In the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, consumers buoyed small businesses with gift card purchases and online fundraising campaigns. But as the pandemic persists and restrictions constrain operating hours, many independent businesses continue to struggle.
Throughout the country, owners have creatively come up with strategies to keep businesses afloat, which benefits consumers, proprietors and a neighborhood’s commercial health.
“There’s a multiplier effect,” said Bill Brunelle, the managing partner of Independent We Stand, an organization that helps its small-business members nationwide with marketing. “If you buy at a hardware store, that owner may hire a local accountant, while the employees may go to local restaurants and other nearby stores. The success of one business can steamroll through the economy.”
Ande Breunig, a real estate agent in Evanston, Illinois, said, “Everyone complains about the lack of retailing, but we can only keep these businesses afloat with our participation.” Breunig started a Facebook group hoping to motivate residents to increase their support of local shops and services.
So how can consumers contribute to this virtuous cycle, especially during the all-important holiday season? Here are some tips to consider.
Before you reflexively hit “place order” with an e-commerce behemoth, find out whether a local retailer offers the same item. Independent bookstores, for example, can often order and quickly receive your selection. While you can get many things online, “go for a walk, go into a store, keep your mask on and shop,” said Ellen Baer, the president and chief executive of the Hudson Square Business Improvement District, devoted to an area west of SoHo in Manhattan. “Think of the people on the other end of the purchase.”
But shopping locally does not necessarily mean forgoing all online sites. Platforms like Bookshop and Alibris connect users to small booksellers. Clothing boutiques can sell through sites like Shopify, Lyst.com and Farfetch, as well as Sook, a newcomer that also hosts stores selling housewares.
When sending gifts to out-of-town friends and family, look for independent stores in their towns. And don’t assume that an e-commerce site can out-deliver a local business — even online sites have experienced delays because of the pandemic’s supply-chain disruption.
Go to the source
There are always times when you need delivery. But on other days, think twice about how you order takeout. Rather than using a delivery app, ask for curbside pickup: Sites like Grubhub and Uber Eats charge restaurants fees that can reduce already thin margins. Instacart and Shipt, two companies that offer shopping and delivery, also charge the merchants who use the sites.
And while it is easy to purchase through a so-called digital shop on sites like Facebook and Instagram, shopping through third-party apps typically reduces the net profit for the merchant. (Facebook, which owns Instagram, has waived selling fees through the end of the year but will re-evaluate the practice in January, a Facebook spokesperson said in an email.)
Help bolster a business’s social media presence by “liking” hardware stores, dry cleaners and other independent shops on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Write positive reviews, post photos generously of purchases, and don’t forget to tag the businesses. And consider slightly broader efforts, like community email lists and social media groups like Nextdoor.
Retailers are savvy when it comes to selling, but many don’t fully understand that social media plays a crucial role, Breunig said. Through her Facebook group, she started an “adopt a shop” effort, in which residents select a store and commit to shopping there once a week (with no spending minimum) and posting about their experiences on Facebook. Within five days, Breunig said, 24 Evanston stores were “adopted.”
You can double the effect of philanthropic efforts by involving small businesses whenever possible. Order meals for essential workers from independent restaurants. Shop local when buying for clothing drives. And even if it’s a bit more expensive, purchase from local markets for food drives.
Suzanne Fiske, the director of on-air development for WHYY, the public radio and television stations in Philadelphia, had yet another idea. “Our listeners care about the mom-and-pop shop next door that is having trouble during the pandemic,” she said, so she asked donors on social media platforms to name their favorite local business when they contributed to be read aloud. The station awarded the two with the most votes — Horsham Square Pharmacy in Horsham, Pennsylvania, and MYX, a Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, startup that creates a custom-blend beverage dispenser — radio advertising worth $3,500. The promotion also motivated listener donations, with more than 700 contributors calling on the day of the small-business challenge, close to three times the typical number, Fiske added.
Service businesses — including personal trainers and hair salons — have especially been affected by the pandemic since they are among the trickiest to reopen. Gift cards help, but so does generous tipping for the ones that are open.
And remember that small businesses rely on regular customers, even as they try to attract new ones. Like so many others, Symone Johnson, who owns Indulge Hair Salon in Englewood, New Jersey, was unprepared for a sudden closure in March. She began making videos to help her clients style their own hair without charge and hosted virtual sessions to recreate an online version to allow socializing.
Her clients offered to pay, but she declined, she said. “I didn’t do it for the financial benefit — it kept me busy and I didn’t think of myself.” New clients came after watching the videos, she said, and both they and the preexisting clientele showed their generosity. “Instead of a 20% tip, it became a 50% tip,” Johnson said.
Accept the rack rate
Everyone loves a discount, but perhaps now is not the time. If you can afford it, pay full price.
Participate in community efforts
While the pandemic has left many feeling isolated, local business organizations are trying to fill the void with socially distanced community programs that can spur economic activity.
The Chamber of Commerce in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, for example, is sponsoring a monthlong, online bingo contest in which each square is a “call to action,” including donating to a local nonprofit or taking a virtual class.
Share ideas with local business organizations or municipal governments seeking ways to help. Downtown Phoenix is expanding its traditional holiday market, Phoestivus, to use empty storefronts to showcase the creations of local artisans as well as some retailers’ inventory. Items displayed in the storefronts can be purchased on smartphones using QR codes or other forms of touch-free payment.
“It’s a way to bring a community out,” said Samantha Jackson, the senior director of strategy and community affairs at the nonprofit Downtown Phoenix. “There are people who don’t come downtown who stick to their neighborhoods who are surprised at how nice it is.”
Offer your skills
If you’re an accountant, a lawyer, a banker, or a digital marketing specialist, to name just a few, local businesses may welcome your help. Kimberly Pardiwala, for example, who most recently led a business that arranged group sales for Broadway shows, grew concerned that restaurants would again suffer with the onset of cold weather. The Larchmont, New York, resident approached David Masliah, the owner of the town’s popular Encore Bistro, to order prix fixe dinners regularly for her neighborhood association. “We are all so separate now, so it’s important to restore our community,” she said.
Proprietors are under enormous, sometimes existential, pressure right now, so share emotional support when you can. Ask retailers how they are holding up and inquire about employees who may now be unemployed.