For nearly 30 years, Secret Treasures Antiques, which offers vintage items “at jaw-dropping prices” — ranging from 5 cents to $100 — has thrived in Evanston’s Main-Dempster Mile shopping district. The business has also evolved, but never as quickly or as much as in the past two years.
Owner Dawn Okamoto said COVID-19 has forced the store, at 605 Dempster St., to do things she never thought of doing, and more than just helping her survive, it has took the company in a new direction.
“The pandemic has made us see our business so differently. The way we do business now was never part of my game plan,” Okamoto said. “Almost three years ago, I would have written a completely different business plan.”
Sales have fallen to 40% of pre-COVID levels
It’s been nearly three decades since Okamoto took the leap into entrepreneurship and decided to quit her job as a corporate media saleswoman to do something more in line with her values and background. favorite time: saving.
“On weekends, my hobby was my therapy, my release when I was living in the corporate world,” she said. “I’ve been doing this since I was little and I go to auctions with my mother. At some point, I wondered if I was going to be in business for the rest of my life and have a good salary, but be miserable.
Secret Treasures was a hit, and Okamoto attributes that, in large part, to embracing something she loved. But COVID-19 has posed a huge challenge.
Okamoto and her team, which she had to drastically downsize, maintained the in-person shopping experience through COVID-safe shopping formats, like encouraging customers to window shop and pick up in street edge. But when sales plummeted to 40% of pre-pandemic levels, they quickly determined they needed a stronger online presence.
During the first months of the pandemic, the store updated its website, including adding an e-commerce section. A friend of the store, Evanstonian Julie Cowan, stepped in to help.
“Julie told us that our system had been out of date for eight years, that we had to create an entirely new website,” Okamoto said.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 worked at Secret Treasures for eight years and is now operations manager, has been a key partner in helping the store survive COVID-19. Since the start of the pandemic, Flora has been scrambling to build the store’s online catalog of items and showcase them on her Instagram and Facebook social media accounts.
As restrictions eased, the store saw an increasing number of in-person customers. Its income has increased to 90% of what it was before the pandemic and the staff has returned to nine members.
Okamoto said 35% to 40% of revenue now comes from e-commerce, which continues to grow. Secret Treasures serves customers from all over the country, with new regular customers in places like California and Oklahoma.
“We have a customer in California who continues to order and get it, and get it and get it,” Okamoto said. “For some online customers, I think it’s like Christmas every day, it’s exciting for them. They even send pictures of what the items look like in their house. Part of what we do is find fun things, things that will make someone happy.
The store’s active online presence has also earned it fans overseas, in places as far afield as Japan and the UK. However, Okamoto said managing the shipping volume — around 60 packages per month, domestically — and related logistics has been a challenge, so the store no longer ships internationally, which, according to her, would be even more difficult.
Selling online at ‘Instagram Animals’
Okamoto said the store’s online component grew organically, with no business plan in place. “We did it out of desperation, there was no need to look at numbers and do research,” she said. “He just took on a life of his own.”
An example of this organic growth is how 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 mostly post there,” Okamoto said. “Some customers have become Instagram animals because Instagram is so instant. You post it and it sells. They had it in eight seconds.
Okamoto said she and her staff got to know many customers online through Instagram direct messages. Customers DM to claim an item, then call for payment over the phone. Local customers usually come for pickup and the store ships to long distance customers.
“We were already posting on Facebook and Instagram, but it was stupid stuff — like, ‘Look what happened today,'” Okamoto said. “But without them, if COVID had happened 15 years ago, we would have had to put up signs and use postal mail.”
Due to everything involved with managing line work and large shipments, the store has shortened its opening hours. And since the online workload is likely to remain, those shortened hours are likely to last. “In fact, we are working harder than ever. We don’t just sit and watch TV and eat Oreos,” Okamoto said, with a sweet laugh.
Okamoto said operating in Evanston has been critical to Secret Treasures’ success because the town supports small businesses, Evanston residents shop locally and the store has very loyal customers.
She also credits part of the store’s ability to weather COVID-19 to Katherine Gotsick of the Main-Dempster Mile, the organization supporting the shopping district. She said Gotsick quickly shifted her responsibilities to help businesses apply for the Paycheck Protection Program, and that federal assistance helped the store survive the pandemic.
Northwestern University’s Lending for Evanston and Northwestern Development (LEND) program, which was created to support local businesses during COVID and is run by Northwestern students, also provided a $5,000 grant. But Okamoto said she kept the grant check, didn’t need it, and returned it, so the money would be available for other businesses.
In addition to providing a one-stop-shop, Secret Treasures contributes to the community by supporting two local non-profit organizations, 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 quickly connecting them with a therapist.