Pandemic pivots make local business community more successful than ever.
Prattville and Autauga County boast a thriving business climate filled with a slew of strong, resilient small-business owners. Many of these Prattville businesses worked diligently through the pandemic to minimize the downside while acting on opportunities.
Here’s a look at a few of the local businesses and what they have accomplished during trying times:
Showing Community Support
Julianne Hansen Fine Art & Pottery opened in September 2017, selling pottery, artisan jewelry and other handmade items and offering creative classes for the public. In early 2020, when the pandemic struck and shut down in-store shopping, owner Julianne Hansen had to pivot quickly.
“We had all our ornaments ready for Easter, and they were sitting around. We were sequestered to our homes – nobody was walking around in parks; they were so afraid of getting out. So, in April, we decided we were going to give them away.”
Hansen sanitized each ornament, placed them in individual bags with scripture and ventured out at about 5 a.m. to hide them around town. “As soon as I made a post on social media about what I was doing, there was not a parking spot to be seen downtown,” she recalls.
People began asking Hansen if they could buy ornaments online. “At first, it felt like a social experiment, but then I realized it was hope,” she says. “People wanted things that encouraged them.”
Alabama Poppy Project
In addition to her fine art and pottery business, Hansen is the founder of The Alabama Poppy Project, started after the death of her stepson, Air Force Capt. Kyle Hansen, who had passed away unexpectedly.
In 2020, before the shutdowns, Hansen and her family, staff and volunteers had created over 1,000 ceramic poppies for the Alabama Poppy Project and Memorial Day celebration.
“All the Memorial Day exhibits were canceled, except for ours; it turned out to be an incredible open-air weeklong exhibit,” Hansen says. “We could pay our respects without breaking any social gathering rules.”
The event saw much success and was repeated in 2021, increasing the numbers to 2,000 poppies. In 2022, they increased yet again to 2,022 poppies. Hansen’s growing business led her to expand her facility in March 2022, with a ribbon-cutting held in April.
Long-Lewis Ford of the River Region, an automotive retailer that sells new Fords and all brands of used vehicles and offers vehicle service, is known for its customer-centric mindset. So much so that the dealership received the President’s Award from Ford Motor Co., only one of seven dealers in Alabama to do so.
The most significant factor for the award is customer satisfaction scores. The dealership found continued success through the pandemic by maintaining a tradition of strong customer service.
“We were deemed a necessary business, but we took the term “skeleton crew” to the next level. About 50% of our staff were out due to quarantine or contact tracing, and it was tough to maintain the level of customer satisfaction when half of our staff was not able to work,” says Chris Ouellette, dealer principal at Long-Lewis Ford. “That was the biggest challenge. But we are thankful for our customers who understood.”
Ouellette says another initiative they implemented was proactive communication and custom orders to maintain their customer-centric tradition. “The supply chain for vehicles has affected inventory, which means cars are more expensive. So we started custom ordering vehicles for customers,” Ouellette says. “That helps them get exactly what they want and saves them from paying more.”
Store Ramps Up Online Presence
The Southern Refinery, opened by Brittney Malone in 2018, sells dresses, tops, bottoms, shoes, jewelry, concert attire, swimwear and more. Malone started the business out of her home, then later opened a retail location. Her business grew quickly, and she moved to a larger area just six months after opening that storefront.
She also recently presented at a Prattville Area Chamber of Commerce professional development event, informing others about social media and e-commerce tools.
“We decided to close two weeks before the mandatory closure,” she recalls of the early days of the pandemic in 2020. “We closed on Friday, and by the following Tuesday, we were set up to do live social selling. We offered curbside pickup for local people, and we shipped out orders,” Malone says. “COVID-19 changed our whole mindset to see what the potential for online sales was.”
Before the pandemic, the Southern Refinery’s online sales represented approximately 5% of its overall sales; now it is nearing 40%.
“During the pandemic, we shifted our business model from in-person to online. That’s what prompted our online sales to what it is now. Now we have the retail location but also online,” Malone says. “We are so thankful for our amazing community support. I can’t even explain it. They’ve been behind us so much. It’s been unreal the amount of support we’ve received.”
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