There’s no doubt that the corona virus pandemic has been hard on small businesses. For example, a survey of 350 U.S. small businesses from different regions and industries, conducted by the Electronic Transactions Association and the Strawhecker Group, showed that 40% of business owners had temporarily or indefinitely closed operations as a result of COVID-19. Restaurants, bars and retailers were affected the worst by the pandemic, followed by segments that included schools and nonprofits.
However, for some businesses the pandemic has been a boon, not a bust. More than 30% of the businesses surveyed reported an increase in sales, led by health-care providers. Among merchants still taking in-store payments, 27% reported a rise in contactless payments through smartphones and contactless cards. Card-not-present commerce also increased.
Small businesses need to think outside the box
Of course, not all businesses are so lucky as to have products or services made essential by the pandemic, such as medical supplies, cleaning products and groceries. That said, many businesses have learned very quickly to change how they operate and what they offer, allowing them to survive and in some cases thrive in these difficult times.
Lior Zehtser, co-founder of online accounting firm ConnectCPA, points out: “To pivot, you really need to think outside the box and be comfortable with taking a risk and experimenting with a different or unique business model. Your idea obviously has to take the friction away from close contact, so anything delivery-based — or anything ‘contactless’ — would be a great start.”
Some of the innovations undertaken by small businesses include:
Trying new delivery methods
The food and cannabis sectors, for example, have been very quick to cater to customers’ safety concerns with their delivery services. In Montreal, Virtual Front Desk provides a solution that enables seniors to shop from home, while communicating via video with an employee in the grocery store.
Or in different parts of the country where allowed, cannabis (and other) retailers offer curbside deliveries of products to customers, who have already paid for their purchases, keeping the interactions as safe as possible. Many cannabis retailers across Canada have implemented Click and Collect model, where customers can reserve products on your website and securely pay and pick up in-store, or buy a product online and pick up in-store (subject to Provincial regulations). This helps store staff manage the customer experience more efficiently, and ensure social-distancing safety measures are followed, while providing customers with a convenient buying option that helps them minimize time spent in public.
Diversifying the product mix
Hard-hit businesses such as restaurants need to think outside the menu. In some cases, laws have been changed so they can deliver alcoholic beverages along with food orders. Some restaurants are expanding their businesses to provide a variety of groceries to customers. Consumers have the convenience of one-stop shopping, and restaurants get a fresh revenue stream.
Cutting back on the product mix
In some instances, it makes more sense for a small business to cut back on what it offers, to its core products or services. If the market demand is spiking for one item, then focus on that and ride the wave. For example, Brampton, Ontario-based ItalPasta cut its offering of 63 types of pasta to the top six basic cuts, because “people aren’t so fancy right now,” says the owner and president, Joseph Vitale.
For some businesses, such as yoga studios, fitness clubs and martial-arts schools, the move to videoconferencing solutions, including Zoom and GoToMeeting, has been an essential way to stay in touch with members during COVID-19 shutdowns.
Even as these businesses open again, some are continuing to use the technology to accommodate anyone nervous about visiting a public space, or to widen their customer base to other geographic areas.
Musicians also have been using this technology and live-streaming to play to fans who cannot gather in physical venues.
Increasing online ordering
With many stores forced to close their physical doors, small businesses have explored e-commerce possibilities in rising numbers. While retail sales fell across Canada 26.4% to $34.7 billion, in April, online sales climbed to $3.4 billion, an increase of 120% from the previous year. In total, online selling composed nearly 10% of everything sold during in April, which is an all-time high.
Having opened their eyes to the importance of online sales, many retailers will likely continue to make them an essential part of their business mix, catering to how their customers prefer to shop.
In Winnipeg, Black Market Provisions closed, at least temporarily, its bricks-and-mortar store to devote itself to online sales of its homemade food, at the same time as it expanded its product line to provisions such as flour, milk, toilet paper and chips.
“We love the focus and attention this [the pandemic] has brought to small businesses,” says co-owner Alana Fiks, “and we’re hopeful that we will all come out of this stronger and continue with the kindness and generosity we’ve been feeling.”