Everyone has a story to tell about this exceptional period. And often it's not a very positive one. "It's okay", or "we make the best of it" is the classic answer when you talk to people.
How do we experience this period and how do we look to the future? This is our story.
Before the crisis
At the end of October 2019 ... smell stories ... opened its doors. We both gave up our comfortable job to realize our dream: a niche perfumery in the heart of Brussels. "Whether we were crazy?" was a question even journalists asked us. But we were convinced. We were looking forward to it, had made the necessary plans and selected beautiful brands that until then were not to be found in Brussels. It could not go wrong.
And then, on March 13th of this year, the roller shutter literally went down and the shop closed. Just when everything was starting to run smoothly and we were able to make more and more customers happy with an exceptional fragrance. Even in our worst case scenario, we hadn't foreseen this.
It took a few days to recover and reflect. Suddenly the streets of Brussels were awfully deserted and all the tourists seemed to have gone up in smoke. What to do now?
Keep on doing business
A webshop seemed essential in order to be able to continue selling, and we had one. Yet we decided to close it temporarily as well. The couriers were now heroes too, and we didn't want to burden them unnecessarily.
We worked from home to improve our website and webshop and translated everything into French and Dutch. We tried to find out what support we could get from the government to get through this period. Support that fortunately came quickly. We continued to entertain our customers and followers with photos and videos on social media. The message was not to sit still and not to be forgotten.
After a month the webshop reopened. But of course it's not that simple. Choosing perfume on a website is not easy. Smelling it on a screen is disappointing. So we decided to focus on samples, and to add a small tester with every purchase of perfume, so that customers could return their bottle if the fragrance was not what they expected it to be. These are all additional costs that you can't just pass on to your customers, but the reactions have been positive, and in the meantime we're sending packages and samples all over Europe.
We saw many colleagues, just like us, looking for creative solutions. Discounts, until then a rarity in the niche perfumery, suddenly popped up everywhere. Something we as young starters had trouble with. So we decided to take a different approach. Instead of giving discounts, we decided to donate part of our turnover to DoucheFLUX, an organisation that offers showers and a laundry service to the underprivileged and homeless. Because if there was anything you could see in the streets, it was homeless people. They had no protection and couldn't stay in their homes.
The easing of measures
Finally some perspective. All shops could open again from May 11th. We spent three days cleaning, putting everything in order, disinfecting and making a cheerful shop window. The hunt for disinfectant, mouth caps, posters, arrows, and disinfectant wipes turned out to be more difficult than expected. It seemed as if they were all rare species. Hard to find, and expensive to get.
And what was and wasn't allowed? Perfume testing with a mouth cap on, just give it a try ...
Eventually we got more clarity from the city council. Only a limited number of customers at the same time (two to be precise), keeping distance, disinfect, disinfect and disinfect again. Customers are no longer allowed to touch the test bottles, have to come alone, and are only allowed to stay in the shop for 30 minutes. Little is allowed and a lot is 'having to'.
On the 11th of May we did a first try-out with a customer. Clearly we still had to get used to making all those new rules into a new habit, while at the same time providing a fun, personal customer experience. Because the latter is exactly where we, as a small, independent perfumery, make the difference.
In the meantime, we have been open for a week. It's great to be 'back in business', and to be able to welcome loyal customers back. But despite the good weather, it remains quiet on the streets. A lot of people are probably still waiting, and are still a bit afraid to go out again. A lot of people have had to cope with less, and maybe pay more attention to their pennies. But more people are now also consciously opting for the local shopkeepers, where it is less crowded, and where there is time for a chat, a personal welcome, special products.
It is also gratifying to feel the solidarity among the different shopkeepers of the Saint Jacobs neighborhood and the support of our suppliers, just like us all small, independent businesses. They do what they can, but they also want to survive and for understandable reasons ask for more payment in advance than before.
Gradually, we're getting used to the new, stricter way of receiving customers. How long will we have to keep working like this? I don't know. There are the facts and how safe we feel about them. We continue working and making plans, although we now realize that planning far ahead makes little sense. You clearly don't have everything under control.
The fact that we're such a small enterprise is perhaps our greatest strength. We don't need long meetings to decide what to do, and once we decide, we just get started. An entrepreneur wants to get things done.
See you soon in our shop! We'll keep it fun.