Making More of Less

Infusing online sales with a human touch, Jill’s Table finds new opportunity among the unknown

Photo: Jill’s Table owner, Jill Wilcox

FOR MORE THAN two decades, Jill’s Table has been a destination for foodies from the Forest City and across Southwestern Ontario. And over that time, owner Jill Wilcox has witnessed a lot of change to the retail landscape. But nothing could have prepared her for the operational realities of business during a pandemic.

“Mid-March things changed ­dramatically,” she recalls. “We had to pivot very quickly to put all of our ­product online, arrange curbside pickup and daily deliveries and find new ways to do business.”

Like many retail operators, Wilcox took quick and pointed notice of products that suddenly seemed to spike in demand. “Food products have always been an important part of our business,” she says, “and sales really popped with Covid.”

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She felt humbled by the loyalty of customers and made it a habit to deliver many of the orders herself after leaving the store at 5 p.m. each day. “It was heartwarming to see families in the window waving to me when I did a drop-off. There are some people I delivered to every week.”

For three months, Wilcox arrived at the store between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., and then spent a large part of her day connecting with customers on the phone — from answering questions about particular items to chatting about their pets. “I am grateful for my manager, Ruth-Ann Shantz, who stood shoulder to shoulder with me throughout,” she says.

For three months, Wilcox arrived at the store between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., and then spent a large part of her day connecting with customers on the phone

Most of her 11 employees were at home, but still being paid. “I did apply for some government help with wages for part of the time that the majority of my team was at home,” says Wilcox.

One employee worked on ­ramping up social media and sending out e-blasts. “We posted super-easy ­comfort food recipes and got a remarkable amount of feedback,” notes Wilcox. “As well as keeping our existing customer base engaged, we attracted new customers.”

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One positive thing to come from the pandemic was the launch of an enhanced ecommerce site at the end of May. “There is a big segment that likes ecommerce, and for those sales we are using a local independently owned delivery service,” she says.

One challenge Wilcox had to struggle with was having to place orders in June for the Christmas season, when there were still so many unknowns. Will people be hosting holiday gatherings? Will families have traditional sit-down dinners? “There are some specialty goods that we’ve carried for 20 years, but this year it’s hard to know how people are going to buy.”

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As she prepped the physical store for the reopening phase, Wilcox reflects on the new retail environment. “It’s been quite the endeavour, with visors and plexiglass, hand sanitizing stations and social distancing mapped throughout the store. We can only have five people maximum at a time, so customers won’t be staying and visiting; it will be more transactional.”

And regarding what the future holds for downtown retailers, Wilcox offers up a pinch of optimism mixed with a dash of reality. “We’re pretty ­resilient,” she says of core merchants, “but with ongoing construction and other challenges, there are so many unknowns. It’s nice to see some form of normalcy, with the Covent Garden Market and some restaurants reopening, and the buzz on outdoor farmer market days.” Making More of Less Highlights Kym Wolfe

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