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For almost 30 years Secret Treasures Antiques, which touts vintage items “at wow prices” – ranging from 5 cents to $100 – has thrived in Evanston’s Main-Dempster Mile commercial district. The business has also evolved, but never as rapidly or as much as it did over the last two years.
Owner Dawn Okamoto said COVID-19 forced the store, at 605 Dempster St., to do things she had never thought to do, and more than simply helping it survive, have taken the business in a new direction.
“The pandemic has made us look at our business so differently. The way we do business now was never in my game plan,” Okamoto said. “Almost three years ago, I would have written a whole different business plan.”
Sales fell to 40% of pre-COVID levels
It’s been nearly three decades since Okamoto took an entrepreneurial leap and decided to leave her media sales job in the corporate world to do something that was more in line with her values and her favorite pastime – thrifting.
“On the weekends my hobby was my therapy, my release when I lived in the corporate world,” she said. “I’ve been doing this since I was little and going to barn auctions with my mom. At a certain point I asked myself if I was going to do corporate for the rest of my life, and have a good paycheck, but be miserable.”
Secret Treasures has been a success, and Okamoto attributes this, in large part, to having embraced something she loved. But COVID-19 posed a huge challenge.
Okamoto and her team, which she had to drastically reduce in size, kept the in-person shopping experience in place through COVID-safe shopping formats like encouraging customers to window shop and come by for curbside pickup. But when sales dropped to 40% of pre-pandemic levels, they quickly determined that they would need a more robust online presence.
In the first few months of the pandemic the store brought its website up to date, including adding an e-commerce section. A friend of the store, Evanstonian Julie Cowan, jumped in to help.
“Julie told us that our system had been obsolete for eight years, that we’d have to build an entirely new website,” Okamoto said. “Within three days she had the new site up and running, including an online store component.”
Okamoto said Henry Flora, who has been with Secret Treasures for the past eight years and is now operations manager, has been a key partner in helping the store survive COVID-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Flora has worked to build the store’s online catalog of items and to showcase them on its Instagram and Facebook social media accounts.
As restrictions have eased, the store has seen consistently growing numbers of in-person customers. Its revenues have risen to 90% of what they were prior to the pandemic and the staff has grown back to nine members.
Okamoto said 35% to 40% of revenues now come from the online business, which continues to grow. Secret Treasures serves customers from across the country, with new regular customers in places like California and Oklahoma.
“We have one customer in California that keeps ordering and getting it, and getting it and getting it,” Okamoto said. “For some of the online customers, I think it’s like every day is Christmas, it’s exciting for them. They even send photos of what the items look like in their house. Part of what we do is finding things that are fun, things that will make someone happy.”
The store’s active online presence has also won it fans abroad, in places as far flung as Japan and the United Kingdom. However, Okamoto said handling the shipping volume – around 60 packages a month, domestically – and related logistics has been a challenge, so the store no longer ships internationally, which she believes would be even more difficult.
Online sales to ‘Instagram animals’
Okamoto said that the store’s online component has grown organically, without a business plan in place. “We did it out of total desperation, there was no looking at numbers and researching,” she said. “It just took on a life of its own.”
One example of that organic growth is the way that Instagram, not the e-commerce component of the website, has become the primary platform for the store’s online sales.
“With Instagram, people respond immediately, so we’re mostly posting there,” Okamoto said. “Some customers have become Instagram animals, because Instagram is so instantaneous. You post it and it sells. They got it in eight seconds.”
Okamoto said she and her staff have gotten to know a lot of the online customers through Instagram direct messages. Customers DM to claim an item and then call for payment over the phone. Local customers generally come in for pickup and the store ships to long-distance customers.
“We already were posting to Facebook and Instagram, but it was stupid stuff – like, ‘Look what came in today,’” Okamoto said. “But without them, if COVID had happened 15 years ago, we would have had to put up signs and use snail mail.”
Because of all that is involved in managing the online work and the extensive shipping, the store shortened its opening hours. And since the online workload is likely here to stay, those shortened hours are likely to stick. “We are actually working more than we ever have. We’re not just sitting back, binge-watching TV and eating Oreos,” said Okamoto, with a gentle laugh.
Okamoto said operating in Evanston has been critical to the success of Secret Treasures because the city is supportive of small businesses, Evanstonians shop locally and the store has very loyal customers.
She also credits some of the store’s ability to weather COVID-19 to Katherine Gotsick of the Main-Dempster Mile, the organization that supports the commercial district. She said Gotsick quickly shifted responsibilities to help businesses apply for the Paycheck Protection Program, and the federal aid helped the store survive the pandemic.
The Northwestern University program LEND (Lending for Evanston and Northwestern Development), which was created to to support local businesses during COVID and is run by Northwestern students, also provided a $5,000 grant. But Okamoto said she held on to the grant check, didn’t end up needing it and gave it back, so that the money would be available to other businesses.
Apart from providing a unique thrifting outlet, Secret Treasures contributes to the community by supporting two local nonprofits, Soup at Six, the dinnertime soup kitchen that operates out of Hemenway United Methodist Church; and the Skylight Foundation, which helps those seeking counseling by rapidly connecting them with a therapist.