A Vermont Florist Spreads Sunshine during the Covid-19 Crisis
By Amanda Kuhnert
“This has been an incredibly trying time to be a small business owner,” said Nora DeMuth, owner of the Flower Basket in Hardwick, Vt. “I can’t remember ever needing to think through major decisions so many times and within such a short period of time like I’ve needed to do over the past few months.”
The Flower Basket is known for its bright and cheerful floral arrangements made with locally grown flowers. But in order to stay open as an essential business during the Covid-19 crisis, this spring Nora quickly pivoted to offering more gardening-related supplies, such as seeds and vegetable plants. As the floral supply chain slowed down, she moved away from pre-set styles with specific flowers to offering custom arrangements, based upon product availability, and revamped her website to make it easier for customers to see the current inventory. And like most businesses that stayed open during the early days of the crisis, the Flower Basket began offering curbside pickup.
“The stress around constantly adjusting are huge, and I have seen massive variability in my sales, especially in March and April,” Nora said. “It’s very difficult to project forward more than a few weeks out, which makes my purchasing and availability erratic, and makes it difficult to have a cohesive retail experience for my customers.”
Communication with customers has become more important than ever. Nora uses Facebook to keep the community informed about changes in store operations and current offerings. She said that honesty and transparency have been the best strategy. “…We’re not trying to sell on Facebook, but rather saying ‘this is what we’re doing this week, and we are here for you,’” she said.
Business lessons from the Covid-19 crisis
Even with all of the stress and uncertainty, Nora can point to a few positives that have come out of the Covid-19 crisis. She said that the disruption in business-as-usual has given her the opportunity to re-evaluate her business model, her reasons for wanting to be a business owner, and her role in the community as a business owner and florist.
“If Covid-19 hadn’t happened, I would have put a lot more pressure on myself to scale and grow, maybe in ways that wouldn’t have been sustainable,” she said. The crisis also has strengthened her relationships with customers and other small businesses in town, she added.
“The constant re-evaluation and whittling down of the business model has helped me understand and appreciate that I really do want to be doing this, and I can see that I am making a positive difference in my community,” she said. The Sunshine Fund is one way the Flower Basket is making an impact in the Hardwick area. Donations go toward purchasing floral arrangements for those nominated by their fellow community members as needing an “extra dose of sunshine.” Since its inception in mid-March, the fund has purchased 24 bouquets for local residents.
No need to go it alone
Nora first reached out to the Vermont Small Business Development Center (VtSBDC) in 2017 for help learning the ins and outs of doing business in the Northeast Kingdom. “I also wanted the accountability of someone who could understand the business finances and plans checking up on me and the business on a regular basis,” she said.
Nora has continued to lean on her VtSBDC advisor for support and guidance throughout the pandemic. “Having an expert and experienced advisor to help navigate this time has been crucial,” Nora said. “The conversations I’ve had with Heidi, my VtSBDC advisor, have been critical in confirming my commitment to doing the important work of keeping the business open and bringing beautiful flowers, plants, seeds, and positive connections to my community.”
The Vermont Small Business Development Center (VtSBDC), an organization that provides no-cost professional expertise and guidance to business owners, is helping entrepreneurs navigate the changing business landscape and plan for the aftermath of Covid-19. Their website is an information portal for Vermont business owners, offering a long list of helpful links and resources, from loan information to a VtSBDC Disaster Recovery Roadmap. Clients and contacts also receive weekly updates via email and access to virtual advising and guidance.