How Karen Gayle Kept Her Business Thriving Through a Decline in Tourism During the Coronavirus Outbreak – Mark Collier

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many small businesses had to assess and recalibrate by developing creative ways to survive the sudden transformation in how everyday business was conducted. On today’s show, guest host Mark Collier, consultant for the UGA SBDC Dekalb sits down with Karen Gayle, owner of Georgia Gifts & More. Gayle shares her story of meeting business challenges head-on and the strategies she used for sustaining success during a very challenging year.

Transcription:

Mark Collier:
Hi everyone. I’m Mark Collier, guest host of today’s Atlanta Small Business Show. 2020 was a year of change, pivot, and resilience for small businesses across the globe. Many small businesses had to assess and recalibrate by developing creative ways to survive the sudden transformation in how everyday business was conducted. My guest today is going to share her story of meeting those challenges head on and share her strategies for sustaining success during a very challenging year. I am pleased to welcoming Karen Gayle, owner of Georgia Gifts & More, located right here in Tucker, Georgia. Welcome into ASBN, Karen.

Karen Gayle:
Thank you, thank you. So glad to be here. So glad to be here.

Mark Collier:
Karen, you have a very unique business and you are about all things Georgia which is exciting to me because I’m a Georgia guy now. So, tell me a little bit more about your business, how you got started and what markets you guys serve today.

Karen Gayle:
Well, as you mentioned the business is Georgia Gifts & More and as the name implies we focus on all things Georgia gift-related. So whether it’s made in the state or represents the state you can find all things Georgia in our store. And so I started the business back in 2008 and I really from a previous business discovered that there was a missing link for conventions and meetings and special events. And it was a gift business that I had previously but if you’re doing any event for 200 people you’re not necessarily going to give them a 50 or $60 basket for all the attendees.

Mark Collier:
Sure.

Karen Gayle:
And we got a lot of calls from people looking for just a small gift that they could give to everybody and it’s difficult to find. And so I said, “There’s something here.” So I did some research and found out that Atlanta is the number three, typically number three-

Mark Collier:
Is it?

Karen Gayle:
… Location for meetings and events.

Mark Collier:
Wow.

Karen Gayle:
And there are a lot of conventions and events that happen here as you know. And so it allowed us to be able to tap into that market and provide those gifts for the different meetings, and then over the years we expanded to other special events for weddings and wedding favors and that sort of thing, tourism, travel destinations, they’re always building new things to bring people here to the city.

Mark Collier:
Yeah, that’s so.

Karen Gayle:
That gave a great base for our business. We’re really focused in on the hospitality for hotels, for the tourism, travel, and then the meetings and events and special events, and that was our base going from 2008, yep.

Mark Collier:
That’s fantastic. Obviously last year was a challenging year for all small businesses and it put a heavier emphasis on digital contactless and virtual. What shifts did you have to make from selling online or selling in your retail store to converting to online? Can you tell me about some of the challenges you faced there and some of the strategies you deployed to overcome that?

Karen Gayle:
Well, the change from 2019 to 2020 was huge for us because all the events and meetings and conventions were non-existent.

Mark Collier:
Exactly.

Karen Gayle:
The tourism was not existing, so we really had to pivot so that we could maintain our business throughout 2020. What we did, we shifted from the business market to the consumer market, and we really did not have any birthday baskets, we did not have any get well baskets, we didn’t have any of that, but we took what we had and repurposed it for that market. And so we started selling more general all-occasion gifts and so that carried us through that initial phase, just shifting the focus of our business because the other was not there.

Karen Gayle:
But then we took some time to really evaluate our business, the strengths and the weaknesses, where we felt like we could grow, even over this past year. We really took the time to downsize our inventory. We had a lot of inventory and so it allowed us to be able to shift funds to other things. So we downsized inventory, we unfortunately had to cut staff but that goes with the territory.

Mark Collier:
You were not alone there.

Karen Gayle:
I know. But then in addition to that we really shifted our marketing to online. We really did not do a lot of online marketing so we picked up Facebook Ads, Google pay-per-click ads and that sort of thing, so that we could really get our name out there because we didn’t have a lot of walking traffic and there were no events. So we really marketed ourselves online and that really with the shift to the consumer marketing ourselves online and there’s really tweaking the business and getting it strong and healthy were the things that got us through 2020.

Mark Collier:
Well, congratulations on making it through 2020, first of all.

Karen Gayle:
Thank you.

Mark Collier:
So what was your business strategy for last year? I mean, you shared a little bit about that but did you have a core strategy that you looked at and began to implement last year?

Karen Gayle:
Right. That whole online shipping model became our first way that we shifted things, because we did ship initially already but not to that degree. And so we really tried to source out different ways to ship our products, whether it was UPS, FedEx, so we did a lot of rate comparisons to make sure we were getting the best rates for that. But then also being able to just keep up with the demand for that because everyone went to online because you’re not going to the stores and so things that did not normally sell individually were selling individually. Things that you would put in a basket like grits or a preserve, people were shopping us like a store, like a grocery store.

Mark Collier:
Wow, wow.

