Retail Podcast 801 Deanna Wallin: Retail Has No Time For Disaster
Bob Phibbs interviewed Deanna Wallin, Founder and CEO of Naples Soap Company, about survival and perseverance after a natural disaster - and more - on this episode of Tell Me Something Good About Retail.
Tell me something good about retail
Deanna Wallin Retail Has No Time For Disaster
Bob: What can a former nurse turned skincare pioneer teach any retailer about how to persevere and thrive? Well, you’re going to hear it today with Deanna Wallin, who is our guest. Deanna, welcome to “Tell Me Something Good About Retail.”
Deanna: Thanks for having me on, Bob. Well, retail is alive and well, especially after Covid. I scoff at the naysayers that said retail was dead because, you know what, we are tactile creatures, we like to touch, see, smell, and we like to feel an actual object. So, retail is alive and well. I don’t even want to talk about what’s going on with Amazon’s stock right now, but that’s a whole other podcast. So, there is a good word in retail. I think people have gotten back out into the habit of shopping. I think they are into the social interaction piece of it. I think the existing retailers have changed course as far as how they approach customers. They’ve had no choice except to engage, especially through programs like SalesRX.
Bob: SalesRX is my online retail sales training program that Deanna’s used for years and years. And that is not the reason she is on this podcast today. I only gave her $5 to mention that in the earliest sequence of it.
Deanna: That’s right. It was all in quarters, $5 worth.
Bob: It’s all in quarters. Yes, that’s right. That’s right. A lot of people don’t know your story, and I have known Deanna for...it seems like 20 years, but it’s probably like 15 or something. And your story today, which we’re going to talk about, which is, how does an entrepreneur not only come back from a devastating hurricane, but how do they think ahead as it was approaching? How do you get back out of it? And the great news, which is you have nine stores that are open now, you’re going to have one of yours that had been destroyed opening soon, and you’re under contract for four. So, the hope is in the story, but everyone wants to listen for the gory details. Well, just hang in there. We’ll get there. She has fun stories. I don’t know if she has them all in our time together. But let’s take the beginning because you started off with...what is it, 2008 or something?
Bob: And you’re a nurse. Tell your story because I will flub it and that’s not good.
Deanna: Okay. So, I was a nurse. I had gotten divorced, and I was looking for something to do. I was working in medical sales, and it’s a very, very cutthroat environment there. And I hate to say I was approaching 40, but in that type of an environment, you as a female are a dinosaur if you are a pharma rep or a sales rep, but I’ve always had a sales mentality and I love doing sales. Regardless, I’ve done real estate. My first job was at JCPenney’s in the men’s department when I was 15 years old, at the mall. I’ve worked at Chess King if you remember that store.
Bob: Chess King. Oh, my gosh. Those beautiful polyester sweaters. So good.
Deanna: Brilliant. Yes, brilliant. So, I just have always had a passion for retail. After I got divorced, a friend of mine had a store in a kind of touristy, kitschy area called Tin City. And she said, “You know what, you’re looking for something to do, why don’t you open a shop next to me?” And I thought, “Okay, that will be fun.” So, little did I know that I was...
Bob: That’s the voice you had at that time, right?
Deanna: I know. That’s exactly the voice I had. That was the voice in my head. So, I started looking around at concepts and I thought, “What am I going to sell? It’s a very high tourist traffic. What’s my concept, sunglasses, flip flops? What am I selling that’s unique?” And a friend of mine that was in retail came over and I said, “I want to pick your brain.” And literally, he came out of my bathroom when we were Googling and looking at retail concepts and he said, “Why do you have so much soap and lotion in your bathroom?” So, I gave him about a 45-minute dissertation on eczema, psoriasis, how I’ve had it my whole life, my daughter’s had it her whole life, and how this one worked, but this one doesn’t work, and sometimes they work and then they stop. And after this dissertation, we do a Google for natural soap. He goes, “What do you like the best?” I said, “The natural soaps work the best.” And he Google’s it and he goes, “Here’s a wholesaler. Sell what you know.”
