Althea Johnson knows how to make lemons into lemonade—or in this case, maybe transform them into the perfect facemask.
The entrepreneur started her Korean skincare business online and morphed it into a series of popular pop-ups. In early 2020, she finally took the plunge into the brick-and-mortar world.
She opened the doors of her Toronto shop just nine days before the pandemic, only to close them immediately thanks to the first COVID-induced lockdown.
Instead of giving up, Althea dug in, embracing her digital roots and engaging with customers to provide the grounding beauty dialogue they craved. Althea shares her story below.
You can’t shut down creativity
No one would have faulted Althea for bowing out of her newly acquired retail space in the face of global chaos. But in a way, that chaos is exactly why she decided to hold onto her business so tightly.
With neighboring businesses boarding up around her left and right, Althea decided she wanted to be a beacon of normalcy. Even during full lockdown periods when her doors were firmly closed, she left the window displays up and the lights on, with instructions for online ordering at the door. In short, she sent positive energy out into the universe - and the universe answered.
Althea explains, “It just came to me when I was driving along Queen Street with everything not only shut down, boarded up and, you know, I thought, I'm not going to do that with my store. I'm going to leave the screen up. I'm going to have everyone be able to see the products. And I felt like if I were to shut the store down, I would shut down ideas, creativity. It would almost be like I was - I don't know. It's kind of like I believe in the universe and I believe when you keep everything opened and you give that kind of vibe out there, then the customers will still come."
And so I thought, I'm still open. And even though people can't physically come in, I want to have the visual of being opened, I just felt it was very important. So I had the sign up on the door saying we're closed, but we have the online store...I didn't want this stop-start, stop-start with the customers. I wanted them to know I'm always here no matter what.
Offering an anchor during the storm
It turns out that by staying available, Althea was throwing customers a lifeline - and they were quick to grab it. Self care became a more important ritual than ever in the face of the unknown, and new skin concerns like maskne (acne caused by mask wearing) were very real. The tether to normalcy was two-fold, helping Althea stay on a healthy and sane routine, while allowing her to help her customers at the same time.
With all this panic and chaos happening around us, it was like an anchor. And I also want it to be an anchor for customers, for them to know I'm here every day. I'm not going anywhere. You have access to products. You have access to answers to your questions.
Althea continues,“And so it was like this. They relied on me, and I wanted to be that anchor for these customers where they didn't have to worry about is it going to be available? Is it shut down? Where do I go? I'm here and I'm not going anywhere. And I think out of that, that's what helped as well, the reliability that they had. That was something concrete that they could see and have a routine that's there with all the chaos going around in the background.”
Going the extra mile for customers
Althea was quick to meet customers where they were, even if this meant delivering products locally until 9:00 p.m. every night when pandemic shopping restrictions were at their strictest. Thanks to social media, she revived awareness of her online store and the orders started flowing in. The more miles she drove, the more customer interest and loyalty seemed to skyrocket.
Althea shared,“I thought, yeah, you know what? I'm going to pivot to social media. So I started doing live Insta stories. I made announcements. I started posting products online and letting them know, reminding them that I have an online store. So what happened was I started to slowly get messages from customers. ‘I'm breaking out now that I'm at home, what do I use? You know, I have maskne.’
This was a new phenomenon that was born out of the pandemic of wearing masks, where you have acne that develops out of prolonged wearing of the mask. So it evolved from answering questions from customers and consulting with them and saying, OK, you need to use this product or that product. So eventually what happened within a couple of weeks, I was coming to the store every day filling out orders and delivering them locally myself by car.”
So I would travel up to two hours west, south, north, east, whatever the two hour radius, I would just go and I would deliver every day. And it grew from there. And then I would keep my contact and communication with customers on social media, Instagram as well as Facebook. And it just evolved from there. And my business exploded. I couldn't believe it.
The evolution of email marketing
With in-person shopping temporarily out of the picture, Althea embarked on email marketing mission 2.0. While she had collected email previously during her pop-up phase, she started to collect emails more systematically.
She also amped up her content schedule, making use of those emails to provide subscribers with a continuous diet of new skincare products and tips. She was careful to walk the line of providing just the right amount of valuable content per week to keep interest high.
I was always doing email marketing before I had the store, but of course with email marketing, you want to grow the amount of people that subscribe to your newsletter...So during lockdown, I got better at it. I started to learn from it because it was sort of I did OK before, but it really evolved because I had more customers. So what I did was I focus on how to grow the customer email base of getting people to sign up.
