Earlier this year, one of the best-selling items in the Tin Cottage’s online store was a notepad bearing the image of the rapper Snoop Dogg. The phrase Fo’ Scribbles, a riff on the rapper’s famous catchphrase, is printed at the bottom in a gothic font.
The notepad is a fairly typical representation of the fun, tongue-in-cheek of items the Tin Cottage sells at its location in downtown Franklin. But owner Marianne DeMeyers didn’t understand why this specific item was selling so well online.
Eventually, she asked a customer from Utah why he had bought the notepad. It turns out the silly notebook had been featured in a popular post on the social media site Reddit. This customer said he did a Google search for the product, and ordered from the Tin Cottage because it looked like a real store.
"People feel the need to connect and they want to buy from real people. That's the advantage we have over Amazon. Not much of one, a little teeny, tiny one,” DeMeyers said. “Maybe people want to buy from someone that's real and not from the closest warehouse.”
The last quarter of the year — and December in particular — is the busiest season for retailers in downtown Franklin. This year, the coronavirus pandemic has made it risky to spend hours shopping for holiday gifts in brick-and-mortar store.
But over the last nine months, many downtown merchants that normally rely on foot traffic and tourism to sustain their businesses have opened online stores, expanded curbside pickup options and increased their efforts to communicate with customers over social media.
In many cases, these retailers expect online shopping and curbside pickup to remain an important part of their business strategy for years to come.
DeMeyers said that the Tin Cottage has had an online store for several years, but she and her husband Greg DeMeyers hadn’t devoted much effort to making it useful. When the pandemic essentially shut down retail shopping in April, they poured their energy into the website. Early this year, the store only had about 40 items, now there are well over 2,000.
The couple started posting often on social media, telling customers about curbside pickup. Earlier this month, the city of Franklin blocked off a few parking spaces to make it easier for merchants to offer curbside pickup. DeMeyers enlisted her son, who was home from college, to deliver local orders.
“His car runs and he needs to make money," she said.
The store increased its online sales from essentially zero last year to about 5% of total revenue. That’s not nearly enough to make up for the drop off in sales caused by the pandemic. However, DeMeyers said the experience with the Snoop Dogg notepad has her thinking bigger.
She wants to hire a consultant to help the store identify online trends — like memes, hashtags or viral videos — and sell to people all over the U.S. who are delighted by those trends. Over the next five years, she wants the Tin Cottage’s online sales to become the bulk of her business.
"We've talked about what the next investment is. Is it another store opening? I think what we've decided is that it's online," she said.
DeMeyers always wants to maintain the brick-and-mortar locations in Middle Tennessee, but the opportunity to expand online is too good to pass up. Before the pandemic, it seemed impossible to compete with a company like Amazon. Now, she has the infrastructure to run a more robust e-commerce site, and a secret weapon: humanity.
"I feel like that's one of the reasons we're doing well online and shipping all over the U.S. When people look at (the website) it looks like a real person's shop. It doesn't look like Amazon. It's not faceless, nameless, big box," she said.
The Tin Cottage’s inventory is already heavy on fun, pop culture tchotchkes that would be appealing to people scrolling through memes on social media. For other downtown retailers, moving online is a heavier lift.
Bob Roethemeyer, the owner of the Franklin antique shop Avec Moi, said that his store is “a shop full of whimsy.” That whimsy is a little bit harder to move online.
The job was even harder because Roethemeyer prefers to do things the old fashioned way. He still uses a flip phone and normally writes price tags and receipts by hand. But in July, he created the shop’s first online store.
"That was the best thing that came out of the pandemic is that it forced my feet to the fire on that," he said.
Roethemeyer said a large portion of his business typically comes from tourism, which took a huge hit in Williamson County this year. Ever since tourism dropped off, he’s been using social media to communicate with customers from across the U.S who may have visited in the past.
He said Instagram is one of the best ways to recreate the whimsy customers feel when they walk through his store. Earlier this week, he posted a video of an elaborate Christmas-themed table setting. He got exactly the reaction he was looking for.
“How whimsical,” one follower commented.
Another commenter said the table gave her “the same feeling I had as a little girl when I would lay under our Christmas tree.”
Those adoring comments sometimes turn into sales. He said the goal of the tablescapes is to inspire someone to “take something off that table and use it in their own way.”
The coronavirus pandemic wasn’t kind to Roethemeyer’s sales, but he said expanding his e-commerce options has opened his eyes to new possibilities. He wants to continue to expand the Avec Moi online store and could even imagine running a fully online store out of a warehouse when he eventually retires.
Hollie Rollins, the owner of the spice store Savory Spice in downtown Franklin, said the pandemic has cut into sales, but the shut-down-induced boom in cooking, baking and eating at home has been a silver lining.
“More people are cooking at home, they're exploring new flavors. They're deciding to cook something they've never cooked before," she said. "They're also giving spices as gifts.”
However, much like Roethemeyer, Hollins faces the challenge of recreating the experience of walking through a spice shop for customers shopping online or over the phone.
"Most people really love to come in here and smell and taste and walk around the store," Rollins said.
Normally, Savory Spice employees have long conversations with customers to understand what they’re looking for and help them pick the right spices. Rollins said employees are still doing that from behind masks, and they are also trying to replicate those conversations over the phone.
In some ways, she said that doing more business over the phone and online has allowed them to connect with customers who don’t want to come into the store on a regular basis. She’s hoping those connections will lead to more sales in the future.
Like other retailers in downtown Franklin, she expects that selling online or over the phone will be important for the success of the business this holiday season and after the pandemic subsides.
"I think we'll always do some form of it,” Rollins said. “If that means we have to pivot and adapt again, we love it and we're happy to take on the challenge."