The idea for The Femme Stories was born last year, but with any small business some ideas just have to wait. When everything started happening surrounding the pandemic I was PROUD of my friends and colleagues for how they were tackling these unprecedented times and I wanted to document that, these are their stories.

 Bridget & Christina | Flock & Workshop Boutique 

 I adore the women of Flock and Workshop Boutique, Bridget, Christina and Keri are the ones I have the most contact with, but every single person working for them is lovely, caring and super excited when I drop off new product, which always pumps me up. My favourite thing is their honesty, that may sound weird, but when I show them a new collection, I need honest feedback as to what will and won’t work in their shop and they ALWAYS give it to me. As a small designer, I don’t have extra money to “test” out styles, so I love that they are straight up with me. They know exactly what designs will and won’t work, and they give suggestions to help make a style sell better, like adding length or removing a cut out, then they sell it like crazy. For this interview I talked with Bridget, one of the owners, and again got nothing but honesty. These are tough times for all, but the thing I love most about small business owners is their ingenuity, grit and will to survive!

Owners of Flock and Workshop boutique, Ottawa Store that carries Canadian Made Clothing

How are you personally handling the new world we are living in? 
We are highly positive people - that’s the only thing that has kept our business going for the last 15 years - but of course there have been extreme highs and lows with this situation. This past weekend I was definitely in a low spot. Then a friend who is a doctor needed scrub caps, and weirdly, that task helped me focus. My daughter and I sewed all day to get them done and that helped bring me out of my slump. It made me feel like I can do good things and contribute during this shit storm!
When this all started, what was your immediate outlook? Were you ready to dive in and tackle this or did it bring on anxieties or both?
The whole thing was a roller coaster ride. My kids and I were actually planning to go away for March Break and the week before we decided that wasn’t a great idea, but other than that, things did feel somewhat normal. On the Friday before the self-isolation order came in, we knew our staff needed leadership, so we made a 7-day plan to stay open, which obviously didn’t happen! Both our shops are in very local business driven neighbourhoods (Flock is in Wellington Village // Workshop is downtown on Dalhousie) and that last weekend was glorious. The weather was perfect and the support from our community was amazing! It was a huge weekend for us, but by that Sunday further information had come in and we knew we had to make some difficult decisions. We weren’t asked to close, but after speaking for hours with Christina and Keri, we knew we had to: we wanted to protect our community and staff and we didn’t want to be responsible for the spread of the virus. There were so many unknowns that we felt the best thing to do was shut our physical store for now.
It was definitely a career low for me, personally, as I called each staff member to explain our decision - it was emotional and there were tears on both sides. Our staff is our family, many of whom have been with us since the beginning. Any of them are welcome in my home, they are around my children, some are Moms themselves - we are our own community! In all our years running the shops we have never had to lay people off, it was very difficult. Our staff was so supportive of our decision - they continually told us we were making the right call for our community and our staff. They told us that our leadership would help get everyone through this, when inside I felt like I wasn’t providing any leadership at all.
I feel like small businesses reacted quickly and smartly to what was happening and larger ones took time, how did this make you feel, shutting the shop while larger stores remained open? 
In a small business, staff are not just numbers on a balance sheet. A bigger business would do a cost benefit analysis before they made a decision like this. A week or two later, the bigger box stores started to close (because there weren’t enough customers/profit coming in) - that definitely isn’t how small businesses make decisions. Christina and I have a long history (15 years!) of making decisions that are bad for our business but good for our soul, and we stand by that! We are still here, so karma does come around. It definitely burned me quite a bit seeing big stores still open after we were closed, because pretty much every small business in our neighbourhoods had decided to close to protect their staff and communities, at a huge cost to their companies. After retail was required to close, I felt better about everything because I think every business needed to take part equally.
What logistics have come up that you weren’t anticipating? 
I am very goal driven, and this situation has been weird for that aspect of my life. We have this business and it has functioned in this one way and now it’s like: we are going to give you a whole other business that you know very little about, so try to manage that! It has definitely thrown us a curve ball. We are making it through, but someone has to pull someone else up every day.
We had had an online store for years and ironically 3 weeks before this happened we met with friends who sell predominately online and they gave us a boost to take it more seriously. We had been dabbling with selling online, but once the shops closed, we took it very seriously because we were now relying on our online sales to keep the dream alive!
Your shop is known for its customer service, how did you translate that online to help customers buy from your site?
For us our strength is helping our customers in the store: we know their style and size and we help them choose pieces from our different designers, but as you know, sizing is subjective for each of these brands and that definitely was the biggest obstacle to overcome. We started using our staff as models, doing features on one woman in different brands to help show what each brand looked like on a certain body type. Also posting multiple photos of one style on different body types and letting our customers know things like: Bridget is wearing this size, Christina is wearing this size... That has helped a lot. Also dealing with online returns was new for us, so in order to have fewer pieces returned, we are doing a lot more communicating before a purchase happens. In store, we did a lot of curating a capsule collection for our clients, so we have kept doing that online as well.
What new tools/apps have you been using to keep the business going? 
I normally am a technophobe - Christina is our tech support at the shop. Within 48 hours of this happening, I had started using Zoom for meetings and to stay in touch with our staff and my 12 year old daughter has become my digital assistant. We are still receiving new items to help designers not lose this whole season. I am receiving things at home, quarantining them for the appropriate amount of time, then putting them online. We are shipping, doing curbside pick-up and doing porch deliveries as well. My daughter got me a delivery app to help me organize the order in which I do my porch drops and we are using Slack to help organize our Shopify orders. I have definitely been thrown into the tech world and I am trying to embrace that.
Talking with Bridget, as a designer that sells with them, I was proud of these ladies and all they have done and are doing to keep small designers like me going. Their life’s work has been showcasing designers that manufacture in Canada. Bridget pointed out that ‘when you shop local, you can control the supply chain and quality of the goods and that the small business/designer experience is a part of this needed slow down.’ She said ‘If there can be silver lining to all this, it will be people understanding our local economy, the shop small movement was strong before this happened, and it is growing more because of what we are all going through, that is beautiful and wonderful.’ I agreed whole heartedly with her when she said ‘I crave a return to a business that I am familiar with and understand, like I had a month ago, but I am also happy that these small businesses are being creative and finding new ways to pay their bills and keep going. We are made of really tough stuff and I know some won’t survive this, but some will and there is light at the end of the tunnel if we look for it.
I can’t express my admiration for this business and these women who run it enough, if you have or are looking to support local in your wardrobe, they should be your #1 stop. They carry designers who make all their clothing in Canada and are very supportive of us. Check out their website to see the incredible designers who sell at Flock and Workshop Boutique.
Written by Carissa McCaig

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