Fall 2020
Ascension St. Vincent’s Hospital Gift Shop By Debbie Eisele

Closures did not deter staff in this Alabama shop from helping customers

St. Vincent’s Hospital Gift Shop, located in Birmingham, Alabama is part of Ascension Health and never stopped selling to its customers during the pandemic. Instead it found creative ways to continue to provide what its customers needed.

Lee Patterson, retail services manager for St. Vincent’s Hospital Gift Shop, shared how adaptations to operations allowed it to continue with business, albeit in a different way. “Even though we closed completely — only for a few short weeks — our hospital remains closed to visitors. As a result, our current sales volume is one third of our expected sales volume,” noted Patterson.

All photos courtesy of Ascension St. Vincent’s Hospital Gift Shop

Since the hospital is closed to visitors, the staff found ways to communicate and merchandise. “We utilize posters around the hospital and send ‘everyone’ emails that reach our entire staff,” Patterson said. “Emails are successful and have been, even before all this. We can not use social media to advertise the gift shop.”

“Since most hospital gift shops give all, or most, of their proceeds back to the hospital — and have no overhead — it is expected that our mark-ups are usually not on par with a competitor. It is our hospital’s opinion that if we advertise and uncut our competitors pricing, and there was a complaint, we could jeopardize our tax-free status,” Patterson explained.

Ascension St. Vincent's Hospital Gift Shop

Overall COVID-19 has impacted St. Vincent’s Gift Shop’s business in several ways. “We have to limit the number of customers in the shop at any given time. We maintain social distancing, must wear masks (hospital mandate) and use plexi-screens at the registers,” Patterson said. “We allow clothing to be tried on in store, but are not allowing any clothing returns at this time.”

When the retail shop was closed, it still offered purchases through email and by phone with a credit card. “We bagged and placed items for pick up outside our door for ‘touchless’ delivery. In delivering to a patient in the hospital we now only deliver to the nurses station, and do not deliver to any restricted areas,” shared Patterson.

Ascension St. Vincent's Hospital Gift Shop

The store was rearranged — some fixtures were removed as well as displays — to accommodate social distancing guidelines. “We have already begun discussions about limiting the amount of Christmas merchandising, trees and displays to maintain hospital guidelines,” described Patterson.

For inventory control, Patterson has relied on current sales volume stats as a guide for purchasing and has adjusted to handle the new “normal.” She has learned that things can change on a daily basis.

Ascension St. Vincent's Hospital Gift Shop

So, what is the biggest challenge St. Vincent’s Gift Shop has faced during the pandemic? “Trying to remain relevant to our customers. Hospitals are not in the top places to shop right now!,” emphasized Patterson.

Although the brick-and-mortar store is “different” in this new retail climate, it still has its best-sellers. According to Patterson, there are three categories — ladies ready-to-wear department, baby boutique, food and beverages — that top the list in terms of volume. Its best vendors are Mud Pie, Easel, burton + Burton, Kellis and DM Merchandising.

“Take one day at a time. Be glad that you are healthy. We are thankful everyday that we work for an organization that cares about our well-being and that is able to sustain our jobs,” Patterson advised.


Debbie Eisele

Debbie Eisele is the former managing editor for Gift Shop Plus, Stationery Trends and a variety of special issue publications, including: The Guide, Holiday Shop, Celebrations & Occasions and Waterfront Living.

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