Pivot to Digital

Manhattan small businesses attempt to take their operations online

| 13 Apr 2020 | 01:11

At the outset, March was expected to be a spectacular month of business for Let’s Dress Up! — which has been putting on princess tea parties and children’s birthday soirées on the Upper East Side for more than ten years. Twenty-one birthdays were already on the calendar, and day camps scheduled for the upcoming spring break were filling up.

When the first few cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in New York City, Samantha Myers, a co-owner of Let’s Dress Up!, did not panic. She said she took the precautions of a responsible business owner: sanitizing the toys, making hand sanitizer available to party guests and communicating with parents as things progressed.

But then cancellations came pouring in for the latter half of the month, and into April and May.

“What was looking like a record March is now over,” said Myers.

Myers and her business partner, Judy Famigletti, have been put into a situation that might slightly differ from other small businesses in the city. They’re not retailers who can take online orders or restaurateurs who can continue to do takeout or delivery. Their business is stalled altogether without any kind of alternative revenue.

“I can't start charging people for an online class where they dress up at home and watch us on Zoom. I think there are better things out there that kids can do virtually, and, unfortunately, I just don't think that we're one of them,” said Myers. “If we can't be open, and we have no idea when we're going to be open, we’re making zero dollars.”

'Virtual Teachers'

A business’s ability to transform itself into a virtual operation seems to be the best strategy in surviving the pandemic. Some are having an easier time than others.

Jessica Stasi, who owns a women-led STEM franchise called Snapology that operates in Manhattan as well as in Long Island City in Queens, has found some success in the transition to digital. Traditionally, her business has partnered with schools, rec centers, libraries and any other institution that offers supplemental education, an provides Lego-based STEM and robotic programming. Typically, her employees would come into a venue to conduct the course, which is very interactive.

“We've had to transition all of our teachers into virtual teachers and so we're using Zoom right now,” said Stasi. “And a lot of our schools that we partner with have moved over their agreements to virtual learning.”

She said the quick transition has been challenging. Her team has been able to adapt some of the curriculum to be able to offer about 50 different STEM related classes using materials children often can find in their homes. But the group hasn’t been able to offer any of its robotics programming online.

Snapology is trying to find alternative ways to engage its customers digitally, including offering virtual birthday parties and play dates. The company rolled out new STEM challenges for families to do together.

So far, the response to the new format has been positive.

“The teachers love it. And the kids love it too, because it creates it creates some sort of normalcy in their schedule,” said Stasi. “They’re getting to see their friends in the after-school program that they typically aren't seeing everyday now.”

Stasi even hopes to make the virtual classes and activities a new part of her business model to take advantage of a new revenue stream.

Personalized Video Messages

Much like the Let’s Dress Up! owners, Bianca Ottley, owner of A Princess Like Me — which brings diverse princess characters to children’s parties — isn’t able to make money from her business right now, but she is finding ways to stay relevant.

Ottley is offering personalized video messages from a character of the customer’s choice, which often means sending a child a happy birthday greeting. Ottley is also doing free virtual parties online that children and parents can stream, and the parties feature a character singing, dancing and reading a story.

“Parents really like that,” said Ottley. “It’s also letting them know that we’re still here and they can party online until things get back to normal. Maybe they’ll keep us in mind for physical birthday parties.”

Ottley remained optimistic about the health of her business. Her biggest concern was for her employees, who aren’t getting paid right now. But she felt positive that once it is safe for people to gather together again, birthday parties will continue.

Myers was a bit more worried about what could happen to her businesses long term. Her company didn’t lose enough of its business in February and March to be eligible for the small business relief the city government is offering, which makes the health of her business a matter of just how long the pandemic lasts.

“It will be a bummer and a bad couple months, and it will hurt but we'll be fine,” said Myers. “If we start talking about losing also birthday revenue for June and into July — that's when you're talking about losing our year and not just losing our month.”

"It’s letting [parents] know that we’re still here and they can party online until things get back to normal. Maybe they’ll keep us in mind for physical birthday parties.” Bianca Ottley, owner of A Princess Like Me, on the virtual parties her company is offering