Modern Life

Small businesses tackle big retail changes

Store owners are finding new ways to connect with customers and create new opportunities, online and off.

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg — July 21, 2020

At One More Page Books in Arlington, Virginia, owner Eileen McGervey packs a puzzle and chocolates in a box along with a selection of books to complete an online order. She then scrawls a handwritten note across the shipping box: “We miss seeing your smiling face.”

McGervey is just one of millions of retail small-business owners who had to completely reimagine their business model as the COVID-19 crisis shut down Main Street from coast to coast. In a Harris Poll of small-business owners, 43% said they had been forced to close at least temporarily as a result of the pandemic, and 71% reported a decrease in revenue.

Now, as many open back up or navigate new regulations, they’re doing so in a changed reality with new challenges. To keep business moving during this time, small-business owners are doing what they do best: connecting personally with their customers and responding quickly to their needs.

“The way we do business now is much more labor-intensive, but we’ve had an increase in our orders and our revenue,” says McGervey, who created the personalized packages and offers curbside pickup and home delivery to keep her business afloat and customers engaged. “Whatever it takes, we’ll do it.”

“It’s a silver lining. Without this happening, I would not have had online shopping up and running anytime soon.”

—Lauren Tilden, owner of Station 7, Seattle, Washington

From clothing boutiques to wine merchants to florists, small-business owners who rely on in-person sales have ramped up their online presence in recent months. They’re also getting creative, reaching out to customers with new products and services. Nearly one-fifth of the business owners in the Harris Poll said they’ve moved their business online, and 15% have changed their product offerings in response to the pandemic.

“These are unprecedented times, and we’re all upping our game,” says Ramon Ray, small-business marketing expert and founder of Smart Hustle Media, a company that educates small-business owners. “This is the time to rise and to reimagine.”

Shifting from in-store to online

For many small businesses, the reality is that even though physical stores may be operating at limited capacity and foot traffic is lower than usual, demand is still there, says Haiyang Li, professor of strategic management and innovation at Rice University.

 “What’s different is the behavior of the customers,” he says, referencing the fact that many either can’t or aren’t ready to return to shopping in person. In the current environment, he says, “all businesses need to become more digitized.”

Lauren Tilden, owner of Station 7, a retail home goods and gift shop in Seattle, had already been planning to add online sales through the ecommerce platform Shopify, but the pandemic accelerated her plans.

To keep employees safe, Tilden closed her store a week before Seattle announced stay-at-home orders. “We spent that week really scrambling to get online,” she says. Gwen Elliot, who helps businesses navigate selling online for Shopify, says new stores created on the platform grew by 62% from March 13 to April 24 compared with the previous six weeks.

“It’s easier than you think to sell virtually,” Elliot says. “For brick-and-mortar retailers who’ve lost their main channel — the street — it’s critical to get them online.”

Tilden and her staff reached out to vendors, many of whom are local artists, to source photographs and product descriptions for the store’s website. At the same time, she placed orders for shipping and packaging supplies and purchased a label printer. Tilden was able to launch online ordering 10 days after closing her doors and says the move not only helped her reach new customers, but also reconnect with customers who have moved away but still love her store.

“It’s a silver lining,” she says. “Without this happening, I would not have had online shopping up and running anytime soon.”

Small business owner operating during COVID-19 pandemic.

Chad Hunt

Marichella Diwa, owner of Meus in Maplewood, New Jersey, bundles products together to create new offerings and make shopping convenient.

Connecting with customers where they are—at home

McGervey says the pandemic has been especially tough for small booksellers, who rely on unique, in-person events such as author readings and book clubs to distinguish themselves from larger competitors. Now that those events aren’t possible, she’s turned to social media, setting up regular Zoom sessions for author talks and book clubs. On Fridays, McGervey and two staff members put on masks and sit at least six feet apart to deliver a “State of the Store” address on Facebook Live. They chat about newly arrived books, reveal just-delivered puzzles, and keep customers informed and engaged with what’s happening at the store.

“We’ve had to pivot quickly, beefing up our online presence,” she says about her innovations. “We’re trying to keep communication open.”

Along with a steady cadence of communication with customers, Ray says personalization is key for small businesses to stay relevant and top of mind. “You can’t overcommunicate at all,” he says. “Talk to people as narrowly as you can.” He recommends dedicating time to building a customer database, segmenting customers based on their preferences, and crafting unique messages for each segment. For example, businesses can use a service like BombBomb to send personalized video emails that stand out in a customer’s inbox.

Another way to differentiate yourself, he says, is to invest in better technology. Multiple video cameras, more lighting, and better microphones can make promotional videos more engaging. And investing in a business-quality PC, printer, and additional display screens can help a business owner manage online marketing, sales, and shipping as efficiently as possible, setting them up for success after the current crisis subsides.

 “This is the time to build your [contact] list, educate people, and find moments of delight for customers,” he says. “It’s the time to experiment.”

Finding new ways to deliver value

From how they market to what they offer, Li says small businesses must be nimble and come up with novel ways to keep current customers interested and attract new ones in these uncertain times.

 “The whole competitive landscape is changing,” he says. “You have to prepare and change your business model to be innovative and develop new things for the new normal.”

This is where a small business’s personal relationships within their local community can be a strength. In the Harris Poll, 67% of small-business owners said they feel a responsibility to their local community, and one-fourth of American consumers said they’ve purchased something from a small business as a show of support during the pandemic. 

Benjy Levit, owner of Local Foods in Houston, says, "I saw a real need for fresh fruits and vegetables in our neighborhoods. The market is our most significant pivot."

Local Foods

Benjy Levit, owner of Local Foods in Houston, says, "I saw a real need for fresh fruits and vegetables in our neighborhoods. The market is our most significant pivot."

At all four Local Foods in Houston, owner Benjy Levit, who comes from a family of grocers,  transformed his counter-service restaurants into pop-up markets over a weekend, adding produce boxes and other grocery items to his restaurant’s website so customers could place orders online and then have them delivered or pick them up curbside.

 “I saw a real need for fresh fruits and vegetables in our neighborhoods,” Levit says. “The market is our most significant pivot.”

The chef is making homemade granola and pickled vegetables for sale, packaged with stickers Levit prints in-house to continue building the Local Foods brand as business shifts. Levit has also partnered with dozens of local businesses to sell their products in his market. “Our customers are finding it’s fun and different,” he says. “It’s given us a real energy.”

Curating or bundling products is another strategy that’s helping small businesses appeal to customers and make their products stand out. At Meus boutique in Maplewood, New Jersey, owner Marichella Diwa has curated her digital shop toward self-care and home goods. “Everyone wants something that makes them feel better,” says Diwa over a display of creamy body butters and lotions. On the Meus site, shoppers can “give the gift of comfort” with care packages that have names like “Hang in There” and “You Got This.” McGervey is also experimenting with new offerings, selling Surprise Boxes filled with books that staff curate after customers answer questions on their preferences, along with extras like tote bags, coloring pages, or bookmarks.

The business owners say new offerings like these will likely last well after brick-and-mortar stores reopen with new policies and practices in place. McGervey, for example, envisions reopening her physical bookstore with appointment scheduling, to limit the number of customers at any given time, while continuing virtual author events and home book deliveries.

Shopify’s Elliot says this ability to evolve quickly to meet new challenges will help entrepreneurs survive the current crisis and potentially emerge stronger in the post-COVID era. “They have creativity and determination,” she says. “The pandemic will not stop them. They’ll just find a new way.”


Learn how printed materials help small businesses stand out.