And at that moment it was just this lightning bolt hit me and I went, “Wow, this is always a passion of mine.” I am that person whose bathroom looks like clutter everywhere, but really it makes sense to me because I know what every product is. So, it made a lot of sense. I created the concept of Naples Soap Company. We started in 300 square feet, which is the size of a bathroom. And within two months we were knocking the wall down and expanding into the adjacent space. Within another four months, I had people driving from north of us, an hour, hour and a half north coming down because I was a nurse, so I would talk to them about their skin. And you wouldn’t believe what people will show you when you’re in this type of business, when they feel comfortable with you as a nurse. They’re like, “Look, what do you think about this?” I’m like, “Whoa.” So, people had a trust with me because I would establish a rapport with them. And as they began to trust me and they would use the products, it really...I wasn’t selling any miracle skincare, it’s just that there are so many chemicals in the products that people use nowadays. If you do a reboot and you start using something that’s a much cleaner product, typically the irritation on the skin will improve and it will ease, it will get better. That was a very early-on philosophy that we took.
So, I started with another store, maybe 50 miles from us, and then another store, and then another store. And I think through the course of 13 years, I’ve done over 40 store openings as leases roll through and things like that, and a couple of pop-ups in the northeast. But it’s definitely...retail is a passion of mine, and I love it that I get to combine product development with my retail passion. It’s a lot of fun.
Bob: And you’re fierce, and I love that. And Deanna is located on the west side of Florida. Her stores are all along the Gulf Coast, right? That’s what that’s called?
Deanna: Pretty soon we’re getting ready to open in Plantation, which is in Boca on the East Coast.
Deanna: One of our newest locations will be there, and up at The Villages. And then we go all the way up the West Coast into the panhandle of Seaside and Destin, those areas. And we’re looking to expand outside the state also.
Bob: So, if anyone wants to talk to Deanna, you certainly go to Naples Soap Company...excuse me, naplessoap.com, and you can probably contact her. So, this is fabulous. Just to give our listeners a little flavor, Tin City really looked like a little tin-roofed city of buildings that are... Is it on a pier? I think it’s kind of like built in the water, isn’t it? Or on the water?
Deanna: It’s on the water, but it was an old clam shelling factory. It’s a historic building, and it was a very old clam shelling factory. And there’s three sections of buildings. There’s a couple restaurants on the water there. I love high tourist traffic areas because we get to talk to more people, and it works really well, especially in Florida on the coastal areas because we carry some fun coastal merchandise as well, not just soap and bath and body products. We carry maybe some tea towels, or candles, or things like that, that might have something coastal on them that people would take back as souvenirs.
Bob: And that don’t require a lot of thought.
Bob: And the stores are so beautiful because her dad and family would create the actual merchandising units, and then you have these beautiful bath bombs and all these things. And the stores are beautiful. We could talk about her merchandising. She does a great job of merchandising and the whole idea of a skincare regime. And certainly, she is not selling the cheapest whatever we can put in a dollar store. You know you own a quality product, and the people that are there are well-trained and they’re glad you’re there. I just want to take one step back to, let’s say, September. Everything’s going great, right? You’re looking forward to the holidays.
Deanna: Well, let’s take half a step back to May, all right? Because May was an interesting turning point for retail in general. There was a lot of, let’s just say, transition coming out of the spring. We’re very seasonal here, so after Easter, retail sales across the sector got very soft. And so, we were kind of scratching our head and going, “Okay, what is Christmas going to look like? What’s Q4? What’s our plan here?” Because things softened very quickly. And of course, there’s been so much economic discussion and, how’s it going to affect us? When’s the recession coming? There was a lot of that going on late spring. So, we’ve already got kind of a soft environment and not knowing kind of what we’re heading in 2, Q3, and 4.
