some were serious: “While under Stay Home, Stay Healthy order, I am wearing my vest. There is a pocket for tissues, sanitizer, gloves, mask, wipes and more!” Others were humorous: “One pocket for the beer, one for the remote, one for the snacks, one for the phone…” All of them reinforced what we already knew—during the pandemic, our products were more relevant than ever.
And that was our dilemma. How could we tastefully convey this message? We didn’t want to be opportunistic in our marketing, yet we knew the benefit of well-designed pockets. Our clothing has always been designed to comfortably carry all your essentials. During the pandemic, everyone’s list of essentials was growing. Not only did our pockets have space for your cell phone, sunglasses, wallet and keys, there was plenty of room for masks, gloves and hand sanitizer.
Our customers provided honest feedback and offered testimonials. Frankly, we’re still working on the nailing down the messaging, but the support and encouragement from our customers has motivated us to spread the word.
So, has it worked? It is too soon to say, but all signs point to yes. We’ve designated July 2020 SeVIP Month and are focusing on our loyalty program with extra sign-up bonuses, additional points for customer referrals, triple point offers, weekly drawings and more. We hope that as they start to venture out into the world again, our newly re-engaged customers will spread the word.
We’re using a similar strategy with our retail store. We had a soft opening over Memorial Day Weekend…a far cry from the pre-pandemic planned pandemonium. Since we’re located just off the beaten path, we’re recruiting locals who work in the tourist industry to be brand ambassadors. We’ve had several Pocket Science Academy events to introduce them to our brand and they’re already starting to send customers our way.
As entrepreneurs, we’ve always thought outside the box. The pandemic has forced us to stretch even further. Despite the overwhelming stress and uncertainty about the future, we’ve also had fun as it reminded us of the early days of building our business.