Girl on the Wing has been a staple of Hamilton’s boutique shopping scene for years now. Even if you haven’t been in the store, you may be familiar with owner Whitney McMeekin’s handiwork around the city with community events like Hamilton Flea, the Art Gallery of Hamilton Film Festival, Good Foot Party, and more. Her creativity and entrepreneurial spirit combined to design a unique experience for customers in the shop. For example, products aren’t simply displayed, they are carefully and thoughtfully laid out to create an aesthetic. Among vintage books, art, and even a typewriter, her wares are part of mini art installations around the shop.
Girl on the Wing stocks accessories, decor, new and vintage clothing, gifts, greeting cards, and more. Until recently, Whitney operated predominantly through her brick and mortar location on King Street East, occasionally listing items in high-demand online. Since the closure of the store in March due to Covid-19, Whitney has moved almost all of her product online, allowing her to reach both her regular local clientele and a new customer base outside the city.
We spoke with Whitney to learn more about running her business during a pandemic:
– Was the pivot from brick and mortar to online difficult? Easier than expected? What challenges did it bring?
To be honest, this has been a nice moment in time for me to pivot and expand my online reach! In early March my brain started moving towards ways to increase my online sales because I’m immunocompromised and was starting to have anxiety about being in the shop. I’ve always had lots of customers requesting things to be online but it was just such a challenge for me to put significant time and energy into my webshop, while operating my storefront and managing my customer relationships. So for me, this time to work from home is highly-appreciated and has given me room to develop the webshop. It’s definitely still been challenging though and everything takes a lot of time! I carry so many different types of products- and thinking of new products, improving and expanding are always important to me, so I was sort of kicking myself when it came time to upload everything (haha). But ultimately, it’s taught me patience and everyone has been really understanding of the time it takes me to upload and perfect the site. I’d say the backend work has been the challenge but when it comes to driving sales or marketing the online shop, that has been much easier for me! I have such an amazing and dedicated customer base, who’ve embraced the change and it’s been such a joy to still be able to serve them! I’d say the other challenges have been the ability to restock the products that people want- lots of companies are shut down or operating with minimal staff/ access to materials- so I am always trying my best to get more of what people want, but sometimes I can’t control it. The other challenge I’m facing is overworking myself. There’s no clear start or end to any day and knowing how much people are enjoying the ability to shop online, I always want to do better for them. It can be hard for me to turn my brain off about work- there are some days where I just overfry my brain and the only solution is to zone out to mindless reality television- it honestly seems like the only thing that my brain can handle (haha!). My partner, Nikhil, has really stepped up in assisting me with the online shop and that has been a huge saving grace!
– What are the differences between customers shopping in-store vs online? Are shopping habits different (less impulse purchases, more, etc.)
The biggest difference I’ve noticed between people shopping in-person vs. online is challenges with sizing in clothing and shoes. Obviously customers can’t be at the shop trying things on. So we’ve been trying to figure out ways around this- by offering flexible exchange terms if the size isn’t right. I’d love to better develop a size guide and maybe even one day have “fit models”- people with various body types who could try on the items and take a photo so people could see how things look on a range of sizes. Another thing I notice is lots of gift items being sent to friends and family which I think is just lovely. And I think less impulse purchases are happening- meaning people have time to sit with their decisions. They can really think on the items they want or need- it doesn’t require them making a special trip, they can be at home looking at what they would pair something with from their existing wardrobe, they can really think about their budget. I think that’s a really special thing about online shopping-the intention someone can make a purchase decision with. Not that in-store purchases don’t allow that- we pride ourselves on a relaxed atmosphere where people can take their time to decide on what they buy- but it’s nice to see people really thinking about what they buy. But I will admit- I so miss being there in-person to help people find clothes that make them feel good!
– What are your plans once things calm down? Will you maintain the webstore continually with all your products, or go back to your best-sellers like before?
My plan for the future is to continue operating the webshop with the full product range so people can shop in-store or online. This process has really shown me how many people like the ability to shop from home. It will be really nice to now have the webshop set up so well so it’ll be easier to manage both. Plus it’ll be nice for in-store shoppers to be able to see things online before they come in, once again helping with intentional buying. Sometimes we post new items but people can’t get in right away- this will give them the ability to purchase even if they can’t get to the shop. It’s also been nice to see how many customers we have from other parts of Canada, and even the US, and I’d love to continue to develop these relationships.
– Do you find you’re reaching more out of town customers right now?
I’ve always had customers from other places sending me messages asking for specific items. In the past, I would do the best I could to coordinate with them and get them what they need- but it would take much more time to go back and forth. The webshop allows them to shop when they want to and it’s been busy with customers from outside of Hamilton. It’s shown me that we have a strong customer base in Toronto and other areas. We are trying to minimize how often we go to the post-office, but it’s all worked out safely thus far. If I had to put a number on it, I’d say I have about 80% local customers and 20% non-local.
– Anything unexpected you’ve learned during this time? About the business or otherwise.
I’ve learned that people are amazing and so supportive of this business! It’s been really cool to see. At the beginning, I was afraid to post too much as I didn’t want to force shopping down anyone’s throat at such a hard and sensitive time. Like everyone else, I’ve struggled with thoughts about money, well-being, and existential dread so I didn’t want to inundate anyone with ideas of buying. But then something really beautiful happened- people started messaging me that my posts were bringing them joy, that the idea of getting a little something delivered to their door was a positive thing for them. It sort of made me realize that community is important- even from behind a screen. And that people were scared, yes, but they were still people who wanted interesting things to read or watch, items that could improve their home-life or that they could surprise a friend with. Comfy clothes they could wear around the house, incense that could help them cleanse their air, plants that could be their little quarantine buddy. Honestly, I don’t mean to sound like I take myself too seriously, but this time has really made me feel like I have a purpose. That my mission is to be there for all these customers- to find things that bring joy, to be positive and caring in my messaging, to be a bit of an escape or just create a sense of normalcy. There’s been times (through quarantine and before) where it’s been hard on me to keep up with all the GOTW love out there, or I’ve felt a pressure to perform…but through this experience I’ve realized that I am doing exactly what I’m meant to be doing. It brings me so much joy that I get to live my dream- I know a lot of people have to choose a career with dependability and security. Through this, I’ve felt worried about those people who made a responsible choice in their career but now are facing job insecurity. For me, I’ve become accustomed to the ups-and-downs of small business life and having to be smart with how I operate to ensure my business survives. But the fact that people support my dream through every purchase they make or any interaction we have, I’m just so grateful to them all. And I hope we all make it through this and come out on the other end and get back to the point where we can be side-by-side sharing life experiences together. I can’t wait til the day my shop is reopened!
– What have you been up to during isolation? Still just as busy with the store, taking it easy, trying something new, etc.
My quarantine activities (apart from working on the shop) have been: cuddling my two cats, baking a lot, loving my home and making it cozier and more organized, scheduling virtual hangs with my friends, eating delicious food, and dancing up a storm!
-Stefani, The Generator
Shop online at Girl on the Wing: girlonthewing.ca
Facebook: Girl on the Wing