Dr. Pepper peanut brittle, monogrammed tea towels, and Texas trash, a snack mix made of cereal, pretzels, and candy. Those are just a few reasons customers flock to Heartisans Marketplace, a gift shop located in a blue brick building in an East Texas town called Longview.
Each of those handcrafted goods does double duty, enabling incredible work to happen for unemployed women in the local community, many of whom are homeless. “We run the store to support the program,” explains Julee Rachels, the founder and CEO.
Heartisans Marketplace is both a retail shop and nonprofit, providing a job readiness program for women in the community. Their mission is to provide the skills, financial, and emotional support needed to get participants back into the workforce and gain independence. “They’re really starting over,” explains Rachels.
To realize a goal with so much heart, the store isn’t a regular store. It simply can’t be. Most of the products are manufactured in-house across six studios that specialize in areas like letterpress printing, monogramming, and embroidery, along with a manufacturing kitchen. They’re all run by volunteers, while program participants are mentored in these areas so they can learn the life skills that prepare them for their next chapters.
In 2020, Rachels and Suzanne Flahie, Heartisans’ operations manager, realized that because they’re not a regular store, they had to make some gutsy moves. And by building out their online store, they’ve been able to help the women they serve in even more life-changing ways.
Creating a sense of community is ingrained in Heartisans’ mission. To build that community for program participants, Rachels knew they needed to provide housing. “[The participants] need friends, they need a community, but they also want independence,” she explains. “Knowing how hard it is to find good, safe housing — how do we provide that?”
“We could ask more people for more money or sell more stuff,” she says. “The way to reach more people within Longview, but also outside of Longview, was through online sales.”
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The road to going online isn’t always easy. Data from Square and Wakefield Research found that 71% of retailers say moving their business online was the biggest challenge of the pandemic. But Heartisans Marketplace didn’t blink an eye. “We just thought, we’ve got to do this,” remembers Flahie.
And going online is what gave Rachels and Flahie the confidence to buy two 9,000 square-foot buildings over two acres and build the on-campus housing they’ve always dreamed about.
Back in 2019, Rachels and Flahie realized they needed to increase sales to continue to serve the women in their program. So they added all of their inventory online. And 2020 was their moment to flip the switch. “The day the governor said we had to shutdown, we were like, ‘Well, we’ve got to go online.’ Because we have to fund our mission,” says Flahie.
Their program director didn’t have a class to teach during the mandatory shutdown, so she started adding more inventory, writing descriptions, and taking photos of the products. Rachels started inputting the data. The store was coming together. “It was really labor intensive to get our inventory online because we have thousands of products,” she explains. But they didn’t give up, and it’s paying off.
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“Our online sales were higher than if our store had been open,” says Rachels. “The fact that our sales were double gave us the confidence to move forward with the purchase of the building,” adds Flahie.
Heartisans Marketplace is continuing to see higher online sales, like other businesses that made the shift to eCommerce. Data from Square and Wakefield Research found that for retailers selling online, an average of 58% of their revenue now comes from online sales.
Heartisans Marketplace sells across multiple channels, and because they’re all connected, trying out new ways of selling isn’t overwhelming.
Flahie recently started selling on social media, allowing customers to buy directly from their Facebook page, with plans to sell on Instagram too. Because Heartisans Marketplace has such a large catalog of products, the more they post about their unique items, the more it entices customers to check them out on their website. “We see a difference in our website traffic when we post on social media,” says Flahie. “Just having the images there does something.”
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Their physical retail shop is still an important part of the business, and selling online is leading to higher in-store sales. While Heartisans offers a “buy online, pick up in-store” option, called BOPIS, some customers choose to browse online and then buy items at their physical store.
“There are a lot of times people come in and purchase things I’m assuming they saw online, because it hadn’t been selling before,” Flahie says. “What we see is local customers going to our website, they go to our online store, and they look and look,” says Rachels. “And then they just come in and buy.”
While local customers are their most avid fans, Rachels and Flahie want to use Heartisans’ online store to expand their customer base outside of East Texas. One way they’re accomplishing that is by selling corporate gift boxes. The recipients of those gifts fall in love with their unique handcrafted items, turning them into new customers.
“And then they call us directly and say, ‘I love that Dr. Pepper peanut brittle, how can I get that?’” says Flahie. “If we could get the word out, we could be having greater sales online for those products that aren’t just here in Longview.”
In 2021, Flahie and Rachels are going to continue to invest in loyalty marketing and gift cards to turn new customers into repeat customers. Their online store, and the connections between each channel they sell on, is at the heart of it all.
Flahie and Rachels’ bias for action is the same spirit they infuse in Heartisans’ job readiness program. It’s also what led to them going online, skyrocketing sales, and being able to expand their mission in ways that are drastically improving the lives of so many deserving women.
“We’re not usually hesitant,” says Rachels. “We’re usually like, okay, we’ll figure it out. And if something doesn’t work, we do something else,” she says. “We don’t talk about things for long because we have women that need us, and they just need a job.”
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