General store in Brooklyn surviving the pandemic by growing business online

Ann Cantrell- Rayon Richard headshot
Ann Cantrell in her store, Annie’s Blue Ribbon General Store on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Ann Cantrell locked up her Brooklyn business, Annie’s Blue Ribbon General Store, before she was ordered to do so. She wanted to flatten the curve and keep her employees and herself safe from the dreaded COVID-19.

But despite being shut down since March 16, her business on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, a creative card and gift store, is still humming. That’s because she had already developed an online presence and a following that she has since ramped up to survive.

Cantrell already had a robust following at the store, a neighborhood staple for 13 years. Even with the shutdown, the orders keep coming in online. 

The current pandemic has created a difficult market in New York, but Cantrell is positive about the future. She is also sharing her insights and business acumen with her fellow businesses, because she knows that having empty storefronts around her establishment will not help street traffic and others who fail represents a failure to all.

“As a small business advocate, I want all businesses to do well, when I do well, we all do well,” said Cantrell, a resident of Park Slope and a professor of Fashion Business Management at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “I’ve also been speaking to my retail friends around the country – we swap ideas including what we wins have today. When we ran out of supplies, we compared who is shipping or not. We’ve been very helpful to one another. Today was bad day so we try to help each other – women support each other, also moms, community partners. We are just trying to make it work together.”

Cantrell sells puzzles, many with 1,000 or more pieces – a favorite pastime in many homes where people are sheltered in place. She creates assorted baskets, especially for Mother’s Day, taking orders online for many of these curated creations.

The baskets vary; they could include fancy cups with edibles, crafted cards, various cups with popular phrases, fancy adorned containers.

She takes pride in calling herself a “Sustainability Steward,” selling a full line of reusable items including decorative lotion bottles, portable lunch bowls, shopping totes, aromatic candles, and storage containers of all types to name but a few.

The popular store is closed due to COVID-19.

Cantrell has also turned to social media, making heavy use of Instagram Live, doing a shopping show that have drawn a large audience. She says the stores that don’t have websites are now struggling trying to sell off Instagram.

She’s optimistic that business will keep growing despite the odds by selling graduation gifts and Father’s Day creative merchandise.

In addition to a fairly brisk online business, she was able to get a Payroll Protection Program Loan (PPP)  to keep her three full-time employees paid. Even so, Cantrell said she could not maintain the part-timers.

There’s no help coming in terms of keeping the store in place. While Cantrell says she has a nice landlord, she’s not giving her a break on rent.

Cantrell hopes that she’ll be able to ensure the brick-and-mortar store’s vitality if they can reopen by June 1.

Annie’s Blue Ribbon General Store is still closed, but business is still going on.

“Last night we got an order for three 3 addresses –  one to the mother which was local, one for the wife and one was picked up, all for Mother’s Day,” she added. “We then received the nicest email, they loved the presents, overcome with joy of the wrapping, the note – all done, so well done. The note said they were so excited to receive these gifts – they live in the neighborhood and I do too.”

Cantrell said she’s invested in the neighborhood, living only half a block from her store with her third grade daughter and her husband, currently a comedian. She’s determined to be a success and bring as many businesses with her. As a small business advocate, she will do what she can to help her neighbors.

“I  want all businesses to do well, and when I do well, we all do well,” Cantrell said. “I’ve been speaking to retail friends around country – we swap ideas and talk about what wins have today. When we run out of supplies we compare who’s shipping and who is not. We’ve been very helpful to one another so when today is a bad day we try to help each other – women, moms, community partners, just trying to make it work together, supporting each other.”

Learn more by visiting blueribbongeneralstore.com.



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