Althea went on to explain her strategy further, “And then I did about three emails a week. I didn't want to bother people too much, so I did maybe one to three emails a week. So I only email when I have something to talk about. If there's a new product or a back in stock is very popular, focusing on certain skin issues, attaching a blog post to it, those things. So that became really huge, especially during the second wave of lockdown that became huge. And that's what increased my curbside pickups, actually. So that was major for me.”
Beauty is a conversation
Three emails per week may sound like overkill. But unlike some industries, it turns out that skin care customers are eager to stay connected. The ongoing nature of skin issues and interest in product discounts mean that emails typically don’t feel like spam. Far from struggling to get customers to hand over their carefully guarded email addresses, Althea found that nearly 100% of customers are willing to provide an email at the time of purchase.
Althea shared, “The beauty world is a fascinating area because customers want to keep connected, because it's this conversation that's always going and comparing what works for you, what doesn't work for you. And everybody wants to compare ideas or know what products are good. That's why the YouTube channel is so popular within the commute capacity market.
Most customers are more than happy to give you their email because they want to know when they can get discounts. They want to know about new brands coming in. They want to know about how to address certain skin issues. So basically when they would come in, I would say I want to email the receipt and also, let them know we have certain privileges that are offered to those that sign up for the email marketing.”
So they know they're going to get special deals, they get gifts, free gifts, so that we don't make a big deal of it. It's like you say yes or you say no, whatever. But we find that 95% will sign up, which is major.
Exchanging information for email addresses
If you’re not in the beauty industry or are having trouble getting customers to part with their email addresses, Althea has also seen success with the tried-and-true technique of offering valuable information in return for signups. In her case, she put together a free Korean skincare guide that was purely informative, with no sales pitch attached other than the requirement to enter an email address for access.
I developed a Korean skincare guideline. So it goes through the skin care steps and it goes through skin types, and I think it's about four pages long. And so I basically posted it on social media and then promoted it. And if you want access to this information, you would have to put in your email and then you can download this Korean skincare guide. It's not product-based. It's simply information about the 10 steps and skin types and skin issues.
Althea continued, “So it's a lot of information packed into four pages. And that helped because during the lockdown, I don't have people obviously coming in. So that's what I would do. But if you have something that's informative for customers that they're going to want, then you can sort of have the access where they access it through giving their email. And that really works at any time, whether you're in lockdown or not. So it's providing them with relevant information, basically, in exchange for their email.”
From survival mode to growth mode
By listening carefully to her customers and keeping them supplied with what they needed, Althea was able to transform her business from surviving to thriving. While she’s been at times surprised and grateful for her success to date, none of it would have happened if she had thrown in the towel in early 2020. Instead of starting from scratch as the economy rebounds, she’s setting her sights on new ways to grow and new milestones to achieve.
“Everything surprised me in terms of, you know, we're in the middle of a pandemic, but it's so interesting as a business person because it's really teaching you how to be an entrepreneur. I mean, it's really giving you these key lessons of all of these restrictions. And you cannot plan more than a week, two weeks ahead, whereas before I used to plan months ahead. You can't do that anymore. So it really forces you to strip down fears and be willing to take risks, take chances, listen to the community that you're serving and just going for things.
But the customer is the one that informs me. I feel like if you are willing to adapt and to listen, you will grow that loyalty. I've been impressed with how great the customers have been and how loyal they've been, and I'm just overwhelmed with the connections I've made with customers,” explains Althea.
It's just been an amazing, amazing experience. And I didn't expect that. I didn't know what to expect, but I didn't expect that during the pandemic. Because you're just thinking survival mode, where now I'm not so much thinking survival mode. I'm thinking, how do I grow this? How do I get to the next level? And it's just been an amazing experience, to be honest.
Resiliency is adaptability
The pandemic threw the traditional retail playbook out the window. For some companies, this was an insurmountable obstacle. Althea counts herself lucky that she had the choice to adapt - and her success was born from that quick-footed transformation. Coupled with a positive attitude, she believes that adaptability makes anything possible.
If I were to sum it up, I would say being able to adapt. Being able to adapt to what your customers want. Being able to adapt to the market. Being able to adapt to what's happening socially and economically. If you are always listening and being aware and with every challenge that comes to you don't see it as a restriction or a negative, try and see how you can make it work for your situation.
Althea continued, “I know that entrepreneurs sell different things and there's some where it really, truly was difficult, depending on the space that you're in. But honestly, adaptability allows you to become creative, to see what is it that I can do. Even if you can't do it now, you can plan for the future of how you're going to get yourself out of that situation. So that's my takeaway to what resilience means.”