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.”