Well, September 29th, we are in Florida, we are in the hurricane belt. Also happened to be my birthday. I sat in my house and watched this monster, monster storm roll through our area, and it came like a freight train, and it stayed for hours and hours and hours on end. Usually, during these storms, it’s very intense for a couple of hours, and then it subsides, and you’re like, “Okay. All right. It’s passing.” No. This storm just came, pulled up a chair at the dinner table and sat down and made itself at home. The devastation was...I’m a native Floridian, I have never in my life seen anything like this. I’ve been through Hurricane Andrew. Hurricane Irma was...we thought that was bad. That was a warmup. That was a blip compared to what we just went through.
So, the storm rolls through, takes easily a good 12 hours for the bad part to pass. Once we could actually get out and start examining and assessing the damage, then the first thing I did was drive to our warehouse. We have a warehouse and distribution center, so we actually are an omnichannel retailer, so we have brick-and-mortar stores, we have our e-com, we have Amazon, and we have wholesale accounts across the U.S. We sell to companies like Dillard’s. We provide gift sets for the Ritz Carlton, things like that. So, we’re an omnichannel retailer.
I go to the warehouse, I pull into the driveway. I pull in, and the roof of our warehouse is in the parking lot. So, this is really devastating to me. I don’t know what I’m about to walk into. I can’t even get into the driveway. I enter with caution into the warehouse, and when I walk in, I see in the corporate office areas, all of the acoustical tiles that are up above our corporate offices and our computers, they’re soaked with water, saturated, they’ve fallen in on the desks. There’s insulation everywhere. There’s broken acoustic tiles, there’s water sopping on the carpet. I mean, it looked like a bomb had gone off. So, we had to take a risk and say, “We can’t stay here. We have to move into the new space and just deal with it and wait for the power to come back on.”
Bob: I want to stop you right there because one of the things that you did was you also were concerned about your crew when you were trying to figure out...you knew the stores were closed, on Facebook you were talking about trying to make sure everybody’s families were okay, and then everybody realizes the scope of this is much bigger than, “Oh, there’s some water in the parking lot,” right?
Deanna: Absolutely. When we did an assessment, that was the triage, was the warehouse. We had to save the mothership because if you don’t have inventory, that’s where the bulk of our inventory was. Once we got that under control, I had, the same day, gone and done an assessment on the retail locations. That was a little more tricky because there was a lot of damage, tons of damage, and it’s not safe to drive around. So, we had to wait two to three days to be able to even get in some of these areas. Sanibel Island, we couldn’t even access because part of the bridge had collapsed, so there was no access to the island whatsoever. But we had understood there was about a 9-foot surge that crossed the entire island. And you think about a little water in your stores. No. You’re talking a trashcan that was sitting on the ground, a small trashcan is up on a 6-foot shelf, it all rose and then just stayed where it was and came back down.
When we went to assess the retail locations, and as we talked about, Tin City was an old clam shelling factory, several of our locations are on the water. We have Downtown Fort Myers on the river also. Well, the bottom of the bay decides to come up with the river. And when you’ve got 4 feet of water, when the water recedes, it’s not just the water, it brings everything with it. It brings sludge, sewage, and whatever else the water decides to pull up, so it’s a fairly disgusting situation. We were very fortunate, we got a hold of...we connected immediately with Servpro, who were fantastic in coming out to help us mitigate the stores. So, we had three locations. One location on 5th Avenue in Naples, which is a very high-end location, we probably had 10 inches of water on there because it was on the high side of the street. Tin City had about 4 feet of water. River District had 3 feet of water. Sanibel had 6 feet of water. So, water is brutal and unforgiving, it takes everything, it destroys everything, it leaves nothing because your flooring is destroyed, your walls are destroyed.
Bob: I’m going to interrupt you because...
Deanna: Go ahead.
Bob: ...we’re getting all these details, but your story is not that story, because...
Deanna: What story do you want?
