Retailers pivot online amid COVID-19 surge
For James Snow’s Little Emporium, Small Business Saturday is typically the busiest day on the calendar.
This year, the Middletown store owner is just happy he’s still open – unlike some of his Main Street neighbors.
“We made it through because the community has been very supportive,” Snow said. “People have rallied around small businesses.”
The small-business community in Delaware is hopeful that shop small spirit stays alive this weekend as Black Friday and Small Business Saturday launch the big push of the holiday shopping season.
For many small businesses, the spring COVID-19 shutdown and ensuing restrictions spawned a digital revolution – they could no longer afford to push off website updates. With the coronavirus spreading at record rates, they’re hopeful customers will choose to visit them on the web instead of the typical e-commerce giants.
“Shopping online doesn’t have to mean Amazon dot com,” Snow said.
The benefits of shopping locally have been well documented since American Express in 2010 created Small Business Saturday, a day to celebrate and drive traffic to local shops.
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Dollars spent at local businesses are more likely to be spent locally and support jobs in the communities they serve. Small businesses pay local taxes and often support community groups.
The marketing effort, which the Small Business Administration joined in 2015, seems to have worked. A consumer insights survey found in 2018 that 70% of consumers were aware of Small Business Saturday. Last year, Americans spent almost $2 billion more on Small Business Saturday than the year prior.
Even though sales have been up in the past few months after Delaware shops spent nearly a full quarter in lockdown, John Fleming, president of the Delaware office of the Small Business Administration, isn’t expecting any big records this year.
The expectation is consumers will be hesitant to visit stores in person, where the individualized service of small businesses typically shines. The ripple of the pandemic through the economy – from March 15 to March 21 alone, Delaware broke its record for first-time unemployment claims in a month – could also limit spending overall.
“I wish I had better news for you, but it’s going to be tough,” Fleming said. “It’s tough to compete online when you’re looking at giants like Amazon.”
Still, Delaware business owners are persisting without a firm grasp of what to expect.
Some 900 businesses have sought the guidance from the Delaware Small Business Development Center on how to bring their digital operations up to speed and attract a wider audience. The center is aiding roughly 30% more businesses than last year.
“A lot of businesses had it as a to-do item,” said Denita Henderson, the organization’s associate state director. “This kind of accelerated the idea and made it a reality.”
“Our whole instructional narrative centers around value proposition. Magnify the messaging about what you do well – quality products, individualized service – and take advantage of data that is available.”
At the Little Emporium in Middletown, Snow has used social media more to show off his home decor and gift shop. He hosts Facebook Live events and has offered free local delivery and curbside pickup throughout the pandemic.
At most, four shoppers are allowed in his physical store at once. He estimates as many as 20 people packed into the store during last year’s Small Business Saturday.
When her skincare studios were shut down in March, Erica Suppa of Fresh Faced Skin Care emphasized new product bundles featuring her own line of skincare products on her website.
The increased online sales in April and May kept her afloat until her studios in historic New Castle and Greenville reopened in June and have since accounted for more of her overall business. Before the pandemic, online sales made up only about 20% of her revenue.
Suppa hopes to keep the momentum going with her annual “giving thanks” sale, in which she’ll give away about $15,000 in products when customers reach certain spending thresholds.
“They get something unique,” Suppa said. “You’re not going to find it elsewhere and you get it in hand.”
For those who prefer to shop in person, businesses are also making changes to try to facilitate that experience in a safe manner. One route is offering “private shopping” by appointment, in addition to following the state’s protocols around social distancing and mask wearing.
Sissy Aerenson, owner of Peter Kate, a boutique in the Fairfax Shopping Center on Concord Pike, hopes it’ll make a difference.
“I’m hoping the effort we put in will only add to our business,” she said.