How a small boutique survived the COVID-19 pandemic by streaming fashion shows on Facebook Live

With lockdowns affecting the ability to open her store, Helen Van Sligtenhorst started streaming fashion shows on Facebook Live

Helen Van Sligtenhorst, owner of Harbour Bay Clothing in Sarnia, Ontario, standing in her boutique.
Helen Van Sligtenhorst, owner of Harbour Bay Clothing in Sarnia, Ontario, stands in her shop on May 22. Streaming fashion shows on Facebook Live has been so successful for her that she hopes to continue them even after COVID-19 lockdowns are a thing of the past. Tahreem Fatima/Toronto Observer

Dire times need innovative solutions. When COVID-19 has forced many businesses to shut their doors, boutique owner Helen Van Sligtenhorst started streaming live fashion shows online to keep her business going. 

“We knew that we had to be creative, and we knew we had to change,” said Van Sligtenhorst, owner of Harbour Bay Clothing in Sarnia, Ont.

The fashion shows feature Van Sligtenhorst and her staff wearing the clothes, jewelry and accessories they sell. She’d previously done fashion shows before to fundraise or showcase clothes for a season, but the online component was all

“It has been a wonderful decision for us,” said Van Sligtenhorst, who is trained as a special education teacher and opened her boutique in 2009. “We’ve been able to service our customers’ needs and show everybody what we look like within the store, and it has been a great entrepreneurial endeavour.”

Every Thursday since January, the entrepreneur and fashionista have gone live with a different fashion show theme. 

“Last April of 2020, when we were closed, it was such a dark place, and when we were closed again in January, I didn’t want to go back there for me, my staff and our customers,” Van Sligtenhorst said. 

She said that with Facebook Live fashion shows, her customer base has increased, and so her business.

“I have gained more than 300 followers on Facebook since I started Facebook Live sessions,” Van Sligtenhorst said. She said they are receiving a lot of engagement on their page. She has more than 800 views on her live sessions now. 

 “We can reach and service the entire southwestern Ontario,” Van Sligtenhorst said. The company isn’t making huge profits, but she said they are surviving, and she hasn’t had to lay off any staff like the first lockdown in March of 2020. In fact, she has just added one more part-time employee to her staff.

Watch Van Sligtenhorst host a Thursday night live fashion show:

On Tuesday, the store staff put on a small clip of the latest inventory of the store they call “trending Tuesdays.” It gives a little glimpse of what’s new in fashion and in-home décor in the store for customers to look forward to watching on a live fashion show on Thursday that lasts 30 to 45 minutes. So far, Van Sligtenhorst has hosted around 8 shows. She feels the boutique has lost its “personal touch” but said they try to make Facebook Live sessions interactive so the community can connect. 

The customer response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Cathy Bessier has been a Harbour Bay Clothing customer for more than 10 years. She enjoys the online fashion shows. TAHREEM FATIMA/TORONTO OBSERVER

“I’ve been a customer with Harbour Bay for at least 10 years. I enjoyed coming to the store. I was able to find things that were different than the chain stores,” said Cathy Bessier, one of its loyal customers.

Beisser said she felt comfortable trying new stuff with the welcoming and helpful staff and get opinions on what she was buying. This all has now changed.

“Nobody is suffering more than little businesses,” Beisser said.

She makes a point to purchase from the Facebook Live fashion show and invites other people to watch and support the boutique. She said that she connects with her friends while watching Facebook Live in the comments section. They shop and provide suggestions for one another about what to buy. She said it’s “kind of neat to have that opportunity in these times.” 

Kelly Robinson Dann, another longstanding customer, said that “shopping local in these hard times is most important to me.” 

Kelly Robinson Dann, a long time customer of Harbour Bay clothing in Sarnia, Ont. TAHREEM FATIMA/ TORONTO OBSERVER

Dann said that the community is emphasizing a lot on buying local and supporting small businesses. The local radio station has been tremendous in running campaigns like sign wars to encourage and engage the community to buy from local and small businesses.

Susan Donkers Redman, a long-time employee at Harbour Bay, said she’s happy they are still in business and employed because of the Facebook Live events, unlike thousands of retail employees who were let go because their businesses were closed to the pandemic. 

“Facebook Live has been a bit more work,” Redman said. “But we’ve all been able to work still, which is wonderful. We all still get a paycheck which is a bonus over and above because we love our jobs.”

Van Sligtenhorst said that they couldn’t wait to open a store and return to normal, but they still plan to continue with the Facebook live sessions as they have gained many new customers.

She said that post-pandemic, she sees her business as a hybrid of both online and in person. 

“I’m hoping that I can go forward with all three because I think all three of the online, the social media, and the in-person as it will be beneficial to help my business grow more,” said Van Sligtenhorst.

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Posted: Jun 11 2021 7:00 am
Filed under: News Shift to Online Spotlight On Small Biz