Written by Kevin Heffernan
Photos courtesy Shopcraft, Visit Buffalo Niagara

Shopping local is, was, will be the smartest way to spend your money if you’d like to see it make its way back to your own wallet.

We’re going to say this until we’re out of breath. Stop shopping, eating at national chains whenever possible. Our entire region will automatically lose 70% of what you just spent. When you spend at a locally owned business, they can on average keep over 70% of that money in our community. This makes a richer, more vibrant marketplace for all of us to take part in, rather than surrender our cash to outsiders and fight each other for scraps.

On with the show!

Photo courtesy Visit Buffalo Niagara

We caught up with Christa Penner, Owner and Managing Member of Shopcraft, over the phone, as is the new custom for interviews these days. She’s managing orders from her website while at home in West Seneca, stopping into her shop on Elmwood Avenue near Auburn, alone, a couple times a week to fulfill those orders, and on this particular day, helping her six-year-old son decide between playing with legos or eating a bagel with cream cheese “Because I think that would taste really good!” he proclaimed to his mother and me.

Everyone is wearing a lot of hats. When Christa was more easily able to separate home and work life, she was maintaining stock on walls, shelves and hooks in her storefront. Chalkboard signs on the sidewalk helped encourage foot traffic from the most dense area of Elmwood Village to stop in for just a birthday card and leave with five different things entirely. Penner has collected products from over 60 Western New York artists from jewelry and paintings to cards (some of which are her own brand, C Designs) and apparel, books, candles, soaps, magnets and so so so much more. The store usually required about 4 laps before you felt like you had a handle on everything available.

Then came COVID.

Now, no one’s allowed in. Rent is expensive on Elmwood and losing foot traffic can be a death sentence.

Shopcraft’s January and February 2020 outperformed their 2019. So did the first half of March. The store, which originated in the back of Thin Ice, another artist-supporting gift shop down the street, had been around long enough to get implanted in people’s minds to go beyond a “Oh what’s this place?” discovery upon walking by to a “I just need to swing through Shopcraft for a few items on my way home” routine for its regular shoppers. Things were looking great.

They closed on March 14, shortly before the order to close down came from the state.

“Things were just heating up so much and it just seemed the the responsible and appropriate thing to do at the time – and then the shut down order came anyways. At that point, we could only have 1 person in the store at a time so it was suddenly very challenging.

“We didn’t really have a web presence prior. We used our social media posts to beckon people into the store. So since that day, we have spent a ton of time photographing all our products and getting them on to our site.  We’ve adapted to the market and just now and it has become a little smoother.”

“Over the past few weeks, our vendors who have made all the products on our shelves have been donating their time and material to make masks for frontline workers. We donated over 1,000 of them as a collective group.

“Now that its required everyone wear them, we have been able to begin turning that into a revenue source as people scramble to get a few each for themselves so they have some masks to rotate through in a week.

“With the masks, we give 75% to maker, 5% to cover our costs, and 20% to Feed More WNY. Fortunately, when customers go on our site for a mask, we see them behaving the same way they used to when they walked in the store, and buying more than just what they came for.”

“We’ve just started doing Mother’s Day box sets. We’ve made it easy for people to send a thoughtful gift without having to shop at multiple places, or put something in the mail themselves.

What does April/May 2020 COVID era fulfillment actually look like?

“What’s happening is I am going into the store and packing orders because people are ordering from multiple vendors, so we need a centralized place to arrange and pack from. We’re trying to reduce too many people in the space. If people have product for us, I pick it up off their porch or they drop it on my porch. Some of our working members (about 25 of the 60 artists) have helped with building our Facebook store so we can link products – or I have another person who helped get our email campaigns up and running again.

“Every week we chat as a team and evaluate how this is all going and weigh out some new ideas and see what is and isn’t working. It’s always changing based on how people’s behavior has changed from the beginning of all this, to how they act now, seven weeks into it.

“We’re looking into doing a live presence where our makers come on as guests – so customers get that experience that was our strength – where you talk to people who made your product – – that’s our next step after Mother’s Day.

What about rent?

“Our landlord reached out first when it was one week into shutdown. She acknowledged how serious all of this was was, and to let her know if we needed anything. She asked about online sales – and we admitted we didn’t have much online yet. It was on March 28, when we were still scrambling to get our online store up and running, it had sold $0 in merchandise prior, that we said we were going to need help on April 1.

“Thankfully, she’s been really accommodating of us. It’s hard for us to pay, but also we rent from an individual, not a large management company. We know she relies on the income to live as much as we do. We have a really good relationship with her and we’re working to make it fair for both parties. Depending on how much longer we may have to be closed, we may have to approach at the end of the month and discuss a new option. We’ll have to figure out what that looks like in the short term and long term, but it’s been one less bit of stress to work with our landlord as a partner through an evolving situation rather than a distant sort of entity.

“For our vendors, this was a significant portion of their income, but they also relied on art shows and their own online stores. So all of this is difficult for them. We, Shopcraft, are a marketing engine for all of those makers. We are still supporting them in that way, and people have the option of buying multiple things from multiple vendors at once when they’re on our site. We still need our team and they’re all really important to me on a personal level.

“I guess we would just ask our customers to be patient as they build their online store and improve navigation. We’re working on it – you can always reach out and we can do personal shopping with a video chat to show everything that’s in the store.

“Everyone’s been saying: if you have the resources to buy a gift or to treat yourself, do it local. So please, do it local.”

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To those of you who are able to do so, and are doing so – thank you.