According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 21 million people are currently unemployed. To put this in perspective, the Great Recession in the early-2000s saw its height of unemployment in 2010 at 14.8 million. The COVID pandemic has not only left this number in the shadows, but the speed at which it occurred is also like no other in our history. The result? Employees and contractors were quickly displaced and left scratching their heads saying, “What just happened?” Businesses scrambled to communicate with employees, clients, and vendors. Leadership teams worked tirelessly to adhere to remote requirements, struggled to put technologies in place, and quickly built new processes to maintain revenue that would keep the doors open and employees on staff. It has left a trail of exhaustion. But, in the wreck of it all, the small business – the entrepreneur – quickly and without warning, may have felt like they were thrown out of a 20 story window, watching their life pass before them, all to hit the safety net which was faulty, at best.
I ask you…look around. Our communities are not the same. Aside from the fear of the unknown and a total mental shift, practically overnight, doors have shut – permanently. Many of our favorite retail shops have sunk and countless places we frequented for lunch have not survived. A true sadness is in it all, as it’s the entrepreneurial spirit that makes our great country thrive. It makes us unique. These hopeful spirits create our fidgets and gadgets, they give us a place to congregate that isn’t built from the cookie cutter and their creativity advances our nation in amazing ways – it’s the American Dream. But we are a bit battered and broken and we’ve lost a bit of our shine.
The reality is that eventually we will get back to our routine. We will mingle with each other again. And we will go back to work. But we will never forget what 2020 has burned into our brains and the rubble that was left in its wake. Many dreams have been lost or are still dangling in the balance. I know, nobody wants to talk about COVID anymore. Enough is enough, right? Wrong. Just like in any business situation, you can’t have blinders on. You can only mitigate future situations if you take the time to learn from what happened, face the impact, understand what was lacking, and cling to the seed of hope – planting it if there is a next time.
I talked with Samantha Moore, an entrepreneur and small business owner of an adorable boutique gift shop, Simple to Sublime, in Summerville, SC. She has handpicked the products she sells, works behind her own counter, and puts great effort into the feel you get as you walk in the door. She has, like many, the kind of business we want to have on our corners. It’s unique. It’s charming. It’s not cut and paste. Here’s a conversation I had with her. She was open about the challenges she has endured, what the new normal means and her advice for small business owners. Take heed, as the more we understand, empathize, and support these local businesses, the more we will be able to look this beast in the face and say, never again.
Have you faced challenges before, prior to COVID-19, that made you question your decision to be a small business owner?
Of course! There are many instances that have caused me to pause and ask the question, “Why am I doing this?” Sometimes it was a lack of cash flow, difficulty hiring the right people, economic downturns, rent increases or even local or national politics. But I always took a step back, assessed what was going on, and readjusted the plan. For me, throwing in the towel was never an option. You must be resilient, a bit stubborn, and have a large measure of creativity in solving problems to ride the waves.
How has COVID-19 impacted your business?
In my head, I have this image of coronavirus as a huge tsunami wiping out a small town. That’s how crushing it feels to my small business. Events happened so quickly, that I literally couldn’t communicate plans to my team before they would change. The economic impact on my business has been catastrophic. As the store was forced to close, the only opportunity for sales was through social media and a new online store that had to be created. Everything was in warp speed and for a business with limited resources, it is an understatement to say that things were difficult.
As businesses start to reopen around the country, what do you see as an ongoing challenge for small business owners?
Customers are likely going to be nervous about coming back inside stores. I also believe that customers, in quarantine, have really been pushed towards online retailers and big-box stores, as they were the only ones that were open. I am hopeful but know that it may be an uphill battle to get them back into the independent brick-and-mortar stores. Couple this with the crushing unemployment statistics and we are going to have to fight, hard, to get consumers to spend their money on discretionary items.
How have you had to get creative in your marketing?
Prior to COVID, we did not have an online store. Now we do. We had never done social selling. Now we do Facebook Live as a part of our regular routine. We’ve also added free local delivery and we work hard to stay connected to our loyal customers through virtual events. Everything is different. In the end, if we can pull through, this trial-by-fire will make us stronger.
What would you like policymakers to do to help the small business owner right now?
I received the Economic Injury Disaster Loan. But, as we all know, loans are a bandage that can soothe today but create more financial difficulty down-the-road. I also received funds from the Payroll Protection Program, but the economic impacts will last far longer than the eight weeks of payroll that we received. Then what? We need long term help and legislation that will ensure that future funds go to the businesses that they were designed to help.
And, going forward, we need policymakers to solve the unrest in our country and work across party lines to restore consumer confidence. Then, and only then, will we build a foundation that is on solid ground.
What is your advice to other small business owners?
Rest when you need to rest and fight when you need to fight. We need to remember to stay connected with our customers, stay educated on our industry, reach out to our peers, make webinars part of our daily work calendar, think creatively, and work harder than we have ever worked before. My biggest suggestion would be to not look at today for the pot of gold. Do the hard work and make consistent changes now. This will catapult us when the world gets back to our “new normal.” The real gain will be in the long term.
Quick tips and ideas for small business owners
I asked some marketing pros, and here are three tips for small business owners in the midst of the COVID crisis:
1. Run a social media contest. Tom De Spiegelaere is a Senior Digital Marketer and the founder of Tom Spicky. He suggests running a “Caption This” contest as a simple attention-getter campaign. By uploading a funny photo from your store on social and requesting their participation, it will engage consumers, incorporate humor, become highly shareable, and will help to increase brand awareness.
2. Create D.I.Y. projects from items that you sell – share through your social platforms. James Jason, Assistant Marketing Manager for Mitrade, knows that you need to find customers where they are (which may be at home). Get creative by coming up with tiny projects that customers can use – paired with what you sell. For example, show them a shirt and couple it with a simple how-to for a matching face mask.
3. Show you care and understand your customer’s concerns. John Butterworth, In-House Marketing Manager at Virtual Internships, knows that you must embrace COVID-19 and that in order to find success for a brick-and-mortar location you must make your customers feel safe. Use tools, such as Calendly, to provide private appointments in-store.
Meet financial and emotional stress with action
The pandemic has created a disaster of epic proportions for many in our country. Some effects are yet to be seen. But we know one thing for sure. Small businesses and entrepreneurs in every state are fighting to regain what they lost, rebuild what has been destroyed, and welcome their beloved customers back, with open arms. As Samantha told me, “Now is the time to meet stress with action and to not let perfection stand in the way of progress.” When all is said and done, it may not look the same. It may not feel the same, but we are resilient, and we will regain our shine.