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Boot camp helps retailers navigate pitfalls of doing biz in pandemic – The Detroit News


Candice Williams
| The Detroit News

For the past 15 years, Tina Arroyo dreamed of owning an optical shop. After managing optometrist offices and helping thousands of people pick the perfect eyewear, Arroyo made plans to open her store, Spectacle Society, in Corktown last April.

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed those plans.

“There were definitely some shifts for me that weren’t anticipated,” she said. “I think you make the most of what you’ve got, you figure it out and you pivot and you make it work.”

Arroyo credits TechTown Detroit’s Retail Boot Camp with helping her start her business amid the pandemic. She’s joined by more than 100 other retailers who have gone through the program and are toughing it out — including apparel, home goods and specialty food businesses.

Since its start in 2013, TechTown says of 140 business boot camp graduates, it has helped 39 businesses convert to brick-and-mortar stores in the city of Detroit and 77 to operate online through wholesale or pop-ups. It’s had 10 graduating classes and taught business owners about lease negotiation, point-of-sale systems and interior design through a 10-week course.

During the pandemic, alumni workshops also help entrepreneurs navigate grant and loan opportunities, as well as manage the unforeseen complications of operating a retail business amid the country’s worst public health crisis in more than a century. 

“While I think COVID has made folks very aware of the investments and risks that are at bay when you start, particularly a brick-and-mortar small business, what I think what a program like retail boot camp offers is risk mitigation,” said Amy Rencher, managing director of entrepreneurial programs and services for TechTown Detroit. “We’ve helped to facilitate conversations with experts to help you think very critically about the investments you are making with your business.”

The program is made possible, TechTown Detroit says, by support from JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and the New Economy Initiative. Retail Boot Camp alums include House of Pure Vin, Mama Coo’s Boutique, Mongers Provisions, Plum Health, Third Wave Music, Urbanum and Voluptuous Bien’Aime Boutique.

The program, which has a class of 15 students, took place virtually through Zoom in 2020 and will again this year. The application period for the next round opens Feb. 15 with the program to start April 13. Rencher said she expects interest in the program to remain strong.

Independent retail isn’t dead, just adapting, said Ed Nakfoor, a Birmingham-based retail consultant. Merchants are offering curbside pickup, getting creative with their merchandising and increasing their marketing online.

“I’m impressed with the tenacity of merchants,” he said. ”They recognize that this situation is one of epic proportions and it’s been impressive to see so many merchants really tapping into their creative reservoir to find a solution. I think what’s happening is I’m seeing a lot of support for small business.

“Residents, no matter where you live — whether you’re talking about Detroit or Birmingham or Chicago or wherever — residents are recognizing the important role that small businesses have in these communities. We need these businesses to survive.”

Programs like the retail boot camp are important, particularly during the pandemic, he said: “Being able to reach out to someone is hugely important.”

Anthony Thompson, co-owner of the Upperow, was among the boot camp graduates to tap into resources at the onset of the pandemic last year. His store is a luxury apparel brand operating out the New Center One Building. They carry a full line for men, women and children, including suits, accessories and joggers.

“Especially when it first hit I was probably on every single call,” he said. “We didn’t know. We’d never seen anything like this. I was trying to get knowledge on how to even handle this.”

Thompson said he learned about accessing Paycheck Protection Program funds and various grants. Since then he’s been pushing his business heavily online.

“We lost about 85% of our business,” he said. “When people are sitting at home… some people, they try to support you as much as they can, but they’re trying to figure out how to eat every day too.”

Thompson runs the business with his wife LaToya and three children, ages 10, 8, and 3. He started making shirts and ties in 2003 while in college at Michigan State University. They began beta testing their apparel in 2014, went through the retail boot camp in 2018 and opened a store in 2019.

“We do everything from design, making the tech packs to actual sourcing our fabric,” he said. “The same mills we use are the same as Ralph Lauren and Gucci. The same level of fabric.”

To cut costs, Thompson said he’s considering partnering with complementary brands to carry their goods in his store: “We’re not quitters in Detroit. This business is going to keep going. I plan on our kids taking over our companies. We’re always going to be operating in some capacity. We’re going to push.”

Ronier Golightly, owner of Motor City Popcorn, has been in numerous locations since graduating from the boot camp in 2015.

In March, Golightly had to temporarily close the doors to his storefront in Laurel Park Place in Livonia during COVID restriction shut downs. He took a job at Amazon and said he was going to call it quits on his business.

It was the team at TechTown that told him he had to return to his business. They pointed him to resources he could use for funding, he said: “I have to get them full credit. They really encouraged me to come back.”

Golightly resumed fulfilling wholesale orders during the summer, and in the fall left Laurel Park Place to move into a storefront on 7 Mile near Livernois in Detroit, which he says is much busier.

In Corktown, Arroyo said she’ll open her business by appointment only.  She had plans to hire one or two employees, but that will have to wait for now.

“Here’s a lot more sanitization and sterilization that needs to happen,” she said. “Because I have to limit the amount of people in the store right now I don’t have the option of hiring people until we can start bringing more people into the store at one time.”

Arroyo said she wanted to provide a service that’s not available in the city. The eyewear she carries is crafted from artisans from across the world who focus solely on designing eyewear.

Among the brands are Kirk & Kirk and Paris-based Francis Klein. Frames range from $150 to $650. Arroyo doesn’t perform eye exams so customers will need a prescription from their doctor. 

“I felt like this was a great opportunity to bring a custom service to Detroit,” she said. “Our residents — we deserve amazing eyewear as well. We don’t have to necessarily … hop in the car and go 20 miles to find good eyewear now. We can do it here and find something that’s not made from a big box store.”


Twitter: @CWilliams_DN

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