Published on September 30, 2020, at 10:45 p.m.
by Emie Garrett.
Nearly eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, there is no doubt that small businesses have faced the brunt of the blow financially. Down the street sits an empty storefront where a thriving local business sat a few months ago. On social media, among the masked selfies, is a post announcing the closure of that little shop across town. Every week it seems a small business has made the heartbreaking decision to permanently close its doors due to the unprecedented strain COVID-19 has placed on its business.
In the early months of the pandemic, some businesses were deemed essential and allowed to keep their doors open while others were forced to cease operation until further notice. By the end of May, disparities between the impact of coronavirus on different sectors of the small business industry were clear. Those in the “essential” category, like food service businesses, were more financially stable than “unessential” businesses, like retail shops or salons.
Although the small business industry has clearly taken a hard financial hit during 2020, and the fate of countless small businesses still remains largely unknown, finances are not the only cause for concern.
With consumers forced into their homes, they are turning to the fiercest competitors of small retail businesses — Amazon, eBay and other large e-commerce players — like never before. These large corporate retailers posed a threat to the livelihood of small businesses long before the coronavirus dominated the world. Now, with safer-at-home orders in place, these online retail giants provide everything a consumer might need with one click and a couple days’ wait.
Because of the convenience of websites like Amazon, and recent consumer data revealed by McKinsey showing that consumers are likely to permanently adopt their new shop-from-home behavior, now is not the time for small businesses to sit back and wait to see what happens. Local retailers are being forced to sink or swim in this unusual new business environment, and in order to swim, they must adapt and reevaluate their tried and true business and communication strategies of the past.
One small retailer refusing to sink is The Perfect Touch, an Alabama boutique with locations in Demopolis and Tuscaloosa. Co-owner Kayte Randall said, “Our top priority is always to accommodate our customers. With COVID we are working extremely hard to give them the service they expect from us while keeping them safe.”
The Perfect Touch is known for its impeccable customer service, but it had to reevaluate how to achieve the same level of service while maintaining the safety of its employees and customers. For The Perfect Touch, or “PT” as it is affectionately called by its regular customers, this means offering quick curbside pick-up and delivery.
To maintain established customer relationships, as well as foster new ones that would typically be built through face-to-face interaction, The Perfect Touch began to leverage social media to continue interacting with customers, even when its doors were temporarily closed for traditional business. “We have really amped up our social media,” said Randall. “We post items, customers comment or DM what they want, and if they lived close by, we would do same-day delivery, and if not, we ship.”
The Perfect Touch also had to reevaluate what customers were looking for. Where spring and summer are typically the seasons that cocktail dresses are flying out of the store, and tuxes are being ordered for a never-ending stream of weddings and proms, everyone is staying at home. Instead of offering an endless selection of evening wear, The Perfect Touch began purchasing more loungewear so that customers could look stylish for Zoom, but still feel comfortable.
“It’s all about adjusting to what your consumers need while staying true to your business. It sounds simple, but with such strange circumstances, it was tricky — and we’ve been in this business a long time. We are finding our new normal and keeping our customers’ needs and safety first, always,” said Randall.
Another small business finding its new normal is Lindsey’s Florist and Gifts in Demopolis, which was deemed essential during quarantine due to its services for funerals. Co-owner Sandra Seale said that its staff was thankful for the essential designation that allowed it to stay open, but they still faced their fair share of challenges.
When the world went on lockdown in March, it was the beginning of peak wedding season, which, for a florist, is the busiest time of year. Seale said, “Several weddings were canceled and postponed; that was a big challenge for us.”
Another big challenge Lindsey’s faced was “letting the public know that we are still here and ready to service them,” said Seale. Similar to The Perfect Touch, Lindsey’s also got creative through social media, curbside pick-up, delivery and personal shopping to remind consumers that it is still here and ready to offer service unmatched by big corporations like 1-800-Flowers or UrbanStems.
In less than a year, the world has rapidly changed, and the business landscape is no exception. The rules for how businesses connect with audiences have been completely rewritten, scratched out, then written again. For small businesses to keep up with the big retail players, they are using a lot of ingenuity, strategy and a little grit. It has not been an easy ride, and they are not entirely out of the woods yet, but just like everyone else, they are adjusting to life’s new normal and doing their best to create that personal connection that keeps people coming back.