Business has returned to normal for the boutique furniture store Vintage Home South. But when the pandemic struck in March 2020, owners Jennifer and Rich Devlin were not sure their Ninth Street store would survive the month.
January and February 2020 had been their best start to a year since they opened their doors in 2016. So a 50% drop in revenue in April, their second-worst month ever, hit hard.
“We’re thinking, ‘Holy crap! What are we going to do and how long is this going to go on?’” Rich Devlin recalled.
They had cash to survive four months only. If that ran out, they would consider selling rather than going into credit card debt, as they had done to get started.
It would take decisive action to stay afloat in the “refined casual” furniture business. A ramped-up focus on customer service and sharp upticks in the housing and home décor markets have done it for them – so far.
Last spring, as soon as they could leave their house, “we would go to the store five or six days a week and go, ‘Okay, what are we going to do to make money today?’” Jennifer Devlin said.
Mary Moyer, the shop’s only full-time employee, saw the Devlins’ drive. “They weren’t gonna sit around and see what COVID had in store,” Moyer said. “They got busy, and they did a website.” The new online shopping site attracted new customers from all over the country and now contributes 5% of total revenue.
The Devlins also started making Instagram videos. There were instructional furniture videos, such as “Wall Décor Hanging 101.” Others were light-hearted; one of them featured their one-take singing to announce the website launch, with Rich playing guitar and their dog sitting on Jennifer’s lap. Old and new customers watched.
Rhonda Fawzi, a Wake Forest resident, learned about Vintage Home South from a WRAL news feature when lockdowns began. Seeing Jennifer on TV, she thought, “I need to support this chick. I’d probably like her. She’d be my friend.”
A patron of local boutiques, Fawzi made her initial shopping trip to Vintage Home South via video call, something Jennifer started to try to stay afloat.
“I probably bought $100 worth of stuff from her, and she drove it to my house!” Fawzi said. “Doesn’t that strike you as something?”
Jennifer and Rich Devlin had met in 1998 while they both worked at a Ritz-Carlton hotel in San Francisco in the catering and banquet department – where, as Jennifer put it, “you dazzle them with customer service.” This “lost art” of customer service underpinned their founding of their own business.
Acquiring a new customer in Fawzi helped. But an existing customer base pulled Vintage Home South through the pandemic. Customers have continued to purchase despite delivery delays, sometimes waiting up to 24 weeks for a piece that would normally take four, largely due to raw material shortages and understaffed production lines.
Some have followed Jennifer’s interior decorating design consultations from in-person to video-call format. The consultations provide approximately 20% of total revenue and have been important for client relations, leading to more furniture purchases and repeat customers.
In some ways, lockdown even helped business.
“Now everybody’s trapped at home,” Jennifer said. “Because people were fed up with sitting on uncomfortable furniture, they came in over the summer and bought all this furniture.”
Her observations match the recent spike in the home décor market due to work-from-home. Salesforce’s 2020 Q2 Shopping Index noted a 134% increase in digital sales of home goods. Upward trends in home sales have also increased business. For example, Fawzi is using Vintage Home South to furnish her new Wake Forest home.
The new business made September 2020 the second-best month in Vintage Home South’s five-year history, and business has been solid since then. But the Devlins still worry about continued effects of the pandemic.
“All of the unpredictability that’s thrown in from this otherwise not normal stuff going on, that’s been the biggest stress,” Rich Devlin said. “How long is this going to go on? Is there ever going to be a regular normal again?”
9th Street Journal reporter Samuel Rabinowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Top: When the pandemic struck in March 2020, Jennifer and Rich Devlin were not sure their Ninth Street store, Vintage Home South, would make it to April. Photo by Samuel Rabinowitz