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COVID-19 closed my store, but online opened the door to new customers

Peter Laywine, Owner of Laywine's

In 1987, when Filofaxes were the new, sought-after item for young people in business, I started Laywine’s stationery store in Yorkville to introduce Toronto to this must-have organization system. Although Filofaxes had been around since 1921, and had become huge in London Tokyo and New York by the mid 80’s, my shop was the first to present it as an organizational tool, rather than an accessory. As the years went by, the store’s inventory began to mimic my own passions, and I searched far and wide for the tools that my customers needed to let their creative writing flow. Now 33 years later, you’ll still find Parker Duofold fountain pens on our shelves — the same brand that aided Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in bringing Sherlock Holmes to life. 

My core strategy has always been to build relationships with people, and the sales will follow. In the early days, I’d have one of my staff call each customer to let them know that their annual planner was available, or that their special order had arrived. In early 2019, I finally built an online store with Shopify, but until recently, it accounted for less than 2% of sales. Why throw resources into building up something new when the old-school methods were working? 

Then the unprecedented happened. COVID-19 swept the globe, and I had to close my store. The second day of the lockdown was the very first time I made zero dollars in sales in the history of my business. I was terrified. Selling pens, paper, leather and ink is an extremely tactile experience. I wasn’t sure how anyone would understand my products if they weren’t feeling them in their hands. 

After a few days of being closed, I connected with one of my former employees, Andy, and expressed my concern. She suggested that we consider something entirely new for Laywine’s — the potential of digital marketing. 

We set up a Google Ads account, and set up a few campaigns (mostly Andy’s work) so that when people searched for our most profitable pens, we were there for them. We immediately began to see the online business start to spark. In the first six weeks I saw an increase in sales of almost 1700%! We also saw a huge uptick in website inquiries. While typically, my customers would be coming through foot traffic, sales now come from far beyond Ontario, including the U.S. and other parts of Canada. Currently, 70% of my website traffic has come from outside of Toronto, when previously, almost all of my customers were local. 

COVID-19 has brought on new trends in product purchases. Over the past few months, we’ve seen an increase in orders for notebooks, with journaling on the rise and customers keeping track of the changes in their lives. There’s also been a huge demand for stationery, as people find they have the time to send and respond to letters, orare starting to build their at-home offices. 

These are challenging times, and I know businesses across Canada are struggling to stay alive. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to pivot my business, and embrace a digital presence. When you need a little extra help, remember there are millions of customers online, who are looking for you and your products. Thirty-three years ago I opened a store in Yorkville, and now I have a store in homes around the world. 

Sincerely, Peter Laywine

Posted by guest author Peter Laywine, owner of Laywine's