Under Latvia’s pandemic regulations, shopping has become a minefield for both customers and vendors. But one imaginative couple are offering much needed service with a smile.
With lengthy queues, closed stores and Byzantine rules part of their routine shopping experience, Latvians may be forgiven for feeling some déjà vu. But this is not a flashback to the USSR – it is the shape of things under the country’s controversial response to Covid-19.
Fortunately, some entrepreneurs are turning the chaos and gloom into a win-win situation. Husband-and-wife team Ivars and Beata Bitmets have transformed their modest clothes shop “Bikšu Bāze” (The Trouser Base) into an online enterprise delivering precisely what people need while keeping the virus at bay.
“We’re not geniuses when it comes to digital technologies, but we keep up with the times,” says Beata. “And we don’t want to be just another small store which sits and waits for the customer to come along. You can’t make money or provide a service like that. “
Pull your pants up
Mention Jugla, a district on Riga’s eastern outskirts, and most locals will think of drab Soviet apartment blocks rather than fashion. But a decade ago, the Bitmets decided it would be a challenge to sell nice clothes in the neighbourhood where Ivars grew up rather than piling into the city centre.
They gradually won a loyal customer base by focussing on qualitative yet affordable men’s trousers, later offering items for ladies too. The racy mural advertising the store became a local landmark, and for several years they also ran a café next door.
Then last March, the world suddenly tipped upside down. During the spring pandemic phase, Latvia’s stores were allowed to remain open, but people were so scared of getting ill that footfall dropped to a trickle. Wondering how to pay the rent and wages, Ivars and Beata upgraded their existing website into a fully-fledged online enterprise.
Anyone who has ordered clothes online knows that the biggest problem is getting the right size. Here, the Bitmets put years of real-world experience to good use. In the early days of “Bikšu Bāze,” they sold factory rejects without size tags, and in any case a size 38 can differ significantly from one producer to another. So Ivars and the store’s two sales assistants became experts at eyeing up the perfect fit.
“The task is to work it out ourselves, instead of relying on what is written down,” says Ivars. “To see the peculiarities of human bodies and read their size.”
Then they realised the process could be broken down into simple bits of data. Ivars recorded a Facebook video, in which he asks people to note their height and weight (no cheating, now), their belt length and whether they prefer style or comfort and send that info in a text message. The Bitmets reply with links to appropriate items on the website, where the customer fills out the order. The goods are then dispatched by mail or available for pickup in Jugla.
The video went viral, and Ivars says strangers on the street are constantly yelling out his opening line to him: “Sveiki, Kungi!” (Hello, gentlemen!) And the formula clearly works. The couple take special pride in fielding requests from very large or small people or those with disabilities, and getting them right.
“We always ask for feedback, and people are happy to respond,” says Beata. “And the number of cases where something really doesn’t fit can be counted on one hand. That’s usually because people have been sloppy in telling us their true weight, or say a wife has ordered for her husband and got it a bit wrong.”
The pandemic restrictions have severely distorted Latvian retailing. Since the enactment of a state of emergency last November, many small stores have been prohibited from working, while major chains Rimi and Maxima are allowed to sell whatever they like, though with limits on the number of customers allowed in at one time, resulting in queues. Some have wondered whether forcing elderly folk to stand outside in subzero temperatures is a wise public health policy.
Others, including hardware and electronics stores, are permitted to sell some products onsite and others only online, leading to absurd situations where a customer comes to pick up a printer ordered remotely, then asks for paper to go with it, and is told to make an online purchase on the spot. The result is minutes spent tapping into a phone rather than leaving the premises in a few seconds.
Business groups and some cabinet ministers have called for relaxing the rules. Shopping malls have hung white flags with back ribbons on their facades to protest at their plight. In response, Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš has warned that the new “British” strain of Covid-19 may necessitate tightening controls even further.
“Bikšu Bāze” has avoided these headaches by essentially becoming a warehouse and shipment operation. Ivars says they are doing about the same financially as before the crisis. In fact, it has worked in their favour by bringing in customers from all over Latvia. But given the uncertain economic climate, they have no plans to expand. They don’t have the capacity to offer children’s clothes, which parents find notoriously hard to get the right sizes online, but they believe their formula could be successfully used by stores in that niche.
Not surprisingly, when asked where they expect to be a year from now, they laugh and roll their eyes. But they plan on continuing to work with suppliers who are family owned, like the Polish jeans-maker Vankel, run by five siblings.
And they want to expand the range of models and colours offered to customers.
“We’re all about non-standard solutions, because we are all individuals, not just data to be crunched into an Excel table,” says Beata. “So next March, we will still be all about trousers – and lots of them!”