'It Doesn't Feel Right to Sell Right Now': How L.A. Businesses Are Adapting During the Pandemic

We sat down with the powerhouses behind Alleyoop, Benjamin Salon, Sweet Flower, and Training Mate.

Following brick-and-mortar closures in March due to the coronavirus, local retailers and small businesses were finally allowed to reopen at the end of May. (COVID-19 has now claimed the lives of over 4,000 Californians and a total of over 107,000 Americans, according to the L.A. Times and the CDC.) We had reached out to L.A. entrepreneurs in recent weeks to find out if and how their strategies had changed after social distancing and store closures.

Then the protests hit.

Since May 27, thousands have taken to the streets in L.A. and beyond to protest George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis, prompting stores to once again close up (and board up). Angelenos stepped up to help clean up businesses damaged by looters, and some Melrose Avenue store owners whose locations were damaged recently shared their optimism despite losses thanks to the double whammy of the pandemic and protests.

"I think a lot of us are dumbfounded with our businesses being ransacked on top of the pandemic," Wax salon owner Lindsay Pierce recently told UncoverLA. "Most of us strongly believe in equality and Black Rights Matter and fighting for this movement, but it's really disheartening and it's hard to reconcile the two."

L.A.-based Orris Perfumery co-founder Linda Sivrican said she was lucky that her Melrose fragrance boutique was only damaged with graffiti. "We feel for our neighbors and their losses. Personally we are not upset about losing profits right now. It is temporary and we hopefully will be okay," she said.

Given that COVID-19 continues to pose a health threat in L.A., we're sharing the conversations we had with local entrepreneurs several weeks back. We recently spoke to Alleyoop founder Leila Kashani Mansoory, Benjamin Salon founder Benjamin Mohapi, Training Mate founder Luke Milton, Sweet Flower chief marketing officer Kiana Anvaripour, and Kinn founder and jewelry designer Jennie Yoon to find out how their business strategies shifted, how customers have responded to their brands' changes, and more — read on below.

Benjamin Mohapi, Hairstylist & Benjamin Salon Founder

Benjamin Salon founder Benjamin Mohapi. Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Salon

L.A. County received state approval today to reopen hair salons and barbershops. Given that things have shifted so quickly, how has the pandemic affected short- and long-term strategies for Benjamin Salon? [Editor's note: This conversation took place the evening of Friday, May 29.]

All plans are out the window! There really is no tomorrow in our world right now. Especially today. As the opening order came through this morning we're scrambling like crazy to get everything ready to open.

I still have all the same goals for the business and honestly, the shut down enabled me to really focus on those goals and I have done a lot of work that I would not otherwise have been able to. But, all that can wait until the tsunami of reopening is over.  

What has the response been like among customers, both before the reopening news and today?

We're inundated with calls already. Everyone seems to have been glued to the news at the same time as within 15 minutes of the news dropping we haven't stopped getting calls, texts, and emails. It's totally crazy. Any doubts that people had about whether the business would come back needn't worry anymore. 

We plan to open our phones Monday and take clients from Thursday. It was always the worst-case scenario for us to be told without notice, but you can only work with what you have, and we only have today!

Leila Kashani Manshoory, Alleyoop Founder

What was your first move for your multi-tasking brand after the stay-at-home orders and retail closures?

It was scary as a founder — 50% of our business is retail. We shifted the whole business and made it really about content. The biggest thing for us is we have a community of 200 people on our Slack channel. We turned to them to ask them, "It doesn't feel right to sell product right now, so what kind of content are you all looking for, what is resonating with you?"

We got a lot of feel-good feedback. I went through a similar roller coaster. We really close to China [because of our manufacturing] and it was one bad toxic informational overload [from them]. So we made a promise [to our community] to just share good news. With our Mother's Day video, we're really poking fun at the craziness. All bets are off. Let's just poke fun at the things that we can laugh about in the moment.

What are some unexpected things that have happened?

[We found that] this is an amazing opportunity to take our Slack channel and build a social media community. We had a lot of people applying to join; we usually get 50 to 100 DMs a week asking to be content creators for us. That number doubled.

It's also an amazing opportunity for us to market in. [Multi-billion dollar consumer products corporation] Procter & Gamble is always advertising. Since the shutdown, they also shut down advertising. That has allowed our voice to grow. Communication is changing because of the fact that there's a lot less noise.

How has Alleyoop's business strategy changed during the pandemic?

We had to let go of paying attention to the revenue numbers. But if we look at those numbers, we saw exponential growth. We saw e-comm make up for the retail [losses].

We also want to support our community. For small businesses, it's a lot about being flexible — this is an opportunity. We gave $10,000 worth of product away to frontline workers but captured no content [because that wasn't the point].

