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Retail in the time of COVID: A retailer’s perspective

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many retailers to rethink their strategies and business models to adapt to the ever-changing scenario, while also aiming to strike a fine balance between the customer and the brand. Myriam B. Maguire, Co-Founder and Designer @ Maguire Boutique shares the path the brand treaded to traverse through the pandemic and transform their retail.

In March of 2020 we were two weeks away from opening our brand-new location in Toronto.  Being an independent brand, our budgeting was very tight, with little buffer for contingencies. Then COVID hit and we had to act.  When you are a fast-growing business, and you commit to a new venture it makes you very vulnerable because you can run out of cash quickly.  Also, because everyone was in trouble at the same time, the fashion and retail industries quickly got a bad reputation among lenders and we were not at the top of the list of companies to be saved.  We had to do what we do best:  get creative!

Creative Calling

First thing we did was to redesign our spring collection.  We believe that product should always come first.  We halted everything that was too dressy and redirected investment to more casual items.  Our designs had to reflect the current situation or else we would be disconnected from our customers.  Fashion is always evolving and changing and to compete in this industry you need to observe your customers and listen to the signals they are sending you.  People are still buying fashion, but their needs have changed.  We had to get inspired by working from home, the cottage, and walks in the park rather than glamourous events and work meetings.

Engage Online

Second thing was to keep in close contact with our customers.  We did not have the store to talk to them, but more than ever customers are engaged on social media.  It was a good occasion to solidify our relationship to create long term value.  It was important for us to inform and entertain them instead of trying to push products down their throat.  We wanted our interactions with the customers to be light, fun, and meaningful to bring some joy into their lives.

Reinvented business models

To replace the cash flow we lost during our slow month we had to get creative and use pre-orders to finance our growth.  Without actually thinking about it too much, we realized we were using an on-demand business model that both lowers our risk and reduces waste, being more environmentally friendly. It also helps us avoid markdowns on excess inventory that could damage the brand. 
We find that COVID has made our customers more patient and that a product that is well-made sometimes takes longer.  I think an on-demand supply chain is the answer to a lot of what is going wrong with fashion. The pandemic has made factories more flexible and open to this concept because a lot of them got in trouble with customers cancelling large orders that were already produced.  The risk of this (hybrid on-demand) model is lower for us but also for the factory.  It is important for us to never put our factories in trouble.  We see them as a part of our team and we are co-dependent.

The Way Forward

Presently, we are entering the third phase of our retail transformation. How do we transform and adapt the retail experience to this new reality? We have all been in a store where your companion is asked to wait outside while you try something on.  We believe we can design spaces that can solve this problem and make shopping enjoyable again.  We also think the store and online space have to be complementary and merge together for a better user experience.  We see a lot of our customers who buy online ask for in-store pick up to make sure there is no issue once they try the product.  But they want an in-store experience that is quick and effective.  Shoes are often tricky, so the staff is there to give advice and make sure the customer makes the best decision instead of selling them something they do not need.  This has always been our approach to customer service, and it is even more true now.

When we started the company, our goal was to do it independently and differently.  We did not want to depend on a third-party distributor to make our sales because we wanted to keep our prices affordable.  We did not want to follow the fashion circle because it was too risky to produce and finance large quantities of product in advance.  We also wanted to stay flexible and inject products when we felt there was a need and keep them at the price of our choosing for as long as we wanted. Looking back it feels like three years ago we started the change that is operating today in the fashion industry today.

Lessons learnt

I used to freak out when the city would close the street for a day of road work because it would impact my sales. Now I am ready to operate my business with either or both of our two retail locations closed for an indeterminate period.  Needs have changed, customers' shopping habits have changed, and new technologies are emerging every day propelled by the situation we are currently living in.  Last month was the best month we ever had, and we believe it is just the beginning ;)

Co-Founder and Designer @ Maguire Boutique, Footwear design has been a lifelong passion of Myriam Maguire’s. After pursuing a degree in Industrial Design at the University of Montreal, she went on to complete a diploma in Footwear Design at Cordwainers at the London College of Fashion. Following her studies, Myriam was selected for a residency in Italy at Fabrica, the United Colors of Benetton research centre, where she worked with several international brands. Upon her return to Montreal, Myriam joined the Aldo Group, one of the world largest footwear retailers, where she designed over 3000 different styles of women’s shoes, many of which became bestsellers. In 2016, Myriam decided to forge her own path and launch her very own footwear brand with the goal of offering high-end luxury goods at accessible, competitive prices. By cutting out the middlemen and bringing marketing and retail in house, she could make a high-quality product at a price that’s fair.