The coronavirus came right for the heart of Orzhen Rushanyan’s livelihood.
The manager of a family-run Los Angeles linen service for local restaurants and large events, Rushanyan watched sales dry up as eateries shut their doors and big gatherings like weddings were called off for the foreseeable future.
Still, Zhen Linen was scraping by. The company had a decently sized online presence on e-commerce websites, such as Amazon and Etsy. Though online customers no longer wanted linens for events, the company was still able to sell raw fabrics for crafts. It kept Zhen Linen afloat, but without its bread and butter and with no end in sight, the future looked grim.
Then, on April 7, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that residents would be required to wear face coverings when leaving their homes to visit essential businesses. That’s when Rushanyan had a bright idea: What if Zhen Linen could make and sell face masks?
Rushanyan quickly began drawing out a plan. There were many questions to answer: What design would they use? Where would they source the fabric? How would they switch production from linens to face masks? Where would they sell them?
Once the company decided on a plan of action, Zhen Linen began to sew masks. Rushanyan’s mother made the first, then their team of sewers replicated the design en masse. They would sell them on Etsy, the site that normally gave them the most online traction. And just two days after the mayor’s announcement, Zhen Linen’s masks were available for purchase on its Etsy store.
From that moment, it took off, Rushanyan says. Business boomed: Orders came flying in much faster than she had ever expected. Quickly, the design became an Etsy bestseller. Overall, Rushanyan says, Zhen Linen sold about 31,000 face masks just in the month of April.
”That may not sound like a big number for a large company, but for us, that’s huge for a month,” she says. “We saw sales in April that we’ve never seen before. That was our best month to date.”
The company had never sold more in a month in its history, she says. Despite all the obstacles to its success, Zhen Linen wasn’t just surviving the pandemic; it was thriving.
Zhen Linen’s story is not an uncommon one. Rather, it’s representative of many Etsy sellers whose businesses were small and nimble enough to quickly pivot from their original product line to making face masks while demand was at its highest.
The Etsy shop infusion makes wood, leather and cloth goods like wallets and notebooks. Now, it’s home to another of Etsy’s best-selling face masks.
The Burlap Cottage shop also sells a bestselling face mask on Etsy. The brand normally makes decorations and keepsakes like personalized anniversary pillows, but after owner Leanne Wyatt began making masks in her dining room, the orders kept pouring in. Wyatt told Here & Now that in the first week of April after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Americans wear face coverings in public, she saw a 2,600% increase in sales.
Today, many large brands sell mass-produced face masks customers can buy online. Old Navy, Adidas, Nordstrom and Disney are just some of the retail brands that have ventured into the mask market. But big businesses have a much harder time switching over their supply chains to create a new product, retail analyst Sucharita Kodali of Forrester told NPR last month.
"The smaller companies are more nimble, they're able to respond to changes more quickly. They see trends and they jump," Kodali says.
Rushanyan saw this play out in her own small business.
“We were able to react to the market really quickly,” she says. “We don’t outsource anything, so we have that advantage of being able to produce rapidly here in LA.”
But now, two months after the CDC’s recommendation, sales have slowed for the once-coveted item.
“There’s still demand for it, but it’s not how we saw it in April,” says Rushanyan. “We’re still going to be selling masks until, probably, the end of the year, until we see that demand really shifted into nothing anymore.”
And the linen service manager is hopeful that as demand for face masks continues to wane, the small business will be able to get back to what it does best.
“We specialize in our linen supply, and we still have events that we have planned for the end of the year and for next year,” she says. “So we do hope to go back to our normal business, and we do hope that this is a temporary time for us.”
This segment aired on June 4, 2020.