Pam Bair has owned and operated A Basket Full gift and clothing boutique for over 30 years. She thought she had seen it all from a small business owner’s perspective until spring of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
After the initial panic set in, Pam and her teammates, Maggie Markle and Robin Brouse, decided the business had to do a pivot. Little did they know that what started as something so scary and with uncertainty would eventually lead to an expanded customer base, business success and a lot of fun.
A Basket Full’s story is one of resilience, flexibility, adaptability and endurance. There are many small businesses across the country that could tell their own version of what it took to keep business flowing when the global pandemic struck. Pam, Maggie and Robin, along with other members of their families, some close friend, and their loyal customers, are part of this “Do what we have to do” success story.
Located at 121 E. Main St. in Boalsburg, their normal pre-pandemic hours of operation were (and are again now) 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. But COVID-19 changed all that. Suddenly the business wasn’t allowed to have anyone on site. While they had discussed creating an e-commerce program it had never had a sense of urgency. Until now.
The pandemic forced Pam (and the staff) to do things she never thought she could do. They had to create an e-commerce store from scratch. They also had to do it from the store since that’s where all of their hardware was located along with their inventory of products. But who was going to actually make it happen? With a “do whatever it takes” attitude, this group of passionate businesswomen got to work.
Robin Brouse became Pam’s tech person. Robin retired eight years ago from Penn Smeal College of Business, where she was the director of student services for the MBA program. Her strengths were her organization, logistics and administrative skills. But technology? Well as Robin told me, “If my Smeal colleagues heard I was going to be in charge of anything to do with technology, they would have fallen off their chairs laughing!”
Adding to her lack of technical expertise, Robin really was a self-taught retailer as well. In fact, she was simply a faithful shopper at A Basket Full for years and that’s how she got to know Pam Bair. She used to joke around with Pam saying, “You know, someday I’m going to work here.” She has now been with Pam for eight years.
Robin said that the women jumped right in and taught themselves how to create an e-commerce platform.
While Robin handled the technology, Maggie Markle, who has been with Pam for 28 years, handled the creative design and all the displays. Maggie also has two daughters, Kada and Macy, who have helped at the store throughout the years.
“We are essentially a big family,” Pam said.
Robin added, “Maggie is the quintessential employee. She’s high-spirited, high-energy, compassionate, customer service oriented, and gives her all every day.”
So, the team put together all the back-of-the-house details and the e-commerce platform was ready for its debut. All they needed now was a way to reach their customers to spread the word. Why not go all-in on the technology thing and create a Facebook Live event? Well, if they could figure out how to sell online, why not produce their own show?
Robin’s daughter-in-law had participated in a QVC presentation course and her son gave them advice on staging the videos for their Facebook Live events.
“The rest was trial and error,” Pam noted.
They had an incredible event for Easter of 2020. Business was so good they decided to do additional Facebook Live events every other week. They offered a 25% discount on many products. Customers would arrange a porch pick-up at the store or have items delivered. They did whatever they had to do.
In a previous career, Pam taught aerobics for 20 years and it was the relationship with clients that made the job fun. But with Facebook Live she wasn’t sure how successful she could be because she couldn’t see people’s faces and couldn’t tell how they were reacting. Well, suffice it to say they ended up selling so much merchandise on Facebook Live, it became their new way of doing business. During their Facebook Live events, each item gets assigned a number. The first person to bid gets it at that price. The event typically goes from 7 to 8:15 p.m.
Normally they would have had their annual tent sale in August to move product. It was basically a big clearance sale. But last year they couldn’t do the in-person tent sale, so they did it on Facebook Live and offered the products at a big discount. It was successful beyond their dreams. The tent sale was such a hit they continued to offer the discounts every other week until Thanksgiving.
Along the way, Pam learned that Vera Bradley had a “Harry Potter” line. Pam was not a Harry Potter fan, so she knew little about its popularity. But her daughter, Jennifer, and son-in-law did, and they came on Facebook Live to discuss all things Harry Potter. A good friend, John Kelly Poorman, even came on camera in full dress portraying Hogwarts Professor Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody. The event was a huge hit with their customers.
Their success continued and they had their most successful December in five years. In the middle of a pandemic! Customers from California, Florida, Connecticut, Georgia, New York and all over the state of Pennsylvania joined in with over 70 people at times. An out of state customer told Pam, “This is now my go to place for unique gifts for people!” However, according to Pam, it was the loyal local shoppers (my wife, Heidi, included) that really kept them going.
January is typically inventory month and they realized how low they were running on some merchandise. So, they actually had to cut back on the number of Facebook Live events to once a month and needed to upgrade their internet speed. That’s a good problem to have.
Robin heaped all kinds of praise on her boss. She said that in her 30 years of running the shop, Pam has had to reinvent herself and the business several times. But this was new territory altogether. Robin credits Pam with being very open to new ideas.
“Pam is so modest,” Robin says “She’s a great boss and she lets the staff utilize their talents. She is so fun to work for.”
I recently watched the June 3 Facebook Live event while on business in Pittsburgh. Pam was wearing a crown as she began to show products. I learned that her nickname was “The Queen” and that one day a box showed up from a customer with a tiara. At one point during the Facebook Live event, Robin and Maggie were playing around and passing Pam another fun drink mid-show. Pam jokingly blurted out, “I have lost all control!” One of the online participants wrote in the comments section, “The crown is back where it belongs!” Pam didn’t miss a beat, saying, “We have another vintage Vera Bradley bag up next.”
When they can’t remember where they put inventory, they jokingly say “the resident ghost must have moved it.” Maggie is the resident bartender and while they mostly consume different wines, Maggie would occasionally mix up some exotic drink. One thing was very clear: these ladies were having a lot of fun right along with their customers.
Robin personally likes their line of jewelry and the kitchen food products that they offer for sale, but says that the store “has something for everyone.” They have gourmet foods and interesting clothing lines including one called “Fresh Produce” that is very humorous. Some people thought they were actually selling fresh food. They pride themselves on offering unique items that aren’t sold anywhere else in town.
I have been to the shop several times over the years, and I’ve always found it to have really interesting products and gifts. I even found hockey puck shampoo. That’s right, Duke Cannon’s Shampoo Puck. Now how could this old hockey guy resist?
Pam, her husband, Rick, and their daughter, Jennifer, are enjoying their entrepreneurial lifestyle. In addition to helping her mom, Jennifer runs Fusion Boutique and Fusion Formal & Bridal in Lewisburg.
Without the pandemic, Pam admitted she may not have had the courage to stretch and pivot the business. What is the best advice that Pam could give to other small business owners? “Give the customers what they want and get it to them in whatever way suits them. Do whatever it takes.”
Pam also deflected some of the praise that came her way. “We did what we had to do to survive. I couldn’t have done this without Robin and Maggie. This was truly a joint effort.”