Co-owner of San Antonio gift shop Feliz Modern discusses the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on business

Angelena Iglesia

To keep our community informed of the most urgent coronavirus news, our critical updates are free to read. Ongoing coverage is available to subscribers. Subscribe now for full access and to support our work. In February, as news about the novel coronavirus spread, an employee at Feliz Modern asked Ginger Diaz if she thought […]

To keep our community informed of the most urgent coronavirus news, our critical updates are free to read. Ongoing coverage is available to subscribers. Subscribe now for full access and to support our work.

In February, as news about the novel coronavirus spread, an employee at Feliz Modern asked Ginger Diaz if she thought the business would have to close.

The idea seemed ludicrous.

“I was like, ‘Of course we’re not going to shut down — we’re retail,’” recalled Diaz, who started Feliz Modern with her husband in 2017. “Retail doesn’t shut down. We don’t even shut down at Christmas.”

The rest, of course, is history. As the pandemic took hold in San Antonio and residents were ordered to stay home, Feliz Modern closed its stores on West Olmos Drive and at the Pearl and laid off its 13 employees.

“The website closed, the in-store closed, everything closed,” Diaz said.

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She has since reopened the stores, albeit with limited hours. The business started bringing workers back after receiving a loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program and seeing online sales increase.

Diaz recently discussed how the pandemic has affected the gifts, party and home decor business. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Feliz Modern is very active on social media. In the early days of the shutdown, were customers reaching out, trying to figure out what was happening?

Our main community is on Instagram. It’s where we put the most time and effort and where we have the most engagement. Texicana Mamas talk about their forming and their first album

The number of people who messaged us just to say, “Hang in there,” “Don’t quit” and “We appreciate having a bright spot during this time” — that blew me away. I don’t think I’ve ever messaged a business like that, and I really like small businesses and shopping local.

At the time, it just felt so impossible to stay in business.

Over time you went back to taking online orders, adding delivery within a short distance of the shops, restarting curbside and reopening both stores. What was that like?

There was definitely a learning curve.

(Before the pandemic) you could order items online and pick them up for free in the store, so we already had some systems around that. But when you can’t talk to someone face-to-face, you have to get your systems down about how you’re communicating via email, and people don’t always read everything you send them in an email.

Having signs up in the parking lot, getting a cellphone for the office so customers could text us and making it easy for them to text us — we were trying to figure out how to make it as simple and safe as possible. We put a cart outside our door and instead of bringing items to customers’ windows, we felt like it was safer to set items in the cart and go back inside and let them come pick it up.

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We were selling online and shipping (pre-pandemic), but it was about 10 percent of our business. Now it’s about 50-50 (between store and online sales).

For the last year we’ve been investing a lot of money and time into the website. Our goal was that eventually the in-store business would be about 10 percent, like it would flip, because with the website we can sell to anybody anywhere.

We joke that we should’ve been more specific about how much we wanted the website to do well because we didn’t want it on these terms. But we got our wish. It became our No. 1 revenue generator.

Describe the process of applying for a Paycheck Protection Program loan.

It was pretty complicated. I’m part of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. You’re broken into small groups called forums, and you meet monthly to discuss business issues. We all leaned heavily on each other with the PPP process because none of us had ever done it.

At the time, the information was coming out fast and furious and changing constantly. It was difficult to understand whether we were signing up for something that was going to be a further liability or a help. We didn’t want to sign up for anything that would make it even harder for us to get out of the hole. We were figuring out if it was a loan or a grant, in essence, and how to determine the amount we were able to borrow.

Looking back, if we’d had all of the final rules, it’s actually not a complicated process. The complicated part was trying to understand the information as it trickled out from the Small Business Administration.

We could’ve probably brought back one or two people with just online sales, but with the PPE funds, we were able to bring back six people.

Everyone we’ve brought back since then — we’re adding them as contractors just in case. We don’t know yet if there will be another shutdown or not. Now we’re up to nine full-time employees and two contractors, with two more starting soon.

What’s been the most challenging part of adapting to everything going on with the pandemic?

Definitely the uncertainty and anxiety — not just your own, but your employees. Everyone has different feelings about safety and procedures, and we’ve handled everything in a group vote-type environment.

Have there been any silver linings?

Personally, I feel like my anxiety has been reduced in some ways, because you just can’t plan ahead. You need to take it week by week, so it’s made me focus more on the present. I have more time to go on walks and take care of myself.

We also used the time while we were closed to do a complete revamp and reorganization of our back area and store.

As a store that’s open seven days a week, we never have the chance to completely tear everything apart to make it better. We have to do everything overnight if we’re going to make any big change. This is a luxury, and the shop’s never looked better.

It’s been nearly five months since those March stay-at-home orders. How is business faring currently, and how are you approaching the future?

We’re at about 55 percent of normal (sales levels). We’re trying to set ourselves up to where we can be closure-proof — not as in we won’t close, but if there’s another stay-at-home order, we could maintain all of our salaries off the online business.

Even when everyone was home, we were still able to ship. For the weeks where we had no employees, the only other human I saw besides my family was the mailman who showed up every day to take our packages.

I’m putting a lot of my energy into making the website feel like it would feel in the stores. That means creating collections online that revolve around the displays we have in the stores.

If we can get it tight enough to where we can cover at least the employees off of online sales, that would be a huge achievement. Then we don’t have to worry about layoffs again, because that was just brutal. I never want to do that again.

[email protected] | Twitter: @madisoniszler

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