Bob: ...you didn’t sit in your home and say, “Yep, sucks. We’re not going to be able to make Christmas. Yes, it’s tough.” You were out there as soon as you could, and I think that’s what...I don’t think people realize the passion that a retailer or a small business has about getting back up to speed, right? That there’s this image that, “Oh, you’re just going to wait for... You got to wait for FEMA. You got to wait for the state.” You were right out there ripping... I mean, I remember your pictures, you’re just ripping stuff out the next day because you knew it was mold, and you knew that the product would end up getting worse and worse, right?
Deanna: Oh, yes. And that’s where I was going with the thing, water destroys everything. So, when you’re walking through this store situation, there’s sewage sludge, it’s on the ground. We had rain boots on that were knee-high, and we’re slipping and sliding in this garbage just to see if there are certain particular things that we can salvage. Anything that we can salvage. We’ve got like cash management systems and things like that, like the vaults that we put money into and things like that. But really, just to assess and see where you’re at, it was horrifying.
Bob: And your other stores are still open, right? You still have other stores that are...
Deanna: Correct. We still had six other stores. So, in the meantime, I thought...
Bob: You still had customer service issues and at somebody else’s store. I wanted to call and say, “My bath bomb’s defective.” You still had to give the appearance that everything’s fine, right? Especially your wholesale customers, everything else that, “We’re going to make Christmas, we’re going to make our numbers,” right?
Deanna: People were really great and it made national news. It wasn’t something that was regional. It was so devastating that the photos, especially from Fort Myers Beach and from Naples, you saw the cars that were underwater and things like that. It made national news, so people understood that we had just gone through something super devastating. I think our team did an incredible job, especially considering we were moving warehouses and had no power for a week in the new warehouse. And then, you’ve also got a situation of employees of these closed stores going, “Do I have a job? Don’t I have a job? I don’t know what.” And basically, it was like all hands on deck. “Okay, you have a job wherever I can put you to work right now. I need all the help I can get.” So, whether it was moving the warehouse, whether it was setting up the new warehouse, whether it was putting inventory in place or helping out at another store, our team, the soap squad, they just went wherever we asked them to go. It took us 67 days from the day the hurricane hit ‘til we got three stores reopened.
Bob: That’s amazing.
Deanna: And you’re talking full mitigation. You’re talking replacing flooring. You’re talking cutting drywall 4 feet down to studs, getting it replaced, getting your sink, your cash rack, your POS, all of your electronics and your inventory set and replaced, 67 days relocations.
Bob: Well, nobody would do that if they were opening a store, but after a hurricane, everybody else is trying to do the same thing, right? Every other electrician is busy, everybody else, so it’s not like, “Oh, we’ll just call ‘em up and ask,” right?
Deanna: No. It was like the Hunger Games of construction here. It really was. It was horrible. It didn’t matter. You did whatever it took to keep the subs happy and to keep them showing up at your job because it’s not like a regularly scheduled job or construction that you’re going under. We were working in Downtown Fort Myers and the county came by and said, “Oh, by the way, you can’t tear out drywall.” “What do you mean we can’t tear out the drywall? There’s mold here.” “Nope. You need a permit.” “To tear out the drywall, what?” So, that shut us down a week and a half. So, in the meantime, your tile guy moves on to another job, then you got to get him back. So, it was harrowing just trying to get that. And then you’re looking at the end of September, this is when we should be setting our lovely Christmas and holiday. This should be our wonderful, most wonderful time of the year.
Bob: Oh, well that’s a good place for us to take a little break. We’re going to hear a little more about this. We’re going to hear how, in the end, she did have a wonderful Christmas. We’re going to hear about what happened the night before they reopened Tin City. And we’re also going to hear how did Deanna go through and recharge after all this. And maybe some lessons that anybody who goes through a national disaster, right? So, we had Buffalo, we have the snow right now that’s being recorded, while California is pretty much being put through the car wash and is expected to be for the rest of January.
And we’re back with Deanna Wallin, the former nurse turned skincare provider and CEO of Naples Soap Company in Florida. So Deanna...
