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On March 16, 2020, A’s Unique Boutique was poised for owner Kara Engstrom’s peak prom gown sales weekend, when COVID-19 restrictions shut down her store. From that point until this moment, staying in business has been a matter of connectivity, creativity, and community support. (Photo courtesy of Kara Engstrom )
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On March 16, A’s Unique Boutique was poised for a peak prom gown sales weekend when COVID-19 restrictions shut down the store. From that point until this moment, staying in business has been a matter of connectivity, creativity and community support for owner Kara Engstrom.
“We were closed before the busiest weekend of the season, and of course that was the week I was the heaviest with staffing, too. I had to send people home, and our girls work the most during those weeks, so they also lost a lot of work. We have seven employees, and during a prom weekend we could have six people working per day,” says Kara.
Kara went home, too.
“I took a few days to think about the situation, and we decided we still have the online store, so we decided to make the best of what we could,” she says, of A’s online site, www.asuniqueboutique.com
Kara established the online store after she purchased the boutique four years ago from former owner Asiye Underhill (the shop was then known as Asiye’s Boutique). All told, this shoreline gown and dress boutique has been in Guilford for 17 years at its location among the shops at 1575 Boston Post Road.
By March 20, Kara was back in business, but certainly not back to business as usual. First and foremost, it’s pretty hard to sell prom gowns, graduation dresses, special occasion dresses, and even casual dresses when a pandemic erases or leaves in limbo just about every event for the upcoming season.
“We changed things up,” says Kara. “We sell some other things besides gowns and dresses, so we utilized the things we had in the store. We actually brought in some new products, like some loungewear, which flew out the window like crazy, as well as some really stylish [facial] masks. We have leopard and tie-dye and Aztec—you name it. We had to figure out how to help our customers during this time. What did our customers want? And also, how could I keep this business open? I’m not downtown, so it’s that much harder to catch people’s attention.”
She also tried to keep as many of her staff on as possible by adjusting their jobs to include things like making deliveries for online orders. Kara also upped her social media game on Facebook and Instagram with posts featuring the boutique’s latest offerings.
“We brought in a gift line with things like ‘Pinkies Up’ cups and ‘Quarantinee’ cups. I had to get in what people wanted,” she says.
One of the most successful pivots for Kara was turning the shop’s popular, non-profit driven Love Your Melon hats into Easter baskets filled with more items from the store. Fifty percent of proceeds from each hat sold goes to support pediatric cancer research and patients.
“A lot of the stores weren’t open at Easter time, so a lot of people didn’t know where to go. Moms where saying, ‘What am I going to get my kids for Easter?” says Kara, who is also a mom with kids in the Guilford Public Schools system. “So we started making Easter baskets out of Love Your Melon hats....so we were really, really busy with that.”
Kara adds that local support from the community was enhanced with help from programs that were kicked off by individuals and organizations hoping to inspire folks to help support small businesses in town during the pandemic.
“Catherine Kiernan did so much for us,” says Kara of the Guilford photographer and Positively Guilford Facebook page founder.
Kiernan helped whip up community support for local businesses and helped facilitate, with three friends, a COVID-19 shop local effort, The Gift Card Project.
In addition, help arrived from The Shoreline Chamber of Commerce, Kara notes.
“The Shoreline Chamber’s Local First and Open for Business Facebook pages also really helped and continue to assist with sharing information for the boutique, as well as our loyal customers and employees.”
Getting Back to Gowns and Grads
“During the time period when we couldn’t be open to have customers in the store, we were operating by doing curbside pickup and deliveries, and we had the online store,” says Kara.
On May 20, the date Governor Ned Lamont allowed retailers adhering to COVID-19 protocols to allow customers back in their stores as part of Phase 1 reopening, Kara began getting contacted by girls looking for prom gowns and graduation dresses for modified events being rolled out among their schools and towns.
“We re-opened on the 20th to accept customers by walk-in or appointment, whatever they’re comfortable with. We still do some deliveries and we still have the online store,” she says.
One of her first returning customers came in for a special reason. Each year, through a partnership with Sentext Solutions, A’s Unique Boutique gives away a gown at prom time. To enter, shoppers just text their phone number to the solutions company. A few weeks later, Kara receives the winning phone number picked at random by Sentext.
“This year was really special, because we had a girl who came in two weeks before everything was closed down...and we didn’t have her size and color that she wanted,” says Kara. “So we narrowed it down to the different sizes and colors she wanted, and it was a particular company out of California that we work very closely with. And the last day that they were open—on March 20—they sent me a box, and it had the size and color that she wanted.”
At the time, Kara stored the selections to keep them safe until business resumed. Shortly after her boutique was allowed to reopen on May 20, Sentext sent Kara the phone number of the gown give-away winner. When Kara called, she learned the girl on the other end of the line was the one who had asked for the different sizes and colors of gowns.
“She came right in that day. One of the gowns that came in happened to be one of the ones she wanted. She tried it on and it fit beautifully,” says Kara. “That rocked her world...She didn’t even know if we were going to be able to get the dresses in her for, and there it was.”
Seniors are still seeking prom gowns for photo sessions and virtual and modified proms planned for the near future, Kara adds.
“Girls are still buying prom gowns. They still want their pictures taken and there’s still a lot of towns that have proms in the works. They’re going to be later in the summer, and they’re certainly going to be modified to comply to all the restrictions, but these girls are still really, really hopeful,” says Kara.
In a typical prom season, Kara can rely on selling about 400 prom gowns, at prices that range from $99 to about $650. This year, “we probably sold about two-thirds of that,” she says.
Right now, Kara says graduation dresses are in demand, especially with so many different iterations of graduation events being planned by schools instead of a single, traditional graduation.
“Some of these kids are having three different ceremonies [and] so they’re buying different outfits for the different things. So it’s actually changed a little bit this year,” she says.
Kara’s daughter, Anna Cerino, is experiencing many of those changes as a member of the Guilford High School Class of 2020.
For the seniors and their families, “It’s very emotional. It’s a different time,” says Kara. “We’re trying to do as much as we can for these kids because this is not what they expected. And the kids really love coming into the store, especially the seniors right now. They come in and they talk to us about graduation plans. Some graduations have been moved to August, and kids are talking about graduation parties because then you can be with more people, and some towns are holding formal send-offs for kids.”
Having a bricks-and-mortar business where people can safely congregate also makes Kara a bit of a point person for sharing the latest information she learns from her customers.
“Sometimes it’s the first time a parent has gone shopping and talked to an adult that is talking to people about what’s going on in their towns,” she says. “There’s a constant thread that goes on all day about the Class of 2020, graduations, proms, senior breakfasts and if they’re going to be doing online learning next year or if they’re going away.”
As the pandemic continues, Kara’s plans for A’s Unique Boutique are to continue to do what’s best for her customers and employees.
“It’s been a challenge. I don’t know what will eventually happen. Typically, we move to appointments for the summer,” she says but notes that with the products she’s stocked, “we may be open a little longer this summer.”
Kara and her staff are keeping customers posted with updated store hours and other information through the boutique’s Facebook and Instagram pages.
As for the idea of taking a personal break, Kara says that likely won’t happen for a while.
“I’ve worked really, really hard,” she says. “I think I only took three days off, since March 20. Every day, I’ve been here at least for a few hours.”
The 2020 guide to the Madison Chamber of Commerce has arrived!