After a year’s worth of Amazon shopping and DoorDash delivery, local markets and makers are looking to capitalize on stir-crazy consumers’ desire for experiences.
“Right now, there is a real want for people to be out and about and be social again,” said Careyann Weinberg, the director of Selden Market in downtown Norfolk. That’s why Selden, a city-owned retail incubator and pop-up retail space, is gearing up for a summer of themed pop-up events, which have already proven more popular than ever before, Weinberg said. Selden’s foot traffic has exploded in recent months, up more than 400% in May compared to the previous year when coronavirus restrictions were in place.
The surge of interest isn’t just from shoppers. More vendors are getting into the game as well.
The most sought-after products right now tend to build in an experiential element, like allowing customers to personalize an item or engaging them through a hands-on demonstration, Weinberg said.
“People like an experience of some sort,” she said, highlighting the success of Sugar & Grace, a DIY candle-making bar at Selden.
It’s a good time for new entrepreneurs to make a move. The National Retail Federation estimates retail sales will grow between 10.5% and 13.5% this year as the pace of the economic recovery accelerates.
The potential to help local businesses recover from the pandemic while building community connections is what drove Christine Harrell to organize Norfolk’s newest pop-up market, the Community Market on Monarch on Old Dominion University’s campus.
ODU’s Art Department books musicians to perform during the weekly Saturday evening market. Harrell encourages vendors to showcase hands-on demonstrations—past offerings have included bicycle maintenance and clothing tie-dye techniques. Harrell said she’s also looking for buskers to perform. A light crowd browsed about a dozen vendors’ tents on a recent Saturday, buying desserts and drinks before settling into lawn chairs to listen to a guitarist and a banjo player perform.
Harrell, a co-owner of Equinox Coffee Co., had previously kicked around the idea of organizing a pop-up market to increase foot traffic for businesses near the campus. But when the pandemic foreclosed her other employment (she had also worked as a wellness coordinator at a senior center and taught yoga classes in local jails), it gave her time to strategize her next move.
“The pandemic hit us in so many different ways,” Harrell said. “I knew I had other talents; I just had to step into it and do it because there was no other way. I have a family, and I have bills to pay.”
The pandemic pushed local entrepreneurs in new ways too. With more free time, some local businesses expanded their product lines. For others, the pandemic offered an opportunity to turn self-reflection into a new business.
Anna Mewburn of Virginia Beach began weaving macrame at the start of the pandemic to relieve anxiety after quitting a toxic job. Now pursuing a master’s degree in mental health counseling, she started the business Mental Health and Macrame to use a creative outlet to raise awareness about mental health issues.
Displaying an array of colorful wall hangings and jewelry at the Markets on Monarch, Mewburn admits she isn’t particularly business-savvy but says she doesn’t plan to turn her passion project into a full-time gig.
“For me, I feel very fulfilled in it,” she said. “This is something that I love being able to do.”
Rhashida Bess, a longtime Norfolk jewelry maker, said the pandemic gave her more time to finetune the marketing and branding of her business, Alodeuri.
“People were home, and they were looking at their Instagram and engaging with social media because they had nothing else to do,” Bess said. “As a small business, when you’re home too, you have a little more flexibility and time to post. Or I can read up on how to do these things a little bit better.”
An overhaul of branding on her website translated to more customer interest and online sales, said Bess as she took a break from her stand at the Markets on Monarch.
It also forced her to experiment with new materials. Bess found it difficult to properly sanitize the vibrant colored fabric she uses to make jewelry before shipping the items to customers. She also worried it would degrade the quality of her products. So she began to focus more on copper and beadwork, which she said were easier to handle with gloves.
“We all learned we had to find different ways to be creative,” Bess said.
Andrea Noble is an award-winning journalist who recently relocated from Washington, D.C. to Ghent in Norfolk. Her reporting has taken her everywhere from crime scenes and illegal nightclubs to the U.S.-Mexico border and the halls of Congress. She loves tiki drinks and gypsy punk, and hopes to check Eurovision and scuba diving with sharks off her bucket list.