Deanna: Hey, everybody.
Bob: ...we just left you, it’s getting ready for the holidays, and yet the holidays are not what you’re thinking about.
Deanna: We are paddling and doing everything possible to survive this epic storm, this Biblical, once-in-a-generation event that has happened to us. In the meantime, I have staff that have lost their homes. It wasn’t just the beach areas, people that lived in coastal areas as far as...if they lived near a canal or near water anywhere. Maybe they didn’t even live on the water, but it might have pushed half a mile inland. So, we had staff that we were trying to support at the same time. We put together donation rooms so that everybody was bringing in items to help donate and replace furniture and items and clothing and things like that, that staff had lost. Pretty interesting.
And additionally, we’re trying to reach out to the community. Typically, when something huge happens, we have a huge outreach for community support in general. For example, during COVID, we supported the police department with hand sanitizers, and the hospitals, and things like that. This time we really had to put our own oxygen mask on first before we could help others. So, we got ourselves pulled back together, and then we were able to just start going out in the community and offering help and assistance to different entities in the community. But for us to not be able to jump right in and to help the community that we were in a position where the community was coming to help us, that was a big switch for us.
Bob: Yes, I’ll bet. So, we get the stores up and running except for Sanibel Island. And tell me about Tin City. We’re in November now, everything magically got better.
Deanna: Oh, I can’t make this up. This is beyond fiction. This tells me you’re definitely stalking me online. I love that about you. Black Friday, we had worked our buns off all week long. We were there 14 hours a day getting the store back open. There was an army of 12 of us just day and night, day and night because we do have a regular contingent of people that shop us on Black Friday. And the center was allowing us to open on the end, and the restaurant on the end was open as well. So, we had this special permission to open and we knew that our customers were going to come see us. We were tucked in this little corner. And I start getting phone calls in the morning of Black Friday at about 6:00 in the morning, and I went, “This can’t be good.” It’s never good on Black Friday when your phone starts that early.
And sure enough, a drunk driver had launched his vehicle off the end of the road, airborne, and through the end of the building that we were in, building one. Not through our store, thank God it was at the other end of the store, and that no one was in the building at the time. But 3:00 in the morning, he sails through one end and out the other end, jumps outta the car, runs away, the car bursts into flames. Thank God the car was outside the building before it burst into flames. So, literally, there was a drive-through. You could see from one side of the building to the other side of the building. And I got a message from the property manager going, “By the way, the county is down here and they’re not real happy about the structural damage to the end of the building.” I get in the car, drive down there, and talk to the guy at the county. He’s got his yellow tape out going around the building, and I was like, “No, no, no, no, no, just here, just on this end. Don’t do this.” So, about noon we ended up being able to get open, and they said, “Okay, the end of the building and the building is structurally sound.” But the poor old girl, she’s been through a lot. She just...
Bob: It was the former clam shucking place. Historic, right?
Deanna: Yes. It was an old clam shelling factory. Yes.
Bob: Well, you have gotten so many awards for being most influential business leader over all these years in retail. I mean, Florida Retail Federation, Retail of the Year in 2015, and the one to watch. So...
Deanna: Thank you.
Bob: ...and you’ve been gracious with your time today. In the middle of all of this, I’m sure you didn’t think like, “Oh, this will make a great book,” or, “Oh...” Because you really just get down to number one goal was getting these stores open. And that passion of a retailer, I think people miss when all they talk about is big box, and metaverse, and all these other things which are distractions. At the end of the day, retail’s about people. And what I loved about your story is it came down to people coming together in a lot of new ways, but still the same way, right, which is, how do you connect with people, see a need, fill it? But being able to do that for your own crew and your own self probably was new. And now here you are on the other side of it, and you’ve got four other stores that are in preparation, and you’re looking to add even more.
