Best friends and business partners Halie Geller and Theresa Pinelli, co-owners of Northport-based subscription box company locaLI bred (pronounced "locally bred''), were enjoying an uptick in sales when the coronavirus pandemic brought business to an abrupt halt.
In an effort to cut costs, newly unemployed customers of the nearly 2-year-old business, which focuses on locally made products, were quick to contact Geller, 38, of Huntington, and Pinelli, 39, of Centerport, canceling their subscriptions in droves.
That's when the two — transplants whose company was born out of their shared love of Long Island — put their heads together, thinking outside the box to come up with new ways to retain customers and attract new ones.
The first order of business? Switching up the offerings inside locaLI bred boxes to include fewer home goods such as candles and mugs and more food products, like cookies and popcorn, "things that could bring people a sense of comfort during these difficult times."
Next, they created smaller, more affordable, one-time gift boxes and began listing items on the company's website so shoppers could purchase individual products.
Newsday spoke with Geller about the moves. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you handle the drop in subscriptions that came with the start of the pandemic?
Those first couple weeks in March, no one was ordering boxes. People were panicking. ... Customers were emailing us to cancel their subscriptions and telling us their personal stories about why they couldn't afford their boxes anymore. I remember a loyal customer, who emailed us to tell us how much she loved her subscription, but said the Spring Box would be her last because she'd been furloughed and had no idea when she'd be back to work. So, honestly, we were expecting the worst. But, in fact, the opposite happened.
When did things start changing for the better?
Weeks later. People were stuck in their homes, apart from their families, friends and co-workers, and searching for ways to show they cared and support local businesses at the same time. Orders started rolling in, and we noticed what people were buying the most of were gift boxes, which contained food, to send as care packages. That's when we said, "That's it! ... We need to add more food boxes!" We immediately added more food boxes, smaller-sized snack boxes in particular, that were lower-priced and that people could send as care packages. They're now among our most popular boxes, and April and May became two of our busiest months — as busy, if not busier, than our last holiday season.
How much has your business grown, and what kind of challenges has COVID posed?
After the initial drop-off, we nearly tripled our subscriber base. And that furloughed customer who emailed us, well, we received a follow-up message saying her locaLI bred box made her and her husband so happy during a terrible time that she just couldn't part with her subscription. When we returned back to our office after months of running the business from home, we realized we'd outgrown our 250-square-foot space. We recently moved into an office almost three times larger to continue growing our business there. But looking back, I'd say our biggest challenge was probably logistics. When nonessential businesses were ordered to shut down, we ran to our office and emptied out the contents — inventory and all — and turned rooms in our respective houses into makeshift offices. We were running our business separately from our homes and struggling to keep up with orders while simultaneously managing our preschool-aged children who were suddenly home full-time.
What strategies have helped you adapt?
Leveraging social media, to ask our customers and fans in real-time what they would like to see in the box or what LI maker they love has improved and expedited the curation and sourcing process for our gift and seasonal subscription boxes.