Lesley Jane Hunt: Veteran Retailer Embraces New Opportunities to Survive Pandemic Challenges
Prior to the pandemic, Zionsville’s own Lesley Jane Hunt was in the midst of purchasing and taking special orders for prom dresses for the 2020 prom season. Though not a “prom” store, Hunt’s store, Lesley Jane in downtown Zionsville, is renowned for her first-class customer service. Prom season is to Hunt’s store like the holiday season is to most retailers. And this season was looking to be her best one to date.
Then COVID-19 caused the entire planet to stop on its axis, and with the government-mandated lockdown, Hunt’s profitable season turned into a diabolical financial nightmare.
Going into the lockdown, there was no advance warning or time allotted for her to prepare for the virus that was looming over her prosperous season.
“I was eyeball deep [in prom] and having the best season,” Hunt shared. “Typically, January isn’t that strong for prom dresses, but I had started early, and the demand grew even stronger in February. We came into March going gangbusters, and then we hit a brick wall. We didn’t know if there was going to be any proms or if kids were even going to be in school at the beginning of March.”
The barrage of special orders came pouring into the store, and many [orders] were unable to be canceled.
“I just didn’t know if there would be any proms held, and I didn’t want to be the one to say to my customers, ‘Oh, now you’re having prom—sorry, your dress isn’t here,’ so I continued to accept the orders,” Hunt explained. “But then we went into lockdown, and then I started getting the cancellation phone calls and emails from my customers. By this point, many of the dresses had already arrived. We do have a 30-day window where customers can return dresses, but some fell out of that window. I honored everything I could.”
Pivoting on a Dime
Hunt quickly realized that if she was going to literally stay in business, she had to adapt to the ever-changing pandemic environment and meet her customers where they were—at home.
Customers could shop Lesley Jane via online, phone sales or virtual appointments. Like countless businesses, Hunt offered free shipping, curbside delivery and home delivery for local customers.
When the governor’s reopening stages allowed for limited capacity, Hunt continued to promote her merchandise while scouring her vendors for what people were buying in lieu of specialty dresses and trendy outfits—mostly loungewear and things that looked good from the waist up on Zoom.
“I did everything I could to stay viable,” Hunt expressed. “I put everything I had in the store on my little website. It was a pretty site but not terribly functional for a retailer. Building a better website had been on my list of things I wanted to do, but it was always getting pushed down the list of priorities. For one, website development is expensive and incredibly time-consuming.”
Hunt continued, “I’m not going to lie—the lockdown hurt. It hurt a lot to be closed as long as we were and to not be able to do the kind of business we normally do. Even after the lockdown was lifted, people have continued to be cautious about going out in public, and I don’t blame them. So, I realized that the only way I am going to survive is to build a website that is efficient and has all the things that I need as a retailer and what my customers need for an enjoyable online shopping experience. But frankly, I didn’t have the money to develop a new site or the merchandise to stock it.”
One afternoon, Hunt saw a post from the Town of Zionsville that has quite possibly saved her business.
Relief for Retailers
To help local businesses impacted by COVID-19, the Town of Zionsville launched programs that address the burden of unplanned expenses and lost revenue incurred due to COVID-19. One of these options is a grant available to businesses from the Town of Zionsville’s CDC. This funding option is available to businesses located in the 106th Street Tax Increment Finance District (area bounded by Poplar Street, Elm Street, 96th Street, Michigan Road and Zionsville Road).
“Our grantmaking opportunity through Zionsville’s Community Development Corporation was created to infuse TIF resources directly into the Village Business District,” Zionsville Mayor Emily Styron stated. “Our businesses are the backbone of our community, and we are grateful that merchants like Lesley Jane can access funds through this program to help them navigate the obstacles inherent in this economic crisis.”
Hunt composed a plan to redevelop her website and marketing efforts, specific to ecommerce, and applied for the town’s grant. She was awarded the full $10,000 and has recently launched her new customer- and retailer-friendly website and has been hastily stocking it up with items for the fall/winter and holiday seasons.
Pushing Through a Pandemic
“I wouldn’t have been able to relaunch my website, purchase the merchandise and team up with Collective Publishing if I hadn’t been awarded this grant. I look at [the grant] as a hand-up and not a handout,” Hunt expressed. “I found out you can redevelop a website, but that’s only half of what you need to get the word out there and to expand your customer base. I now have a website that I can build upon and manage. I also met with Collective Publishing—a local small business—and have been working with them on providing me with a comprehensive analysis of my competitors and redeveloping my social media presence. And I need somebody who can manage the analytics going forward.”
Going Forward With Gratitude and a Viable Plan
In addition to giving thanks to the town for making the grant available, Hunt also expressed her sincerest thanks to her loyal supporters and customers for their continued support since opening Lesley Jane in 2009.
“At the end of the day, I will be able to go to the town and say, ‘Here’s how I spent the [grant] money, and here’s how it worked for me,’ and maybe having a story like that will help some other retailers. If I’ve learned anything throughout this whole process, it’s that you really have to have a handle on who you are as a business and who your target is. If you can find somebody to help you with doing a competitive analysis and do the homework to help you with the analytics and to broaden your reach through social media, etc., than I would encourage other retailers and small businesses to do it. But you have to have a plan in place first.”
Join us in supporting local this holiday season, and if you shop online, be sure to shop shoplesleyjane.com!