Jane Park wants to make gift-giving more sustainable by eliminating single-use gift wrap.
“Americans use enough gift wrap to circle the globe multiple times a year,” Park says. “Most of it isn’t recyclable because it has glitter and plastic built into it.”
To help solve this problem, Park started Tokki in September 2019 to produce reusable gift wraps and bands. Building e-commerce businesses was nothing new to Park, who launched the cosmetics company Julep in 2007.
“I started Tokki, and we had a great holiday season,” says Park, also a former Starbucks and Boston Consulting Group executive. “In January and February, we were getting corporate orders for different events where companies were handing out swag to attendees. Then COVID-19 hit, and all of our sales disappeared overnight.”
While many business owners would have panicked as sales dried up, Park quickly pivoted and found a way to continue and keep her six employees busy, while also serving a greater purpose. But even after the transition, the company faces uncertainty about when to reboot its core business.
Switching to face masks
When COVID-19 first hit, securing personal protective equipment of all types was hard, even for medical professionals and first responders.
Park thought she could help. After researching, she discovered the high-density cotton in her gift wraps could also be used in face masks.
“We just happened to have high-density cotton, and it was hard to get your hands on it at the very beginning of the whole COVID crisis,” Park says. “So, we started making masks just for a handful of first responder friends.”
After finding some acceptance among frontline responders, Park thought her colorful prints on face masks might appeal to consumers. In partnership with her friend Lisa Sun of Gravitas, she pivoted her company and launched a new venture called Tokki x Gravitas 100% Cotton Face Masks to produce the masks in New York City.
“Not only do they function well because of the high-density cotton, but we also had patterns that made having to wear a mask during a pandemic look a little bit more friendly,” Park says.
With Park’s background and her team at Tokki, making a visually appealing mask wasn’t the main challenge. But in the middle of a pandemic, when even common supplies were becoming scarce, finding the materials was difficult. Fortunately, Sun used her connections to secure elastic, which was in short supply.
But getting those materials to Gravitas’ seamstresses, who sewed high-fashion clothes and fancy wedding gowns before the pandemic, was also another hurdle.
“When we were first making masks, there were social distancing and business closure requirements in New York City,” Parks says. “The fabric we ordered couldn’t get to where we needed it to go because the buildings were closed. In some cases, the streets were closed. That made getting delivery trucks in New York City hugely challenging.”
Word of mouth plus a digital storefront
If masks are anything, they’re very visible. As people began wearing the Tokki face masks, others noticed. Park said that has led to sales.
“We’ve had a bunch of different people wear our masks on camera, and it has been through word of mouth that we’ve connected with new customers,” Park says.
In addition to word of mouth marketing, creating a friendly customer experience online is also a must.
Earlier in her career, Park ran stores with physical locations. These days, her customers only interact with her business online, though the goal is the same. “Creating a good shopping experience is critical if you are connecting with customers,” she says.
However, the inventory management and e-commerce tools available to startups make starting an online business a lot easier than it used to be, according to Park.
“I started an e-commerce company 10 years ago (Julep), and what exists today for $20 a month is amazing,” Park says. “It would have cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars back in the day to build custom functionality.”
Specifically, Park relies on low-cost, subscription-based tools that can speak to each other, including stamped.io (a reviews plug-in), color swatch pug (a swatch plug-in), a bundles app, and an etsy integration.
“It wasn’t the case five or 10 years ago where you had to build a custom API (application programming interface) to have everything connect and to have the data flow through,” she says. “It’s a lot more doable today without having an enormous engineering team. If you have someone with creative problem-solving chops and the ability to help you connect various systems together, then you can operate like a much bigger company.”
While the pivot to face masks has kept Tokki’s team employed, the economic impact of COVID-19 continues to be a challenge.
As she realigned her business, Park wanted to be thoughtful about how she approached masks. She committed to donating a medical grade mask to healthcare workers for each one sold to the public.
“We didn’t want to be seen trying to take advantage of a pandemic,” Park says. “I wanted to be clear about what the purpose was and to be transparent with people that it was not at all about profit.”
To convey that, Park took to the internet and penned a blog post explaining Tokki’s situation. Using the immediacy and power of emails, she communicated with her supporters to give them an honest picture of what was happening.
“In a blog post, I wrote to our customers and told them that in the very unlikely event we would have any profits this year, I would donate it,” she says. “It was really about saving the jobs of our team and selling something so we could continue to exist. But also in the midst of that, we wanted to do something helpful.”
Difficulty planning for the future
As Park tries to forecast the rest of 2020, including the pivotal holiday season, and what 2021 will look like, she feels uncertain. Her core business is still reusable gift wraps.
“As an e-commerce company, we’re trying to be led by consumers and what they’re thinking about gifting and purchasing,” Park says. “It’s hard to predict what they’ll be thinking two months from now and how this holiday season is going to go. Are people going to be buying more gifts because they can’t be seeing each other?”
Weighing the risks and answering those questions will play a significant role in determining when Tokki pivots back to the original idea of creating a product that supports sustainability.
Pivoting requires more than offering new products
When your sales stop, take a hard look at your inventory. Sometimes, you may be able to pivot to a product that is in demand. When reusable gift wrap sales dried up, Jane Park was able to pivot because her gift wrap’s high-density cotton worked in face masks.
Takeaway No. 1: A business pivot doesn’t have to be expensive
Creating a good shopping experience for your customers is important regardless of the economic environment. Fortunately, Jane Park developed a cost-effective e-commerce solution for a moderate price. These cost savings come in handy during tough economic times.
Takeaway No. 2: Communicate with customers and be genuine
As Tokki pivoted from reusable gift wraps to face masks, Park took the time to communicate openly with her customers each step of the way through Tokki’s website and emails. She wanted to give her followers an honest picture of what was happening with her business.
Takeaway No. 3: Be opportunistic but genuine
With few gift wraps being bought, Park was able to quickly shift her production chain and website to sell masks. However, she didn’t want it to appear that she was capitalizing on a global pandemic. So, she made a vow to also donate masks.
By thinking quickly and having a strong suite of e-commerce tools and a solid distribution chain, Park was able to pivot her business to face masks when COVID hit. While she has been able to keep her team working and her business afloat, she’ll soon need to figure out when to focus on gift wrap again.