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Vernon Teach & Learn has been in business over 30 years, serving teachers, parents and children through good old-fashioned service, delightful products and an in-store ice cream shop. When COVID hit, the owners proved old-fashioned didn't mean obsolete, as they pivoted their shop online.

In business, change is inevitable. But the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a level of change that businesses couldn’t foresee or plan for. Our #SmallBusinessRedefined series showcases small businesses that have found ways to reimagine their business through new opportunities – whether it’s through a new product, a new market, or a new way to fulfill. Learn how these Canadian businesses have pivoted to adapt, innovate and thrive in a changing and uncertain environment.

Vernon Teach & Learn is the Okanagan’s oldest educational toy and resource store. Founded in 1990 by Mavis and Eric Jackson, daughter Lynella Henke took over the reigns with her husband Trevor in 2003. Since then, the store has been a destination for teachers, parents and kids, offering supply products for educators, and games, puzzles, toys, birthday parties and $2 ice cream to enchanted kids and their parents. At 10,000 square feet, the store is packed with amazing finds for children of all ages.

When COVID-19 hit, Henke saw businesses around her closing their doors and walking away. “We decided we couldn’t do that,” Henke says. “It was not an option for us.” They considered themselves an essential service as suppliers of products to schools and parents trying to home school. What’s more, they weren’t about to let go of everything they had invested in their building, their inventory, their time and their business. “We were not going to walk away,” Henke says.

But they knew they had to change in order to survive.

How They Adapted to Their Changing Situation

Vernon Teach & Learn started their pivot by transitioning their business online, where their 24,000 SKUs were listed on their site. Customers could phone orders in, and pick up curbside or have products delivered.

The team also used their expertise in kids education and entertainment to put together custom baskets for parents trying to figure out how to keep their kids busy and off-screen during the lockdown. “We are known as a place that knows our stuff,” says Henke. “We got a lot of calls to use our expertise to put together packages.”

They also sent butterfly larvae to homes this year – a program typically reserved for the classroom.

And to adapt to their new reality of curbside pickup, Vernon Teach & Learn made physical changes to their shop. They installed a camera and doorbell system at each of their three doors, so they could serve a few different people at once. When it came time to re-open, they installed a hot water sink at their front door, where they insist every customer washes their hands on their way in. They made one of their doors an entrance, and another a dedicated exit.

Lynella and Trevor worked 64 days in a row without a single day off. But they are thankful to have been busy. They credit their success through the pandemic to determination, hard work, and an ability to think outside the box. The pivot online also made a significant difference. “Our online business really helped us, and we plan to expand it when we have the time,” she admits.

Plus, they feel lucky that they are small, and could implement new ideas within hours – a luxury she knows that Big Box shops don’t have.

The last part of their store to open was their ice cream shop, which had the community abuzz. “Kids are so excited to be allowed back in the toy store again and get ice cream,” says Henke. But adaptation continues, as evidenced by their investment in a new truck, which allows them to bring their famous ice cream out into the community.

For the businesses around them that have yet to re-open, Lynella Henke has this advice: “It’s time to get back to work. You can’t give up. Find a way to keep your business open.”

Learn how other Canadian businesses pivoted to adapt, innovate and thrive in our current changing and uncertain times.