It was May 2020 when Hyun Kwon, owner of O’Child Children’s Boutique, ran an idea by her husband and friends.
What if O’Child made or bought masks and sold them to the store’s customers?
“Every single one said no to me, like, ‘It would be a bad idea, nobody would buy the masks,’” Kwon said.
Kwon said while it may feel hard to remember now, there was a time early on in the COVID-19 pandemic when no one wanted to wear masks and didn’t think they were necessary. But Kwon went ahead and began making and selling masks anyway — and it’s what helped save her small business during tumultuous times. The boutique at 101 W. Kirkwood Ave. Suite 108, in downtown Bloomington’s Fountain Square Mall, sells baby and children’s clothes, shoes and gifts. But in 2020, masks were one of O’Child’s best-selling items, Kwon said.
According to data collected Oct. 11-17 through the Census Bureau’s Small Business Pulse Survey, when asked how their business has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, 16.6% of Hoosier small businesses reported seeing a large negative impact. When Indiana small businesses were asked the same question in late April to early May of 2020, 47% reported seeing a large negative impact.
Kwon said she first thought of the safety that masks provide, but she also knew she had to find a way to make a profit so her business could survive the pandemic.
“I’m from South Korea and they already wear the mask all the time, so that kind of gave me some idea, like maybe this will work,” Kwon said.
Kwon’s husband, Seong Park, is also from South Korea. Kwon said her family moved to Bloomington in 2008 because Park got into Indiana University.
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Before becoming the store’s third owner, Kwon was a frequent customer of O’Child. When she heard the second owner was going to close it, she said she thought “maybe this is my opportunity to keep doing it since I love this little unique boutique.” She took it over in 2017.
Kwon said taking over the store also seemed to tie into other parts of her life. Not only was she a longtime customer, she also saw how her journalism degree could help her with marketing, and for a time, Kwon had lived in China due to her father’s job, which was related to clothing manufacturing.
Opening a second location in Carmel
At the start of the pandemic, Kwon was faced with more than just the reality of closing the Bloomington store to customers. In January 2020, Kwon signed a contract to open a new O’Child location in Carmel. The soft opening of the store was planned for March 2020.
“It couldn’t have been worse timing,” Kwon said.
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The Bloomington location reopened about mid-May of 2020 and the Carmel location reopened around June 2020, Kwon said.
While the stores were closed, Kwon turned her attention to virtual shoppers. Though the store was closed to customers, Kwon was at the Bloomington store taking pictures of items to post on social media for people to buy.
That’s when the idea to sell masks came to Kwon. In the beginning, Kwon had help from one of her customers who is a seamstress. But that customer got so busy with her own mask orders that Kwon took over mask production for her store. Kwon, who has a daughter in eighth grade and a son in fourth grade, found renewed purpose for the three sewing machines she already had at home, relics from when she used to sew dresses for her young daughter.
She began making masks for both children and adults to be sold in store, but people could also preorder masks to pick up and could choose to buy them with a lanyard. At the time she started sewing masks, it was kind of hard to find them, she said, which is one of the reasons she was able to sell a lot then.
“I sold more kids masks because sometimes they’re hard to find the perfect size for the kids masks, sometimes it’s too big for them,” Kwon said. “Just kind of personalized the sizes, I think that was the difference.”
Kwon said children were able to pick out the print they liked.
“I think that was the reason for the bestseller, all the different kinds of fabric they can pick themselves that make (them) kind of excited to wear the mask at least,” Kwon said.
Kwon said she’s grateful when customers tell her how much their children like the masks they’ve gotten from O’Child.
“That totally makes my day,” she said.
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She also ran different specials, including a holiday promotion where for each mask customers purchased she donated a mask to a group in the community such as Susie’s Place Child Advocacy Center. She offered discounts on masks for teachers and sold masks to parent teacher organizations at local elementary schools, University and Summit. The PTOs were able to pick prints or a symbol they’d like on the masks and Kwon said she sold between 80 and 90 masks to each PTO.
When it comes to Kwon’s own children, Kwon was already stocked up. Since masks were so common in South Korea, even before the pandemic, Kwon said her mother-in-law sent her family a bunch of children’s masks. Kwon joked about how no one wore them in the United States, but then they ended up being really helpful during the pandemic, she said.
“To be honest, I was really surprised,” Kwon said of the success of selling masks. “I’m kind of grateful I decided to make the masks because I feel like it’s kind of spread the word to them it’s necessary to wear it.”
Kwon said she’s still making masks, but not as many as last year. She sold at least a couple thousand in 2020, she said.
“You never know, even though everybody said no, sometimes you have to just try,” she said. “I think that’s one of my life lessons now.”
Contact Emily Cox at 812-331-4243, [email protected] or follow @HT_InSchool on Twitter.