Karen Gayle:
And so we were selling a lot of individual items during that time because people were looking for something different other than what they were getting in the grocery stores and so that enabled us to be able to shift not just from the gifts but to just regular staple items that people needed, peanut butter, and just that kind of thing. And so that was helpful. But then the challenge was with the shipping. I mean, everyone got overwhelmed and inundated with shipping carriers, with the amount of packages that they were having to handle in such a short amount of time. It went from almost zero to millions-

Mark Collier:
Oh, sure.

Karen Gayle:
… From FedEx and UPS and all that. And so we had a lot of backlogs and shipments that may not have made it, quite in the normal time that they would have. And so that was the challenge that we had to overcome and just really staying on top of the shipping and making sure that things were processed on a timely basis and getting into our customers, yeah.

Mark Collier:
Great. Well, that makes sense. Well, 2020 is behind us, thankfully.

Karen Gayle:
I know.

Mark Collier:
So looking ahead to 2021, what strategy shifts are you looking forward to making this year that will build on the success that you had last year?

Karen Gayle:
Well, the interesting thing about 2020, it allowed us to diversify our customer base. And so moving from the meetings and events to the consumer, but then also for 2021 to shift from the consumer that’s looking for Georgia to the consumer that’s just looking for a gift. Because what we realized is that even though our product is made in Georgia, and we carry a lot of gourmet foods and cookies, crackers, and that’s all of that, people will buy them because they’re just good food. And so we don’t have to necessarily focus on the iconic products from Georgia, peaches, peanuts, pecans. We can carry a whole other products that are still made here but that people will use for other occasions that they may not necessarily need something that screams Georgia to them. And so it’s allowing us to be able to become a more well-rounded gift store.

Karen Gayle:
And so we’re still in our target market, we’re still focusing on Georgia, we still highlight local businesses and producers and manufacturers that are here, we still carry their products. But then it allows us to be able to carry and everybody I hate to say it, doesn’t like peach even though we’re here in Georgia. And so even in our bath lines we’re able to carry more than just the peach scent and the magnolia scent, things that you would carry normally for Southern type gifts. We’re able to carry all the other types of scents like lavender and things like that. Still made here but it opens itself up to be more universal.

Mark Collier:
Okay. Well, that makes perfect sense. So, the dramatic shift and increase from online to shipping from… I’m sorry, from retail to shipping it online, that was a seismic shift for you last year. This year, hopefully the hospitality industry starts to claw its way back, do you foresee yourself going back to that market-

Karen Gayle:
Oh, of course.

Mark Collier:
… And servicing that market?

Karen Gayle:
Of course.

Mark Collier:
Okay, very good. Very good.

Karen Gayle:
Because for us it gave us now two outlets, two markets that we can go. And so we felt like while the hospitality industry is on the shelf, we’re building the consumer market and then if we can build a strong base over this year and last year and this year, then when the other comes back it makes us twice as strong.

Mark Collier:
Absolutely, absolutely.

Karen Gayle:
And so we’re not looking to replace the hospitality with the consumer market, we’re looking for them to come together and make us that well-rounded business that we need to be.

Mark Collier:
Very good. Now, with the dramatic shift from your core market which was hospitality to consumer, did you have to make any adjustments to your website, add pages and things? Tell me a little bit more-

Karen Gayle:
We did, we did.

Mark Collier:
… About that because a lot of small businesses out here they got to completely revamp their websites out of necessity. Tell me some of the things you implemented or looked at that you’ve done.

Karen Gayle:
Well, we actually got a brand new website in the midst of COVID. When we shut down the business in March that was part of that evaluating what our strengths and weaknesses are, and the website because it was going to be our main marketing tool online we needed it to be as strong as possible. So we revamped the whole process so that the checkout process was a lot easier. We looked at the homepage and really wanted to highlight some of the other things that we do so that people just coming into the page knew would be able to see that right off.

Karen Gayle:
Some of the functionality was a lot different because things that they weren’t able to do on our previous site we now were able to do. And then the product offering was a whole lot different because now it’s not just the meetings and events and reunions and things like that, it’s now about all occasion, we have Valentine. On the side now we never would have had that time before, so it gave us an opportunity to really move into this new air with a brand new face that people could see online.

Mark Collier:
Fantastic. Rebranding sometimes is a huge component to propelling a company’s growth, so I want to give you great accolades for that.

Karen Gayle:
Thank you.

Mark Collier:
So, let’s talk about the future. Where do you go from here? I mean, where do you see your business evolving and shifting over the next three to five years and what new challenges do you potentially see on the horizon?

Karen Gayle:
Well, we feel like we’ve gotten a good start with the gifts here in Georgia for all occasions and so we’re going to continue to build in that arena while we do the events and the all as well. But the next frontier is not just Georgia but we’d like to be able to do what we’ve done here in the state for other states as well. We’re looking to develop our own line of candies that we can do for other states and broaden our base from there.

Mark Collier:
That’s so great. So you’re going to brand candies and other Georgia confectioneries for other surrounding and neighboring states? Great growth strategy, I love it. All right, Karen Gayle, Georgia Gifts & More, I want to thank you for coming in and sharing your story-

Karen Gayle:
Thank you.

Mark Collier:
… On overcoming the challenges of 2020, and I’m sure that your experiences will certainly help our viewers and other small businesses out here as they continue to deal with the effects of this pandemic. Hope to have you in again and you can share some more about your success.

Karen Gayle:
Thank you. I look forward to opportunities.

Mark Collier:
All right, thank you.


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