Adjusting to a new business environment is never easy, especially for owners of physical space. It seems that every time there’s a paradigm shift in thinking or ordinance, the small business owner pays the price for adjusting. Years ago, many restaurant and bar owners were forced to react to changes in smoking laws. First, they were mandated to section off parts of their establishments to accommodate the smoking patrons, until finally, governments decided to ban indoor smoking in all public places.
Once again, retailers, restaurateur, and shop owners are tasked with the challenges brought on by COVID-19. With new sets of criteria that are stricter than ever before, many store owners must be wondering if adjusting their business model is worth the expense at all. In the past few months, the E-commerce industry has seen a surge in growth due to pandemic infused distancing. While some shop owners scramble to meet the challenge, many more have shut their doors permanently.
There are alternatives available to small business operators, from two perspectives, or even a combination of both. What only remains is the desire to compete on a creative scale, and try new approaches to meeting the challenge head-on.
With increasing difficulty in justifying rent money every month, not to mention staffing, many retailers have decided on giving up their brick and mortar locations. The cost of keeping physical premises open has forced many entrepreneurs into the wide-open world of e-commerce. Competing online may be more cost-effective, but standing out as a featured business is oddly even more difficult for local retailers. Giving up the advantage of being the “corner store” to dive in with an enormous world of virtual stores, can have catastrophic results if not approached with solid plans.
Recently, a close friend of mine, we’ll call him Leon, permanently closed his custom art and framing store. He felt that after being forced to shut his doors for several months, the prospect of maintaining rent being unrealistic, and the widespread continuing effects from COVID-19, would keep many of his customers away at least for the foreseeable future. Leon understood that art is far from being a family staple in the best of times. Disposal income has now become a luxury for more people than ever before.
When my friend closed his doors for the final time this month and moved his materials into a colleague’s warehouse, he discovered advantages he hadn’t recognized before. Leon informed his client base through email that though his shop had closed, he was still available on a ‘by appointment’ basis, either in the space put aside at the warehouse for him or locally through in-person consultations. Other than home sales or household improvement projects, when was the last time you were offered a free consultation in the privacy of your home?
Without being shackled to store hours, Leon discovered better ways to optimize his time and maintain positive business relationships through private visits. With safety precautions at top of mind, he created a new business model, and customers were thrilled to do business with him from the comfort of their home.
Networking and marketing his new service to prospective customers, he also became more efficient because a change in focus created free time for him to work remotely. Buying back his time also enabled him to pursue other ventures or expand the scope of his chosen field, resulting in a better web presence and efficiency of ordering through his online portal.
There are times when we need to step away to see what we are missing. This is certainly not a feasible solution for all fixed location businesses, but for some, it may produce savings on hard costs while simultaneously presenting new opportunities. Leon is thriving now with new product offerings and drop-shipped sales.
For businesses that rely on walk-in patronage to survive, another creative approach may be necessary to draw customers back into their shops. Walk-up business is only beginning to rebound in most urban centers. Many people are still slowly getting over their reluctance to return to public places.
An idea came to mind the other day as I ventured out from my cocoon for the first time in months. While enjoying a rare lunch out at a local restaurant, I discovered an innovative solution to the new dining experience, that could easily be applied in a variety of retail formats.
With personal health and safety still top of mind or most returning shoppers, the establishment I visited fitted their premises with wood-framed, plexiglass dividers that clamped to the side of the restaurant bar. Each piece was adjustable so that customers could slide each barrier to the desired length along the bar, accommodating the size of their private party. Tables were provided with similar dividers which stood on wheels, creating an Irish pub-style that adjusted to the patrons’ immediate needs.
I spoke with the owner and learned that he hired a local contractor to design and erect these custom-built barriers. The solution certainly came at a considerable initial cost, but the bar owner decided that to save his business, the cash outlay was worth the eventual gain. If he was to thrive in a new environment, he explained, he would have to create an atmosphere that was safe while maintaining the social aspects of dining out.
There are several office space supply companies equipped with ready-made dividers for rent or purchase. These businesses have recognized the opportunity in providing private space for customers. Most of us know an independent contractor or handyperson who could also fashion some solution to fit individual needs.
From a marketing perspective, the goodwill realized in providing adaptive, separate spaces for customers, sends a clear message that your business places a high value on their wellbeing. A privatized shopping experience could even become an added feature attraction. Who doesn’t like to be treated like royalty or a celebrity when out shopping? Positioning safety measures as a fun and interesting aspect of the shopping experience will only enhance the image you project to your community. Local businesses that instill trust are more likely to bring patrons back indoors.
Ultimately, only your creativity and sensing the opportunity in the changing retail climate will bring back customers. Surviving the latest crisis will come at a cost and some hard work, but when was it ever easy to flourish in the highly competitive commerce industry?
Longtime retailers and service businesses have been here before. Meeting the constant challenges of change, ultimately determines who will succeed. Finding the best opportunities for the survival and rebirth of your enterprise stems from your willingness to try new ideas. I’m looking forward to more success stories from innovative entrepreneurs and please, lend your support to local enterprise.