Irish fashion boutiques in a pandemic: One Wexford shop on a very quiet reopening and the struggle to stay open
In the third of a three-part series looking at Irish fashion boutique owners and the impact of the pandemic, we chat with Sharon Messitt of The Little Geek Shack about trying to balance a brick and mortar shop with an online business.
Running a business is no easy feat, whatever the circumstances. From finances to staffing to rent, there’s a lot to take into account. Not something entrepreneurs jump into lightly, months (if not years) of planning often go into opening a business and so it’s always particularly soul-crushing when things don’t work out. As with most things in life though, it’s only when the going gets tough that you truly find out what you’re made of.
Planning ahead is one thing, preparing for the onset of a global pandemic quite another. Most business owners have had to roll with the punches, but there’s only so much a person can take before needing to reevaluate things.
Several beautiful boutiques across Ireland have been doing just that in recent weeks. Closed for the large majority of this year, the promise of reopening hung just out of reach and for some, the effort needed to grab the dangling string was too much. Some shut their doors for good deciding to focus their efforts elsewhere instead, some maintained their online website in lieu of an actual brick and mortar shop, and some continue trying to balance it all. I spoke to three different fashion retail owners about how the past year has affected them.
The Little Geek Shack
While both Fiona Smyth of The Harlequin and Nicki Hoyne – who we spoke to in the first two parts of this series – have decided to focus their attentions exclusively on the online world, Sharon Messitt of The Little Geek Shack in Wexford continues trying to manage both a website and an actual brick and mortar store. Two full-time jobs, manned by one person, it’s a hefty task even for the most dedicated of business owners, so, needless to say, passion for the job is a pre-requisite. But while she was eager to get back to the shop and welcome customers inside for a browse, things have been much slower than Sharon anticipated. Pondering whether the “death of physical shops” is imminent, she said that the initial buzz and influx of shoppers has slowly waned… leaving her wondering, “where are all the customers?”
Setting up shop around four years ago, The Little Geek Shack started its retail journey selling collectable figures and comics. “I started on a market stall, moved to a small shop on the main street of Wexford Town, then in October 2020 I signed the lease on a much bigger shop but off the main street in a beautiful location called Peter’s Square – just a two-minute walk off the main street. I’m located next to a second-hand bookshop (Red Books) and between the two of us, we share similar customers as both of our shops are quirky.”
Specialising in vintage clothes and vinyl records (both original and new), Sharon also stocks a range of second-hand action figures, pins and patches. “I started selling vintage clothing in January 2020 as a tester because the comics were a slow seller. I was, and still am, the only physical shop selling vintage clothes in the town. I discovered that there was a big demand for the clothes, so I stopped selling the comics and that’s why I needed a bigger space – to expand that side of the business. I signed the lease in October during the second lockdown, opened my doors in the new location on December 1 and traded until December 27 2020 when the third lockdown happened.”
Only reopening halfway through May, Sharon’s shop, like most other businesses across the country, spent over five months of this year closed. Thankful to have gotten her website up and running fairly promptly, she much prefers the in-person shopping experience and unfortunately, it’s been anything but smooth sailing. “I set up my website in March 2020 because of the first lockdown, but it was a slow burner. I was still finding my feet with the clothes and there are so many online vintage sellers out there already. When we reopened in the summer, it was very busy and the clothes sold really well.”
I found that last year, there was a lot of noise online about shopping local, supporting local businesses etc, this year, it's a very, very different story.
“I have kept the online up alongside the physical shop but I have found that people want to come in, people love to browse, plus personally, I am not keen about online shopping and as a shop owner, I prefer being in the shop dealing with people face-to-face and creating a nice space for people.”
Although social media provides her with a platform through which she can interact with customers, it can be hard to navigate the online world when there’s so much out there. “I am very reluctant to move to online-only, personally, it’s not my area of expertise at all. It’s impersonal and, for me, I prefer the interaction with the customer, helping them pick outfits and things like that.”