For more than 10 years, Cori Berlin worked to achieve her dreams of selling her jewelry creations in her own shop in Shepherdstown.
She opened The Humble Honey in November 2019, an ideal time for retailers to catch the wave of Black Friday holiday sales.
Four months later, Berlin felt the nightmare of COVID-19 had taken her dream away.
“Like many in the country, I felt paralyzed, worried – and ate too much ice cream and pizza,” she said. “Then I pulled myself out of that hole.”
Berlin turned to the same resource that had helped her open her storefront business: The West Virginia Small Business Development Center (WV SBDC) and WV SBDC Business Coach Mary Hott.
The challenge to start, the bigger challenge to survive
Berlin’s love of jewelry began with her childhood fascination with the silver and turquoise necklaces her grandmother brought back from her travels out West.
“The jewelry was magical to me,” she said. “They were physical representations of the stories my grandmother told me of her travels and the Native American culture.”
By age 17, Berlin was selling jewelry at a retail store. Soon she dreamed bigger, wanting to create and sell her own pieces. She took a class to learn how to light a torch and solder and built her own home workshop. Berlin sold her pieces at craft shows and festivals, attracting an enthusiastic customer base. By 2016, she launched her own website, Inner Sister Silver.
Her vision grew to include a storefront. She knew she wanted it in downtown Shepherdstown, where she had gone to college. But she did not know how to open a brick-and-mortar business.
Several friends pointed Berlin to the WV SBDC. She and Business Coach Mary Hott began meeting regularly over the summer, discussing finances, permits, business plans and other startup essentials.
“Opening a storefront is overwhelming, but having Mary break it into bite size chunks that were achievable made the process so much easier.”
Berlin worked fervently to open her doors in time for the Black Friday holiday rush. The store did well and had a strong start going into 2020.
Then in March, the pandemic closed the doors of many businesses, including The Humble Honey.
When the initial shock wore off, Berlin called on her WV SBDC coach again.
Adapting in a changing business environment
“Her brick-and-mortar space was small and cozy – ideal for normal times, but it meant even on re-opening, physical distancing would be a problem,” said Hott. “Business coaches cannot make decisions for our clients. We can only discuss facts and possibly some reasonable opinions. Cori had some hard decisions to make.”
One of them was to close the storefront permanently.
“Once I finally decided that was what I needed to do, Mary was able to help me figure out financial relief,” Berlin said. “I was doing e-commerce before I opened the store. I decided to enhance my online sales.”
Hott introduced Berlin to digital marketing training available through WV SBDC and discussed working with WV SBDC Digital Marketing Specialist Roxy Turner.
Berlin is also offering her customers new online options, such as a virtual trunk show live on Facebook.
“It was not easy giving up her dream of having a physical space where she could greet people, share stories, and have them physically try on pieces of jewelry before purchasing,” Hott said. “She has worked out some new policies regarding fittings that are comfortable for both her and her customers. Cori and The Humble Honey are in a good place now.”
The Humble Honey has an advantage with an owner already experienced in online sales. The pandemic has accelerated the trend to internet commerce for other businesses as well.
“It was a transition in the works prior to the pandemic but has been fast-tracked more quickly than we could have imagined one year ago,” said Hott. “With the ongoing pandemic and the shift to remote working, doing business in the non-physical space of the internet was bolted into reality. It may have been easier for a small business the size of The Humble Honey, but every business owner has to face this transition.
“If a business owner can make necessary changes now to maintain a customer base, whether through online sales or other means, we will be returning to greeting customers face-to-face and providing a satisfying experience in a physical space. Someone like Cori will have the option to remain solely in the online sales space.”