November 14, 2020 • Sarah Schwartz
One shop owner connects with her clientele via clicks, bricks, curbside — and back again
2020 has been difficult for everyone, but for Alissa Sampogna, owner, The King’s Scribe, Chappaqua, New York, it’s been one of reinvention. Like many retailers, she found herself navigating stay-at-home orders and setting up e-commerce, but she was also wrestling with the fact that one of her main offerings — invitations — were no longer viable.
“The most valuable lesson was the so-called ‘pivot,’” Sampogna explained. “Okay, wedding invitations were no longer a thing for me — do I sink or swim? It reinforced the importance of staying relevant, staying in the forefront of my customer’s thoughts, and assured me that even the small things that seem trivial in a global pandemic can be deeply impactful. This was how we connected when we were so isolated — and helping people (impact) each other was a wonderful gift.”
Sampogna opened The King’s Scribe in 2011 as an outgrowth of her Etsy shop. “As a FIT student in NYC, I hand-painted cards to send to friends at their colleges,” she recalled. “I saw it as affordable art with vast reach.
In 2008 I created an Etsy stationery, cards and invitations shop. (It) grew quickly, and I (envisioned) a gift and stationery store where I could interact more with the public.”
The shop doubled in size to about 1500 square feet when it moved to its current King Street location in 2016. The previous tenant had just renovated, implementing exposed ceiling beams, track lighting and wood floors, so it was easy to create an eclectic, light-hearted vibe. Fixtures and furnishings came from tag sales and flea markets, at least 60% of her business steadily came from custom invitations, while her brush lettering workshops drew a constant stream of customers. Then, in mid-March, everything changed, almost overnight.
The Big Pivot
ST: Please share your response to COVID-19.
AS: I shut my doors three days before the state issued a stay-at-home order. I was in this very strange limbo between complete panic and confused disbelief. There were moments of deep despair before I pulled myself together and pushed things into high gear. For years I never had the time to build a website or the money to have it built. Suddenly, time was all mine, so I used my POS Lightspeed to get an e-commerce site up.
(Meanwhile) I was hand-delivering packages to people’s porches all day long! A young man in my community helped spread the Rescue Main Street initiative, which encouraged residents to purchase gift cards from local businesses. This helped keep the lights on. So many people were deeply encouraging — the support meant more than the money.
The biggest change was I started doing balloon arrangements for drive-by celebrations. I used to do birthday balloons here and there, using a helium tank about every 10-12 weeks. Suddenly, I was getting two tanks per week, arriving at my store at 6 am for a 10-hour day, and getting over 12,000 steps on my FitBit, when I hadn’t even been outside! My boyfriend helped with deliveries, and by graduation weekend I was turning away same-day orders.
ST: What were your top categories pre-pandemic, and what are they now?
AS: Pre-pandemic, at least 60% of my business centered on custom invitations (weddings and mitzvahs) and stationery. Greeting cards occupy a large footprint, and have always gotten people in the door. Now, invitations are virtually non-existent. I’m hesitant to even sit down for appointments with brides because of the uncertainty, but greeting cards remain a strong seller. The “quarantine humor” category has gained some traction! Balloons used to be an infrequent add-on, (and along with) paper party goods like plates, cups, silly hats and banners, (they’re now) a staple.
ST: What are your top gifts?
AS: BlueQ socks, dish towels and oven mitts have been best sellers since I brought them in around 2013. Despite my resistance, my rep assured me that I could someday buy a beach house on my sales from BlueQ. Not quite yet … but I’m still hopeful! Year after year, they elicit such a genuine laugh out of people!
Skeem candles and matches are a beautiful hostess gift. The extra large fireplace matches are solid during the holidays, and the citronella in the summer is a showstopper. I’ve reordered multiple times already, in the pandemic!
I focus on brands, products and aesthetics that I personally love, and Sugarboo is a favorite. The Good Advice notepad ($16) is a top seller, and people can get lost in their thoughts browsing through the Gathered Thoughts cards ($2). Their clean, simple and almost primitive design appeals to everyone.
ST: What are your top three paper brands?
AS: Calypso Cards’ entire line is my mainstay — the new Quarantine humor cards from Rosie Made a Thing are favorites. Original Crown Mill stationery is forever on my shelves. It feels both luxe and utilitarian at once. Blackwing notebooks have a cult following. Form and function win out over any gimmicky design details (and) they appeal to a wide range of buyers.
ST: What kind of events did you hold pre-pandemic — and have you been able to replace them?
AS: Pre-pandemic we had a great response to our brush lettering workshops. We had up to 12 attendees each; during the holidays we did one each week with themes like Thanksgiving place cards, holiday card envelope lettering and creating gift tags. I miss the energy of those gatherings and hope we can come up with a socially distant, micro version soon.
We have an annual town-wide Sidewalk Sale, which doesn’t usually yield a huge turnout for me personally. But this year, we had three epic days! I partnered with a vendor who consigns her jewelry in my store. That, combined with a desire to get out, really brought the shoppers. The cash infusion (enabled me) to buy fourth quarter inventory.
ST: How did you use Instagram pre-pandemic, and has that changed?
AS: I’ve noticed an increase in followers since the pandemic, and they happen to be my local customers, the ones who bring revenue in for me. My dog is a fixture in my store and Instagram feed. For the last eight years it was Gypsy, who was the gentlest, wisest being. She sadly died, suddenly and unexpectedly in November. We’ve since introduced a new puppy who has (appeared) on the Instagram page as #shopdog. I also post updates on balloon projects and new products. Now that I see more interaction from locals, I like sharing their photos and stories as well.
ST: Where would you like to be in five years?
AS: Ahhhh, hopefully retired in that BlueQ Beach house, and not wearing a mask all the time! In all seriousness, I’m 40, and retirement doesn’t seem in reach just yet. But I’ve structured my life and business to allow me a lot of freedom. I intentionally live a low overhead lifestyle, so I can be comfortable on my single income from the store. I built my business because I love what I do, so I’d be happy to be still at it in a few years … just continuing to ride the ebb and flow of the ever-changing retail wave!
ST: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
AS: I’m always inspired by this industry, which really is held up by creative, innovative women entrepreneurs. While the industry itself has changed over the years, and our individual businesses adapt, it continues to feel like we are doing something of value in this little corner of the business world!