Changing Quilts: How Mekong Quilts transformed itself to confront a pandemic

 

Having spent almost twenty years developing a quilting-focused social enterprise for under-privileged women in the Mekong Delta, founding director Bernard Kervyn has become a veteran of dealing with difficult situations but the year 2020 has been an uphill challenge of larger proportions.

“Purchasing habits have changed so much. People are more keen on using the website,” Bernard began our conversation on a light note.

Mekong Quilts’ beautiful high quality handmade products are the physical heart and soul of more than 200 women in Vietnam and Cambodia. Loved by many foreigners who reside or visit Vietnam, the arrival of the pandemic has queued the need for a serious change of direction. Vietnam closed its doors to foreign visitors early-March and Bernard quickly realized that it was no longer viable to focus on sales to tourists.

“We don’t know how long [this will last]. We must really target local customers. Those who like quality handmade products,” he insisted. 

Mekong Quilts changing along with the tides of the pandemic

As a responsive measure, Mekong Quilts’ nimble quilters re-dedicated three days of time, and income, to produce high-quality reusable face masks for the less privileged. Fashionable, re-washable and sporting a microbe filtration layer, Mekong Quilts’ 4-layered cloth masks are now offered in 7 designs and swiftly became a hit amongst locals and expatriates alike. With years of experience producing labour-intensive quilts, Mekong Quilts was able to churn out more than 4,000 pieces of reusable masks within a week. 

A bunch of colorful masks handmade by our quilters.

“Even the Vietnamese are inquiring [on Facebook],” Bernard said proudly. Just like handmade quilts, Mekong Quilts’ masks are made with a philosophy of durability in mind. A pleasant side effect was a reduction of pollution generated by ‘covid items’.

The masks’ initial success spurred a rise of social media attention and self-reflection. With a reduction of more than 50% of walk-in customers, was a physical shop still practical? And were many of Mekong Quilts’ fashion products still sensible for a global crisis?

With lessened workload, his staff volunteered to share shifts on reduced wages while seeking alternative employment to put bread on the table. Camaraderie and team spirit has kept almost everything afloat while Mekong Quilts quickly transitioned to an online-focused business. Fortunately, Bernard and his team aren’t strangers to the concept of ‘work from home’.

A group of quilters in a remote village of Vietnam.

“Our shops are far away, anyway. We’ve been communicating by Skype regularly for a long time.”

Adjusting product line-up and sales strategies key helped Mekong Quilts’ prosper amidst the chaos

A pandemic that changes consumer priorities also calls for radical measures. New fashion collections planned for summer 2020 have been sized down, making way for products that are comparatively more utilitarian, such as laptop pouches, aprons, pot holders and casual wear.

One of Mekong Quilts’ newest products, the apron.

Mekong Quilts’ packaging team has begun search for a new alternative to plastic, a near-essential ‘evil’ in apparel packaging.

With most sales going online indefinitely, Bernard and his team have made immediate plans for a future where a physical shopfront is no longer the main priority. Revamping Mekong Quilts’ website for a friendlier e-shopping experience has become vital; a chat window during working hours now allows customers to ask questions to an actual sales executive from Mekong Quilts. He is also spending more time on Linkedin, where direct interest from other professionals around the world has unexpectedly boosted sales. Many of Mekong Quilts’ Facebook posts are now focused on social values and charity, such as a recent summary about how sales performance in 2018 helped Mekong Quilts fund scholarships of more than 200 children. Entries like this receive more impressions and positive attention compared to product-focused ones. Quality of products may be important, but the mission of Mekong Quilts markets itself without deliberate efforts.

Group of children holding a sign reading: #IGotoSchool.

“It’s a gift that gives twice!” Bernard explained. He has in mind a modest target; tripling online sales by the end of the year. To sweeten the deal, his team is also working on a buy-back programme where Mekong Quilts’ products are given back to the needy for reasonable credit towards new purchases. 

With social distancing rules lifted recently in Ho Chi Minh City, Bernard and his team are looking forward to an annual biking trip which is usually held near the scenic sand dunes of Mũi Né to commemorate Non-smoking Day. Initially planned for 31st May 2020, the team unanimously agreed to postpone the event until late July. Beyond technology and efficiency, Bernard emphasizes the importance of family spirit and maintaining psychological well-being amongst employees during tough times.

A model of bamboo bike, produced by Mekong Quitls.

“What is a weekend again? It’s the weekends all the time,” he laughed.

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