Have you ever walked into the alley past Nickel’s Arcade and felt transported back in time?

This historic, cobblestone street of brick-and-mortar store fronts has been home to the Caravan Gift Shop since 1927. Caravan has maintained its position as one of the oldest and most unique retail businesses in Ann Arbor. It is home to over 100 international artisans and prides itself on being a space that “brings smiles to people’s faces.”

For over 93 years, this business had been operating in almost the exact same way. Rhonda Gilpin, owner of Caravan since 1992, recalls, “We were 100% reliant on walk-through traffic; the community holds so many events, and we’re paying prime dollars to be on the University of Michigan Campus.” Caravan relied on their strong, interpersonal relations with clients, generations of families who would come into the shop and maintain loyalty to the store front. Additionally, the added population of students and University of Michigan community members offered a secondary market for Caravan Gift Shop as events through the university would bring large amounts of foot traffic to the area.

This sustained approach to in-person retailing allowed Caravan to not develop a strong online presence for a long time. Prior to the pandemic, they did not even have a website. Bolstered by the rarity of their business and the emphasis on local artists, it seemed as though Caravan could have continued their operations as normal well past the 100 year mark.

Suddenly, the onset of the pandemic sent shocks throughout the retail market. Small businesses, especially ones that hadn’t already adapted to the e-commerce market were poised to suffer with the social distancing and stay at home mandates. Caravan mitigated these initial problems by cutting costs and reducing inventory. Gilpin highlights, “This was really hard because we have always aimed to support artists and give them a platform, and we knew that this was going to be difficult for them.” Despite the reduction of their product mix, Caravan continued to buy from artists, even if their supplier list was smaller and orders significantly reduced.

Caravan also used the pandemic as an opportunity to begin crafting their online presence. Through creating their online shop and website, Caravan was able to be aided during the lockdown. Though the employees and owners could see some potential growth in the future, Gilpin expressed that there was some hesitation in making the shift, commenting, “I wouldn’t say that [the online store] has been 100% successful yet; it aided us but it’s not something we can survive on.”

Despite the skepticism to the online shift, Caravan plans to keep their online presence for the future, as they do see some potential in their e-commerce initiatives. Additionally, they plan to stay connected with students and customers as restrictions are relaxed to hopefully increase their in-store traffic and bring the business back to its roots.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, however, Caravan Gift Shop is definitely the exception to that rule.