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Old-fashioned charm meets modern tech.
By Linda Currey Post | March 2021
The Vermont Country Store closed its two brick-and-mortar stores for a portion of 2020 due to COVID-19, but online sales from its recently modernized ecommerce website shot up 60% between April and November, turning historically quiet months into a bustling time that any retailer would welcome.
Then came what is usually the store’s busiest time of year, the November and December holiday rush.
Company leaders took the unusual step of pulling back on marketing to dampen customer demand. By reducing orders, they could meet customer service expectations with a smaller number of employees in the distribution center. Instead of adding the typical 550 seasonal workers, managers hired half that many, a reduction necessary to allow employees to follow social distancing guidelines.
“Now we’re limited only by our own imagination and creativity.”
“I belong to a CEO discussion group, and every one of them thought I was crazy that we were walking away from business,” says Jim Hall, president and CEO. “But every one of them had significant outbreaks at their companies. Our battle plan was to hire a smaller number of people and keep more of them going into 2021.”
Sales were flat throughout the holiday season compared with the previous year, and the company avoided a COVID-19 outbreak. “I think our team at The Vermont Country Store appreciated the fact that we placed people above profits. We still had an extraordinarily good year in 2020,” Hall says.
Like the company’s retail stores, the new website—constructed using Oracle Commerce—is “built to browse,” and offers soul-weary shoppers a welcome respite from real-life worries.
“Shopping at The Vermont Country Store is fun. It’s entertaining. And it takes you back in time,” Hall says. Indeed, the company’s Vermont retail locations in Weston and Rockingham look like the old-fashioned general stores of the 1800s, where town residents rode in on horseback to pick up sundries and sweet treats, and to visit with neighbors.
The Vermont Country Store was built as a tribute to the general store North Calais, Vermont, run by Vrest’s father. The men of the town gathered at the store each evening to wait for a horse-drawn stagecoach to bring the mail from Montpelier, 13 miles away. That general store “smelled of leather harnesses, coffee, smoky kerosene lamps, tobacco, and sugar maple logs burning in the potbelly stove,” according to Orton family lore.
That original store came to be in 1946, after Ellen and Vrest Orton created a mail-order catalog of 36 practical and hard-to-find country store products and mailed it to friends on their holiday card list. The response was overwhelming, with their acquaintances promising to visit the store, which did not exist yet, in the spring. The couple quickly restored a general store in rural Weston, and The Vermont Country Store was born.
Today, the founders’ son Lyman Orton—and his sons Eliot, Gardner, and Cabot— run The Vermont Country Store. The company sells home goods, country clothing, and an astonishing array of hard candies and fine chocolates.
CEO Hall says when the pandemic first hit, company managers quickly closed the stores for two months to protect employees’ health and understand and implement new safety standards. Company leaders quickly adopted mask and social distancing requirements in all areas of the business and split the operational workforce into two shifts that never overlapped to control the spread of any possible infections. Online, catalog, and call center sales hummed along as retail outlets remained closed.
“People were buying cheese in massive quantities,” Hall says. “We sold hundreds of hams and cans of soup by the truckload.”
The Vermont Country Store relies on the latest technology to deliver its online shopping experience. The company recently replaced its aging ATG system with cloud-based Oracle Commerce software. With the cloud, Oracle automatically sends application updates four times each year, so the store always runs the most up-to-date software.
Recently, the store rebuilt its ecommerce website using Oracle Commerce, software that helps the company accommodate the ebb and flow of seasonal order volumes, while remaining available to customers.
The company designed its new website to display its enormous assortment of goods in a way that reflects the store layout and that encourages a fun browsing experience. “We’re very pleased with the result,” Hall says. “Now we’re limited only by our own imagination and creativity.”
Photography: The Vermont Country Store