In March 2020, as the county shelter in place order came down, we closed our doors to the public and shifted completely online in order to protect our staff and the community. At that time, we didn’t think that curbside pickup or at-the-door orders were a good idea from a public health standpoint. We made this choice even though we were considered an essential business and would have been allowed to remain open.
Our website always offered only our most popular sizes (mostly half-cup jars and bags). At the time, we chose not to add all the other size options available in the shop to the website because this would be very time-consuming.
We offered free shipping on spices in bags and lowered our free shipping threshold to boost online sales. Thankfully, many customers did place online orders for shipping. We slowly began to transform our retail shops into online fulfillment centers. Our cute displays were replaced with piles of bubble wrap and packing materials.
Come April 2020, we found we’d made it a whole month thanks to steady online orders. We also realized that we were in for a longer haul with this pandemic than anyone expected.
We faced financial challenges. Shipping costs are exorbitant for small businesses. We also were not at all efficient at picking, packing and shipping mail orders. Doing things this way for a year was not going to be financially sustainable or effective in getting orders out in a timely manner.
Operationally, things were also very hectic. We didn’t track inventory of our packaged spices. That probably sounds unwise, but it actually worked fine for years because most of our sales were in-store, where people could see what we did and didn’t have. If we didn’t have it packaged, we could usually package it to order on the spot. Online orders were manageable because there were just 10 to 20 a day.
This loose approach to inventory really fell apart when our sales shifted online. We were constantly running out of things -- too many things. With 600-plus items for sale on our website, almost every order included at least 1 or 2 items that needed to be made to order. We couldn’t keep up. Our shipping timeline got longer and longer as we struggled.
We started thinking about offering curbside pickup for our local customers. This would save us money on shipping and provide a quicker turnaround. We began to explore apps that would help us create an online pickup order system. We decided we needed to set actual inventory levels on the website so that we could plan for demand and meet it. We launched our online ordering system and started tracking inventory in May 2020.
Soon, we had to start considering the holidays. We usually hire extra staff beginning in August to help us package all the gift boxes and spices that we sell in November and December. We knew this was going to be a major challenge in 2020. We burst at the seams during a normal holiday season. And with social distancing still a necessity, there was simply not enough room for all the staff we would need to meet demand. We began to search for a facility where we could do our spice blending, grinding and packaging centrally.
For the 2020 holiday season, we did the best we could with our existing space and resources. We had shifts running to midnight. As many of our customers know, we sold out of a lot of products, and our shipping timeline grew to 14 days. Thankfully, our customers have been patient, loyal and kind, and we got through the season, but it was a doozy.
Last month, we moved into a facility where we have the space to blend and grind our spices centrally, package them and store them for distribution to our shops and our online customers. This has allowed us to begin transforming our shops from quasi-warehouses back into beautiful retail destinations. It will allow us to meet demand without straining our space constraints.
It also means that we currently only have packaged spices in our retail shops. The bulk spices are all centrally located in our production facility.
Our current focus has been reopening our shops to the public now that all our staff members have had the opportunity to be vaccinated and the Bay Area’s infection rate is improving. We are not quite ready for the complex task of reintroducing bulk spices to our retail locations.
Among the challenges: figuring out a new system to track inventory of bulk spices in the retail shops, ensuring that we move through all the inventory quickly enough to maintain our freshness standards, and setting up new bulk refill protocols that prioritize health and safety in the new COVID normal.
We are all too aware that implementing new systems such as these involves long hours, lots of communication, trial by fire and inevitable mistakes and unanticipated challenges. Never have we implemented so many new systems in the span of one year. We’re not quite ready to embark on yet another one.
For all these reasons, the spice shop you enter will not look exactly the same. We may offer refills and made-to-order custom sizes again in the future, but we don’t currently have details on when or what it would look like.
In the meantime, you can order custom sizes of 2 cups or more via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll have them ready for pickup in your shop of choice in about a week.
We also look forward to a day when we can offer you a smell or taste of the spices in our shop, but at this time our team is in agreement that the fewer reasons to take off your mask, the better.
What has not changed is our commitment to fun, the best customer service, passion and knowledge about spices and food, and community. We are beyond excited to welcome you back in. We can’t wait to see you!
We are excited to announce that we will be opening our third Oaktown Spice Shop location in the soon-to-be-built Castro Valley Marketplace! Scheduled for opening in Fall 2019, Castro Valley Marketplace will be an artisanal food hall and community gathering space in downtown Castro Valley.