Nestled at the base of a mountain range that bears the same name sits Black Mountain, North Carolina—a small town with a lively downtown area filled with restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and specialty shops.
Black Mountain may be home to fewer than 8,000 people but it’s also home to more than 200 businesses. This business-friendly town was actually the first municipality in North Carolina to become a "Certified Entrepreneurial Community" meaning the town has strategies in place specifically to help new businesses get started and existing businesses prosper.
We sat down with Don Farrow, one of the business owners of the Black Mountain Yarn Shop and winner of the POS Pro Sweepstakes to hear his story of becoming a first-time retail store owner and thriving despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
The leap of faith
Don and his wife Donna had never run a business before.
“I had worked for the fire service in another state for 23 years and my wife worked as a Registered Nurse at our local hospital,” Don told me.
“Neither of us knew much about yarn either.”
The Farrows had moved to Black Mountain in 2003 with no aspirations of becoming business owners but over the years began to fall in love with the town’s strong sense of community.
“We started to think ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to open our own business downtown as a way to give back?’”
The Farrows began having conversations with other business owners in the area and the Chamber of Commerce.
The topic that kept coming up? Yarn.
“Whenever we’d talk with other business owners or the Chamber of Commerce they’d tell us that one of the things people come into town and ask for is a yarn shop.”
Black Mountain hadn’t had a yarn shop for about six years and it was sorely missed by residents and visitors alike.
“We thought about it, did some praying—it was a pretty big leap of faith for us—and the more we looked into it the more doors would open up. Now here we are almost 11 years later still thriving.”
What makes it special
Black Mountain Yarn Shop may be the only yarn shop in town but at just 16 miles outside of the much bigger city of Asheville they do have competition.
But the Farrows have something their competitors don’t—a personal touch.
“What we carry is pretty unique,” Don told me.
While they do carry some staple yarns—the ones that are commercially made or dyed—the majority of their yarns are small batch and hand dyed by independent dyers.
“That means no two batches are exactly alike.”
They also carry yarns from all over the world.
“Some of our yarns come from England, Ireland, South Africa, Canada, and the United States. We source them from all over the world and we ship them all over the world.”
Not only does the yarn itself make their shop unique, Don also told me that it’s the community around the yarn shop that really makes it special.
“Prior to COVID-19, we held a lot of classes usually to teach a particular technique or how to make a specific type of garment. We’d also have help sessions in the shop three or four days a week. We had groups of knitters who’d just come hang out in the shop. It was a social time for them.”
Black Mountain Yarn Shop isn’t just a storefront, it’s a community center. That made it all the more difficult when COVID-19 hit.
“We had to stop all our classes. Some of our instructors have started doing help sessions virtually and another one of our instructors is still doing small group, socially-distanced classes but it’s definitely not like it used to be.”
A pandemic, a store closure, and a silver lining
When the lockdown went into effect in March 2020, Black Mountain Yarn Shop had to close its doors to walk-in customers. It would have been easy to see this as a potentially fatal blow but the Farrows saw it as an opportunity.
“We’d been wanting to overhaul some things for a while, like our Point of Sale system but we weren’t sure when to do it. Covid actually gave us the perfect opportunity.”
Don and Donna closed their doors to the public and got to work.
“We were still taking phone orders and doing curbside pickup but the rest of the time we focused on switching over to Shopify POS and a Shopify website to put all our inventory online.”
When the first week of July rolled around they were able to reopen to the public but at a significantly reduced capacity—they were only allowing two people in the store at a time and by appointment only to ensure shoppers’ safety.
Three months later they were able to up the number to ten shoppers at a time—both appointments and walk-ins.
The Farrows kept the door locked and made people knock so they could control how many people were in the store at any given time. They also used the BookThatApp for appointment scheduling.
“That made things really simple,” Don told me. “People just go to our website, click on the shop by appointment link and there’s a list of guidelines they need to read through—masks required, no restrooms, temperature checks and things like that—then there’s a link to make the appointment. Once the appointment is made it comes through to the store and gets booked on our calendar. The support for that app is really great too.”
Aside from safety, the Farrows began to notice another benefit of implementing appointment shopping.
“The people who have been making appointments to shop in-store are shopping intentionally. They are coming in with lists, knowing what they want and leaving the store having purchased it.”
"The people who have been making appointments to shop in-store are shopping intentionally."
An extension of the shop
“Moving to Shopify POS and starting up an online store through Shopify has really made a big difference for us. We’re doing better now than we did last year and we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”
Just how well are they doing? Don told me that this October has been the best October they’ve ever had in their 11 years as a business.
“Moving the store online was a necessity to survive the pandemic and once the pandemic is over the website definitely isn’t going anywhere because we see what a benefit it is.”
"Moving the store online was a necessity to survive the pandemic and once the pandemic is over the website definitely isn’t going anywhere because we see what a benefit it is."
To understand why switching to Shopify for both their POS and website made such a big difference, it’s helpful to understand how their store operations worked before.
“The POS we were using prior to Shopify was called Checkout. There were some syncing issues that caused about a 15-minute lag before updating inventory and glitches that prevented us from being able to do essential tasks like downloading CSV files.”
It also introduced some pretty noticeable inefficiencies.
“Our old POS was desktop-based so we couldn’t use it on a different device other than that desktop without another license for it. Shopify is exactly the opposite—we can use the POS on any device wherever we are which is so convenient.”
Now they can do inventory without just having to use one machine. For example, having the POS in use at the counter doesn’t tie up their desktop so they can be using it for something else at the same time like being in the Shopify admin.
In addition to the sweepstakes prize covering their Shopify costs for three years, Black Mountain Yarn Shop also received equipment to help them be more productive in the store like a wireless printer. Now, if they need to make product or shipping labels they don’t have to wait to use the desktop which might be in use for something else.
“Now that we’re on Shopify, our POS feels just like an extension of the online store and the online store also takes into consideration our storefront. I guess you could say that our brick & mortar is now an extension of our online store and vice versa. They’re integrated so well now that it’s all just one thing. Now we always know that our inventory is accurate because everything is updated in real time. I would tell anyone considering Shopify POS to definitely go for it. It makes everything so easy—it just makes sense.”
"I guess you could say that our brick & mortar is now an extension of our online store and vice versa. They’re integrated so well now that it’s all just one thing."
At the time of publication, The Black Mountain Yarn Shop is now open to customers, walk-ins, and by appointment and continues to have a limited capacity of 10 shoppers in order to ensure everyone’s safety.