When natural disasters like this happen, I think it would be easy to pull back and say, “I’m kind of tired of this game.” And let’s face it, that certainly, don’t lie to me, I’m sure that had to be a part of your mindset during all of this stuff. However, that leadership skill, what could you tell somebody about leading in a crisis when everybody expects you have the answer? You’ve never been through anything like this. If I remember correctly, I goaded you one time about a hurricane coming. You were like, “We’re just going to sit on the back porch and watch it or something.” You were just kind of casual about...because you never had anything like this, right? You would never expect this to be what it ended up being, but here you are on the other side of it, your team probably has undying loyalty, your crew, your customers who came back, right? They came back, the snowbird still came back. I was down there just a couple of weeks after you opened, and if you go just north of your stores, you’re like, “Where was the devastation?” Because it was very localized, right?
Bob: So, what could you tell people about being a leader and retail in general, about being that entrepreneur that says, “Dang it, we are going to get through this”?
Deanna: You know, Bob, I gave a lot of hugs during that time period. I think really being accessible, and the staff, just allowing them to be human because they were all devastated. We were driving through areas and seeing things we had never seen before. You would see 50, 60-foot yachts wedged in between apartment complex buildings that shouldn’t be there. It was just a lot of very harsh, surreal things around us. And I think allowing everyone and letting them know, “You know what, we’re going to be okay. We’re not going to stay where we are right now. This is difficult. We’ve never been through it, but we’re going to get through it, and we’re going to do it together. And whatever you need, please come to us because there are enough people here. As a family, we will get you what you need.” And that’s what we did. I mean, we got underwear for people that lost everything. And we had friends of ours that owned boutique stores, that had clothing, that donated clothing, and just people in the community came together to support.
And knowing that we do good business with people and we have a good standing in the community, the community came forward for us. And I think our employees saw that as well that hey, wow, this is a first that the community has stepped forward so much for the employees really. And then people showed their support by shopping online. We sent an email out that said, “We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking you to let us keep doing what we’re doing. If you would like to help us, place an order and give us two to three weeks to fill that order, and we will be up and running in two or three weeks. But if you would like to help, you can help right now, but just let us keep doing what we’re doing. We’re not asking for a GoFundMe or anything like that. My people want to work and they want to do what they do best.” And that’s what we did. And we received an exorbitant amount of not just orders, but every order had some letter or note of encouragement with it. I don’t think we got one single order in that did not say at least, “Good luck,” on there.
Bob: Well, that’s wonderful. And you’ve shown the world that retail is alive and well in Florida, and looking to expand. And the name of this podcast is “Tell Me Something Good About Retail,” so I want you to search all you’ve been through in the last several years, wouldn’t have to be just the last several months, what’s one thing you could tell me that’s good about retail?
Deanna: What is good about retail? What is good about retail? I think the happiness that people feel when they have a purchase is still there. It’s the adrenaline of walking away with a bag with your purchase in hand. I am so elated that that feeling is still there for people, that...I hate to say instant gratification, but that instant gratification, that feeling, that high that you get from actually physically shopping, you can’t replace that by clicking, or clicking, or waiting for the box to arrive at the house. There’s no replacement for that kind of adrenaline rush that you get from shopping. And I am a shopaholic, and it was so sad during lockdown and COVID and all that when that feeling was limited. But when I hand a customer a bag, and I know that is the biggest compliment is that they chose to spend money on our product, I’m thrilled. So, to know that that feeling is still there, that as humans and as a society, we still get that, and you can’t take that away from us, that’s what I love, that’s what I really love about retail. And it’s that sale. It’s the exciting...not just on my part, the accomplishing the sale, but how that person feels when they’re making the purchase.
Bob: And that is the best way for us to leave this. You are so gifted. You have so many talents, Deanna, and I wish you nothing but great success. And if you’re listening, to find out more, again, you can go to naplessoap.com. Remember, she’s looking to go nationwide, so time could be right. You’ve got someone who’s been through the fire. So, with that, thank you so much, Deanna, for joining us.
Deanna: Thanks for having me, Bob.
Naples Soap Company
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