We also had a fan that emailed us to say, "My best friend just lost her job. I was wondering if I could get a discount for her to get a Gratitude Journal." So we thought, "Let's give the Gratitude Journal for free."

How has your staff been handling working from home?

We had a new employee that was supposed to start, and it was really hard for us. It felt like we couldn't give her a taste of our office culture, but in hindsight we have built deeper relationships with her. You're forced to have real conversations instead of talking the usual water cooler talk.

What's your best advice to other small business owners?

Just like a Gratitude Journal, look at those areas that are working and magnify those and amplify those. Focus on organic community building.

Luke Milton, Fitness Trainer & Training Mate Founder

As a business owner and individual, what is your headspace like right now? What are you worried about most?

I'm actually quite relaxed and optimistic. Right now I am focused on leading my team through adversity and planning on the future. I believe that times like these present opportunities and it the job of the leader of an organization to find those opportunities. 

What changes did you implement early on as it became clear that the pandemic was getting worse? 

We pivoted very early and took our workouts online. To do this I empowered the staff to research and learn a different skill set and implement that skillset back into the organization and I'm proud to say that it has been a successful venture. We are proud to have launched Mate-To-Go, which allows global access to our Training Mate workouts.

How has your business strategy evolved during the pandemic?

Being in the fitness industry, government ordinances are always the most influential pieces of information needed to set a plan. I have with our leadership team planned for multiple re-opening scenarios, however we are at the mercy of the state as to which one we can implement.

How's your staff taking everything?

Staff at Training Mate have been very resilient and I am consistently impressed with the optimism they are all showing. The most consistent concern is the length of the shutdown. It is still quite ambiguous as to when fitness studios can reopen, but hopefully we will hear more soon.

What are you hearing from your fitness community right now?

Everyone in our community is very eager to get back to working out. Training Mate has specialized in building communities over the past seven years and we have always considered ourselves to be more than a workout. Our community is craving the comradery and support that Training Mate is known for and I can't wait to deliver that for them.

Kiana Anvaripour, CMO of Sweet Flower

Sweet Flower CMO Kiana Anvaripour. Photo: Courtesy of Sweet Flower

How has Sweet Flower shifted its business strategy due to the coronavirus? [Editors Note: the company has closed in-store shopping at its three L.A. locations for the remainder of this week.]

As Sweet Flower has remained open as an essential business, we've pivoted in many ways to ensure that we are supporting our community throughout this time. In light of the pandemic, we were the first dispensary to implement curbside pick up at all three of our store locations in Melrose, Studio City, and Downtown.

In addition to that, we have also expanded our delivery capabilities to the South Bay area to ensure that we are reaching as many of our Angelenos as possible, as they turn to our products to navigate these times. 

Jennie Yoon, Jewelry Designer & Founder of Kinn

As a business owner and individual, what is your headspace like right now following the state/city's announcement that stores can reopen? What are you are worried about? [Editor's Note: This conversation took place in late May before the protests and as L.A. County began reopening.]

If I'm being fully honest, there's a sense of relief that we're all working toward getting back to a familiar routine after staying at home for months. There's a big part of me that is cautious as I've certainly witnessed people walking in crowded areas without masks but in sum, I'm hopeful that people can head back to work.

What kind of changes did you implement early on as it became clear that the pandemic and safety guidelines were ramping up?

As a business owner, a mother, a friend, and as a human, I chose to strip off any "marketing buzz" early on and approach the entire situation as a person. I was navigating — like everyone else — through each day not knowing what the next day will bring. So whatever we were working on, I made it very clear that I will do the best to my ability to make sure everyone will make it on the other side when this all comes to an end. That helped set the tone for how we were going to approach everything marketing, operations, communicating to our community, and so on.

What are the biggest influences on your business strategy, and how has it evolved over the past weeks or months?

The biggest influence was my family, friends, staff and the Kinn community. I'm a new mom of an almost 1-year-old baby, and during the muddiest times, she brought light. This was a reminder that everyone else is a daughter or a son to someone. Everyone has a family and loved ones to support. So ultimately, Kinn was influenced by the people that I surround myself with.

Jewelry is a very personal business, and it always has been from the start — unique to each person, to their taste, and to their milestones that they decide to celebrate and cherish. The past few months really strengthened and amplified the core reason for everything that we do.

If you're at liberty to share or give a ballpark estimate, how has revenue changed since the pandemic?

We've had an increase of new users by nearly 35%, comparing between the pre-pandemic January to mi-March and the post-pandemic, mid-March to today. Post-pandemic sales have also been higher than our holiday Black Friday/Cyber Monday/Christmas sales. We believe that our sales have seen a major uptick because of our classic, year-round style. Consumers are seeing jewelry purchases as an investment for today and many years from now. Our pieces in particular have been a safe choice because they're so timeless.

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