ANN ARBOR – For many small businesses, the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic was a recipe for disaster.
For a specialty shop like Real Irish in downtown Ann Arbor, which is dependent upon summer Celtic festivals and its tours abroad for a large portion of its income, shifting operations online was the only way to stay afloat over the past year.
The store offers a wide variety of authentic Irish hats, scarves, blankets, gloves, jewelry and more.
Owner Stuart Marley opened the shop in November 2018, and was already looking to ramp up online sales in early 2020, just as coronavirus cases were increasing around the world.
He had been following developments and was in contact with his cousin who lives in Italy, a hard-hit country at the onset of the pandemic.
“I started to think: My God. If it does come here, what’s going to happen to the business?” said Marley.
Just across the street, Literati Bookstore became the first business in town to close its doors over coronavirus concerns on March 13.
“I felt, ‘Well I can’t in good conscience stay open,’” said Marley. “So we closed. At that point, when I started to look at my numbers from 2019 and I looked at my income from festivals, touring, shopping and online income -- at that very moment -- 75% of my income was not coming in as of March.”
While the shop was closed, Marley dove into the online space, launching new marketing efforts to make his website more visible. After three months, Real Irish opened its doors again in June to customers.
“Because of everything that happened, we were able to really grow our online business,” said Marley. “We got a lot of great support locally because we offered curbside. A lot of people who would normally come into the shop, they could come pick it up or have it delivered.”
What may come as a surprise to some, the best time of year for the business is not St. Patrick’s Day. The last two months of the year were a major success for Real Irish, with customers seeking out authentic Irish gifts for family members and friends for the holidays.
While the jury is still out on whether or not Irish and Celtic festivals will return this summer, Marley said he is waiting until May 2022 to lead tours to Ireland again.
“We don’t want to be the first,” he said. “We want to travel responsibly.”
Although foot traffic significantly decreased across the board in Ann Arbor in 2020 due to coronavirus concerns and a lack of tourism in the college town, Marley said he was surprised by the amount of customers who visited the shop.
If Marley had to name one silver lining to the experience, he said it would be the ability to be home for such a long period of time.
“This was the first summer I spent in Ann Arbor in 20 years,” he said. “On a personal level, in a lot of ways I really enjoyed it. I was not as stressed out with traveling. I enjoyed more time at home, outside.”
He said he’s also enjoyed long conversations with new and existing customers after opening his doors again last summer.
The shop is now holding a sale with 17% off sitewide and in-store in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. See Marley’s curated gift guide and read his recent article on how to mark the holiday at home this year.
For more information, visit www.realirish.com.