Get it together
During the recession, joining forces might help you come out on top.
“Right now, I’m watching a FOR RENT sign go up in my window,” says a dazed Ani Afshar, sitting inside her eponymous Lincoln Park jewelry boutique. “There’s no one in the street—several stores are closing, even the 7-Eleven,” she notes about the dwindling pedestrian traffic in the Armitage and Halsted shopping area.
It’s bittersweet—after a lifetime making intricately beaded jewelry and eight years selling the sophisticated baubles at her Sheffield Avenue location, she’s closing up shop at the end of February due to a slump in shoppers. But Afshar plans on weathering the storm. A religious following of customers collect her moderately priced line: seed-bead flower lariats, smoky glass beaded earrings and necklaces covered in an organized chaos of fresh-water pearls. Because of these collectors, she’s able to keep her business alive and will reopen in her Logan Square home-studio in the spring.
The studio will keep occasional regular hours, but the dramatic change comes in her new offerings: events that include showings of her beaded jewelry alongside other artists’ work. “I called up [Chicago artist] Bob Lucy and said ‘Hey, you’ve got a truck. Bring your paintings to my studio and we’ll have a mini-showing,’?” Afshar says.
Like many small-business owners, Afshar sees collaboration as the wave of the future—at least while the economy slumps and window shoppers prove scarce. Showing jewelry alongside Lucy’s paintings is a way to grab the attention of an interested clientele rather than casual impulse buyers. “Not everyone can afford my jewelry; it’s a certain kind of collector who wants to buy them,” emphasizes Afshar.
On the flip side, in some cases collaboration hooks up purveyors with a whole new product, ergo a different type of customer. Also witnessing a decline in traffic, ecofriendly Pivot Boutique owner Jessa Brinkmeyer looks to rope in green-minded consumers with lower budgets. To do that, Brinkmeyer is creating a vintage-clothing section in her store with help from an expert thrifter, local fashion blog TheMidWasteland.com’s Monica Dimperio. “Vintage is one of the best ways to have an eco-conscious closet, which is what we’re all about here at Pivot,” says Brinkmeyer. At the same time, Brinkmeyer notes that Dimperio’s anarchic street-style blog might bring a fresh audience to Pivot’s organized racks of muted-colored organic cotton and cashmere. “Frankly, Monica’s audience is younger than mine,” Brinkmeyer says. “I’m excited about exposing Pivot to that young audience and showing my regular clients what the MidWasteland is all about.”
Sometimes collaboration is, more than anything, what the customer wants. Brasserie Jo chef Jean Joho holds inexpensive, informative classes on vodka and beer, taught by alcohol companies, to provide the patron with much-desired education. “Our customer wants to know more about beer and wine,” Joho says. “The economy’s bad, and I think of the classes as a way to improve my restaurant. I like to have people in who want to know more about food and drink.” As for inviting companies like Two Brothers Brewing to lead the classes, Joho thinks their product, already sold at Brasserie Jo, might push the brewery’s like-minded buyers his way. “We get their loyal clientele in and mine—it’s a nice mix of people,” Joho says.
Nonprofits are also jumping on the collaboration bandwagon. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago has been actually taking advantage of the bad economy to beef up enrollment. “In the past, we’ve had trouble engaging families,” says Joanna Naftali, Hubbard Street’s marketing and communications director. “We thought this would be a good year to do that—families are looking to do things that are culture-minded but don’t require expensive tickets.”
Realizing that saving families money would require the West Loop studio to hold classes in accessible venues with cheap parking, Hubbard Street partnered with venues all over town, including Lakeview’s Center on Halsted and Glencoe’s Chicago Botanic Garden.
Location aside, working together with these venues offers perks, such as shared e-mail lists and joint shouldering of programming costs. By holding a family class at the Art Institute, Hubbard was able to slash class costs from $9–$18 down to $5.
“When the economy is bad, it forces us to think creatively.” Naftali says. “I think that collaboration is one of the most important things that cultural organizations can do moving forward. There’s strength in numbers, and we can all succeed or we can kill each other. For us, enrollment is better than ever.”
For more on businesses beating the recession, read "Get your share."