So here we are, a few months into a pandemic that led to a pseudo-recession, with no clear end in sight. We are all tired of the terms “unprecedented” and “new normal” and news reports indicate that we are all growing weary of social distancing and quarantining. For those of us who are small business owners, the impact is on more than just your personal life. A recent survey indicated that over 40% of small business owners were seeing sales volumes of less than half of what it was before the coronavirus crisis. And it’s not just sales volumes that have been impacted. Many businesses are struggling with supply chain disruptions, social distancing accommodations at the workplace and the health and safety of their employees and customers.
But progress is being made. When small business owners were forced to shut down, there was a collective panic. After all, small businesses typically have, on average, less than a month of cash in reserves. But thanks to the PPP, EIDL and other government financing programs, the impact has not been as bad as feared. According to the NFIB, 80 percent of small business owners applied for the PPP and nearly all of them have received their loan so far.
Many businesses are hanging on by a thread, as the U.S. starts to slowly and cautiously open back up. And while some businesses are thriving (grocery stores, for example), others are still not fully operational, and some haven’t made a decision yet about how or when to open back up. Some business owners have already thrown in the towel, although hopefully the initial estimates of 7.5 million out of the country’s 30 million or so small business permanently closing won’t come to fruition thanks to government intervention.
Business owners are eager to see a path forward, and to finally have a renewed sense of optimism about the year 2020. While every business is different, there are some key elements that can help lead from despair to optimism, and perhaps some new paths that will be better than the original plan. Here are some suggestions to consider:
Whether your business is in the B2B or B2C world, this is one of the key components of a successful strategy right now. I’m not talking about issuing a formal “COVID-19 Statement” to all your customers or on your website – I’m talking about good, old fashioned two-way communication. Put a survey together to ask your customers (and suppliers) what their key concerns are. If you own a restaurant, reach out to your customers on social media to ask what would make them comfortable coming back. If you’re accustomed to meeting clients in person, consider new and different ways to convey your sales information. Forward thinking small businesses recognize the value of their existing relationships, and regular and ongoing outreach helps maintain customer loyalty and ensure you can meet your customers’ needs now and in the future.
Small business owners need to stick together! One of the best examples of that is the All Together beer collaboration. All Together is a “worldwide open-ended beer collaboration created to raise support for the industry we love so much.” An open source recipe is shared, and local breweries are encouraged to put their own spin on the recipe, and then donate a portion of the proceeds to supporting hospitality professionals in their local community. One brewery offered up the base recipe, while another offered a series of label artwork. A packaging company is offering to print labels at cost, and a website company is donating their time to manage the website. To date, there are 855 breweries from all 50 states and 53 countries offering an All Together beer. Check out the website to find the brewer closest to you.
There are so many small businesses that have been “meaning” to move more of their sales and marketing online but haven’t quite gotten around to it. Well, now’s your chance! If your customers can’t come to you, then find a way to get yourself in front of them. I have seen plenty of versions of a virtual trade show booth, where “visitors” can click on a variety of displays to learn more about industrial products, new technology, and manufacturing equipment and services. And of course, many retailers have been forced to move sales online quickly.
My favorite example of this sort of innovation was recently shared by a friend. Acme Junk Company is located in downtown Amery WI (population 2807). According to its Facebook page, the family-run business “finds unique pieces of history and brings them back to life” and also offers items for sale “in their found condition.” And after the store was shut down due to COVID-19, it created “Acme Junk TV”, which is broadcast every Thursday evening at 7pm on Facebook Live. Items are displayed online while the audience posts comments and purchases items. The “TV” show also includes advertisements that support the other businesses in their small town, along with vendors and other antique shops they work with. The Facebook page is currently at over 6000 likes – so clearly the store has expanded its audience beyond its small town!
There are so many businesses in the entertainment, travel and hospitality industries that have been forced to shut down for an indefinite time. How do you continue to attract attention for a travel agency or a movie theater with no sign of change coming soon to your business? Virtual travel tours have become a popular option, so folks can plan out their ideal vacation sometime in the future. And our locally owned movie theater has been selling popcorn, pizza and gift cards while the theater is closed. Beyond that, they promoted an offer to rent out an entire movie studio to play video games with your friends on the big screen. If you can’t sell what you ordinarily do, then find some alternatives. Some sales are better than no sales, and the attention helps keep you present in the minds of your customers.
While some businesses are forced to compromise as they are still unable to bring in their most regular sources of revenue, others have been able to improvise, offering new products or services that complement their existing product line. This can help supplement lost revenue from limited customers or other restrictions that keep your business from operating ‘as usual’. For example, a local arcade with classic pinball and video games is now limited to a smaller number of customers they can have at one time, but they compensated by adding a line of cloth masks for sale featuring some of their customers’ favorite characters, including Mario Brothers, Star Wars, Pokémon, Scooby Doo, Star Wars and more. The masks sold out almost immediately, and now they continue to offer a wide line of themed masks for sale daily as they open up for business slowly.
There are, of course, examples all over of small businesses that have found ways to follow at least one if not more of these paths. How can your small business make a change to help you navigate these uncharted waters and emerge safely on the other side? Share your stories with me in the comments!