116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Sometimes these days, Nialle Sylvan is finding books for an 8-year-old 'completely obsessed” with water. Other times, she's seeking books for a fan of some - but not all - of fiction writer John Irving's novels.
Before 2020, customers looking for books would've visited her store, The Haunted Bookshop, nestled on the north side of Iowa City, and sought her guidance.
But over a year of the pandemic, customers haven't been allowed to personally peruse the 50,000 books on the shelves of the 10-room, 174-year-old building.
Instead, Sylvan offers them 'Surprise Me!” bags. Customers can email her with their budget, interests and phone number, and she uses her expertise to select books for them.
'What people love about browsing in bookstores is serendipity,” she said. 'They get really excited when they come across something they didn't know they wanted and absolutely have to have. So we try to replicate that experience by providing them with a bag of things they didn't expect.”
It's one of many adaptations business owners needed to make over the last year because of COVID-19. Though born quickly out of necessity, some of the ideas have proved more successful than imagined and now are likely to stick around even after the pandemic subsides.
Sylvan has sent the surprise bags across the country, from California to Ohio to Texas.
'You would not believe how popular this has been,” she said.
She's far from the only business owner to find some successes in online forms of selling and marketing products during the pandemic.
Steve Shriver, who owns or co-owns Brewhemia, Soko Outfitters, Eco Lips and two other Cedar Rapids companies, said all of his businesses have brought a 'laserlike focus” on online and social media marketing.
'Coming out of COVID, all of our businesses will be stronger because we're going to be better marketers,” he said.
Soko Outfitters, an outdoors retailer that previously relied on in-person sales at its location in the city's Czech Village, added an online store and became 'an online competitor, just like anybody else,” Shriver said.
'That will absolutely stick around,” he said. 'Now we're selling products from the East to West Coasts and servicing Cedar Rapids.”
Stores that had websites put considerable time into improving them when the pandemic hit. The Haunted Bookshop added about 5,000 books to its online inventory, Sylvan said. The secondhand bookstore also posts pictures of some books for sale on Facebook.
The Iowa Economic Development Authority has taken note of the need for small businesses to have a bolstered online presence.
IEDA launched the Shop Iowa website in August to help brick-and-mortar stores adjust to the changing retail environment.
'Looking back at COVID, I think it was one of the best things we did and implemented,” said authority Director Debi Durham.
About 450 businesses from 91 counties use the Shop Iowa online platform. The goal is to have all 99 of the state's counties represented there.
'In time, we hope that all of them begin to develop their own online presence,” said Durham, who also leads the Iowa Finance Authority. 'We want to see people graduate from it.”
Durham said IEDA extended a contract with Marion-based website developer Member Marketplace for another two years. IEDA will 'continue to evaluate” whether to extend the deal more, past 2023.
Many restaurants, grocery stores and retailers have turned even more heavily to pickup and delivery services to reach customers who were staying close to home or were forbidden under emergency health orders from being inside their businesses.
Hy-Vee, for instance, unveiled 'Hy-Vee Plus” in December, offering delivery, two-hour express pickup and other benefits for $99 per year.
Brewhemia, Shriver's coffee shop in the New Bohemia neighborhood of Cedar Rapids, is available on several ordering and delivery services.
It comes at an increased cost, though.
DoorDash and Grubhub take significant commissions on their orders, Shriver said. He recommended his local customers order either through Chomp, which was founded by 19 restaurant owners in Iowa City, or Brewhemia's website for the lowest prices.
'We've just had to increase our prices on Grubhub and Door Dash to accommodate that high commission,” Shriver said.
Soko Outfitters also uses Chomp, Shriver said, allowing nearby customers to have products delivered quickly.
'We can deliver you goods faster than Amazon,” Shriver said. 'Literally if you call the store and you need a headlamp or a tent or a jacket, we can have that to you in an hour.”
Shriver also credited local government with providing more flexibility with outdoor dining - another adaptation he anticipates continuing at Brewhemia.
Outside of retail, Coralville-based gymnastics studio Iowa Gym Nest probably will continue its virtual gymnastics lessons, owner Paige Roth said.
Like Shriver and Sylvan, Roth has tapped into business from outside Eastern Iowa.
'There's a lot of things that we can be creative and work on at home,” Roth said. 'We'll have Mom and Dad put down like a tape line on the floor, and that'll be our balance beam. ... And you'd be surprised how many kids have tumbling mats at home.”
Business adaptations that could become part of the new normal stretch well beyond consumer-facing industries.
Durham sees a more flexible workweek and remote working as being here to stay.
'We all learned that we can be more accommodating because they have lives with kids and other things as well,” Durham said.
IEDA and IFA are working on a policy for remote work among their own employees, Durham said, that includes standards such as minimum internet speeds and privacy rules.
'In COVID, we were all forced into (remote working),” Durham said. 'Now we're going to be a little more deliberate about it.”
These adaptations alone are often not perfect solutions, though. Sylvan said even with the flurry of Surprise Me! bags, overall business is down about half.
'I'm not going to lie,” Sylvan said. 'It would be really nice to have people back.” Finances aside, customers miss the cats at The Haunted Bookshop, Sylvan said.
She's looking forward to when customers can visit them - and also a new addition - after the pandemic eases.
'The cranky, childless, grumpy, old owner of the bookstore is going to have a new baby,” Sylvan said. 'There will be a new, very tiny staff member.”
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