Before she became an entrepreneur 12 years ago, Stephanie McGregor thought she might become a nurse. She liked thinking on her feet, being under a bit of pressure, and responding to situations as they unfolded.
Being an avid dog lover, however, (she affectionately refers to her dachshunds as her kids) and after years of visiting speciality pet stores in other cities, Stephanie suddenly knew what she really wanted to do. And that meant opening up a specialty pet store with knowledgeable and friendly staff in her hometown of Cranbrook, British Columbia.
“I thought it was something that was missing in Cranbrook,” Stephanie says. “With absolutely no experience in business or retail I kind of jumped in, and it worked it out somewhere. So I learned a lot the hard way. Impulsively.”
Stephanie opened up The Paw Shop in 2008. Since then, the healthy pet food and supply store has focused on getting to know both their customers and animals closely. The staff are passionate about helping pet owners transition their pets to a whole food diet, and by staying up to date with current trends and information, they build trust with their clients. This way of doing business has worked well, despite challenges the Covid-19 pandemic has presented this past year.
“When COVID hit, obviously it was tough,” Stephanie recalls. “We decided to shut our physical store down. At that time we were doing phone orders, orders over Facebook. We did a lot of video calls with people. It was tough on myself, and the staff were exhausted.”
In addition to taking endless phone orders, making home deliveries, and providing detailed care advice for new ‘pandemic-puppy’ owners, Stephanie broke out of her comfort zone to offer daily Facebook live videos as well.
“I tried to do a video tour of our store each day. Just to connect with people and have a positive outlook on things,” she says. “It was my biggest fear. I hate those things. But I think it was hugely beneficial to do that and connect with people that way.”
Updating their website to make it an online store was another hurdle Stephanie overcame in 2020.
“It was much more work than I ever imagined it would be. So many things went wrong, and we are adding new products almost daily,” she says. While managing the online store is a challenge for Stephanie, she is aware that in the case of another lock down event, it will be necessary to help keep sales up.
Cranbrook is the largest urban centre in the East Kootenay region. Its surrounding communities are primarily industry based, and it is considered one of the most important mining districts in Canada. Views of the impressive Rocky Mountains are visible from several favourite local cafes and watering holes. Views that Stephanie doesn’t take for granted.
“The outdoor recreation is so accessible,” Stephanie says. “I love mountain biking, trail running and hiking, and in the winter I fat bike. I just love it all.”
Cranbrook businesses find ways to be resilient
Emma Inman, the Cranbrook Chamber of Commerce’s marketing coordinator, shares Stephanie’s appreciation for Cranbrook’s outdoor splendor.
“I love the mountains and the integration that nature has with our everyday life here,” she says.
Emma’s connection to the Kootenay region is both professional and familial. Her father worked for Teck Resources Ltd. His parents worked for a sawmill in another East Kootenay town, Canal Flats. And both Emma’s mother and maternal grandfather grew up two mountain ranges to the west in Nelson.
Emma herself was born and raised in Elkford, a small mining town of 3,000 tucked up in the Rocky Mountains that is a two hour drive northeast from Cranbrook. Its town slogan is Wild at Heart, and as the community sits next to a world class fly fishing river, supports a volunteer operated, family-friendly ski hill, called Wapiti, and at 1,300 m elevation is the highest community in the province, it fits.
For Emma, living in Cranbrook feels similar to her childhood home, and she has seen first hand how incredibly supportive the business community is.
This year, the Chamber of Commerce’s turkey drive raised more money than any previous year. When they were tailoring a ‘stay-cation’ prize package and reached out to the tourism sector, local businesses were willing to double the value of what the Chamber had funding for, despite being one of the hardest hit industries during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This pandemic has really proven how resilient Cranbrook businesses and even the community as a whole really are,” Emma says. “It has allowed a lot of businesses to push themselves to the limit. Businesses are a lot stronger. Some have relocated, upsized their business through it.”
Emma graduated with a Business Management in Marketing diploma from the College of the Rockies in 2018. A year later she landed a job with the Chamber as their marketing coordinator, a role that in light of a pandemic, has become increasingly crucial to local businesses trying to reach customers in unconventional and increasingly virtual ways.
“I felt like I was still getting used to my position and the responsibilities of it,” Emma recalls. “Before the pandemic we really focused on networking opportunities, and obviously we just couldn’t do that. People were looking for educational opportunities and how to pivot their business. The way we do business will be changed for a long time. We have found new ways of reaching and connecting with people.”
And business owners like Stephanie McGregor, who has seen her business revenue go up and not down in 2020, have now embraced connecting online with the public wholeheartedly.
“Stay connected in any way that you can with your customers,” she advises. “We’ve really utilized social media a lot and I think for us that has been a huge help. Put yourself out there because your customers want to connect. Ours did.”
Over the past year, it is easy to focus on the news stories that confirm our worst fears. There are tales of reckless civilians threatening service workers, family-run businesses shutting their doors indefinitely, and loved ones dying alone in hospitals or long term care homes.
Yet while humanity may seem hidden behind layers of tightly woven cotton or plexiglass, young women like Emma and Stephanie remind us that by remaining open to creative solutions and staying connected with our community, we can get through all kinds of challenges.
“These strange, challenging times have really strengthened the community,” Emma Inman says. “In general there is a lot to be learned from other communities, environments and people on a personal level. People have taken the opportunity to reflect on the way things were and how much we still have and are willing to give back to the community. It’s been really inspiring to see.”