No one is shocked to learn that the pandemic shifted things for small businesses in a big way. Many companies had to limit their hours or the number of people in their brick and mortars. Some embraced their future with e-commerce and moved business online. Others had to learn what it means to have employees working from home over Zoom. Many relied on support from their local community to get by.
What your consumers, employees, and community need
Now that we’re out of the eye of the storm, we’re beginning to see how permanent that shift really is. Consumers have grown accustomed to shopping a certain way, and employees are beginning to demand more flexible work options. The market is becoming more centered around the human experience, and small businesses need to adapt.
As you think about what comes next, there are three key audiences to consider for post-pandemic small business recovery: your customers, your employees, and your community. In this blog, we’ll explore each of these critical areas and how you, as a small business owner, can meet their needs in order to thrive.
Rethinking the customer experience
Thanks to the pandemic, consumer behavior has changed. Consumers had to become increasingly self-sufficient. They cooked their own meals and gave themselves haircuts (often badly). Getting online was also one of the only windows to the outside world. The internet helped people connect to friends and family, get work done, and find a respite in entertainment.
Consumers also looked for flexible options. The opportunity to pick up alcoholic beverages curbside, order their groceries online, or even watch the latest movie release from their couch OR a theater led to a shift in consumer expectations.
The switch to online shopping
As shoppers relied more on digital channels, the growth of e-commerce accelerated by two to five times the pre-pandemic rate. It’s not surprising that small businesses rapidly adopted e-commerce solutions—it came down to a matter of survival.
E-commerce sales surged for products related to health and safety, including personal protection and groceries. Older customers, who had never shopped on the internet before, took advantage of online grocery shopping. Even as life gets back to normal, this trend isn’t going away. Consumers like what e-commerce can offer them: flexibility, personalization, and ultimately, convenience.
But while many customers loved shopping online, others are excited to return to your brick and mortar. So, what’s a small business owner to do?
Making the switch to e-commerce took a major investment from small business owners. Retaining the progress made through e-commerce while simultaneously focusing on recovery and post-pandemic shopping experiences means small business owners will have to double their efforts. Their goal will be to create a customer shopping journey and options that feel the same, no matter the channel.
Small businesses can meet this demand by focusing on omni-channel retail. Omni-channel experiences make it easy to shop and remove the traditional barriers to purchase. This sales process factors in every possible sales channel a customer may use, like in-store shopping, a mobile app, and e-commerce, and creates a seamless experience. A customer can see a product on social media, shop for it online, and pick it up in-store. If they need to return it, a chatbot can help them create a printed return label and ship the item back to the store. Or a customer can look to see if a specific ingredient is in stock at their local grocery store using the e-commerce app on their mobile phone to avoid a wasted trip.
How can it work for small businesses?
To make omni-channel experiences work for you, first, consider what offerings you want to bring back “in real life” vs. what makes sense to keep online. Take the health and wellness industry, for example.
Telehealth offered an essential benefit for patients during the pandemic: access. When everything was shut down, patients could use a smartphone, tablet, or computer to connect with a doctor without ever stepping into a doctor’s office. They could get the prescriptions and continuity of care they needed to get healthy from the comfort of their home.
While a telehealth appointment might not replace the in-person care of a doctor’s office, it’s a convenient option and even an enhancement to healthcare. Telehealth offers applications across the board, including mental health.
Home workouts are also here to stay. During the height of the pandemic, many consumers invested in their home gyms. While fitness buffs are eager to hit the gym, they also like the convenience of working out with their favorite instructor wherever they are. With virtual classes, people no longer get waitlisted either. Boutique gyms and fitness studios can serve more people at once, and that can benefit profit margins.
Offering your services in multiple ways can make what you provide to customers convenient by meeting their needs wherever they are.
Meeting employee expectations post-pandemic
Consumers aren’t the only ones who want options; your employees do too. Employees have grown used to flexible work arrangements and aren’t ready to go back to how things were.
Plus, the pandemic humanized the people we work with every day. We saw their homes and families in the background of Zoom calls. We also witnessed many people losing their jobs or working through less-than-ideal conditions. Burnout and languishing were common themes we heard over and over.
Small business owners need to consider “the whole person” in each employee when moving toward recovery after the pandemic. That means investing in the tools and processes that support work/life balance, offer mental health and wellness support, and help get the job done.
Hybrid work schedules
Remote work also gave people a taste of what flexibility with work could be like. Without long commute times and with a better work-life balance, working remotely or hybrid work schedules may be the make-or-breaking point for employees. In fact, this has become so prominent that researchers and journalists have coined the term ‘The Great Resignation’—meaning that employees choose to quit their jobs rather than return to the office.
Employees want to be able to choose when and how often they go into the workplace. They also feel that their reason for being should be about more than just face time. While many employees say they are happy to return to the office, they also desire the flexibility to work from home a couple days a week. And, as a small business owner, you might be glad to know that working from home can make your employees even more productive.
A focus on mental health and wellness
Since 40% of people reported struggling with their mental health or substance abuse during the pandemic, it seems time to focus on it. Offering flexible schedules is undoubtedly part of prioritizing mental health, but you can also take a few other steps.
If you plan to have employees come back to the workplace, you can do certain things to ensure their health and safety. Consider putting up physical barriers, providing PPE, or implementing regular and more thorough cleaning processes.
You should also refresh your memory on what mental health benefits your employees already receive. They may get specific mental health benefits as part of their health insurance, or you may have an Employee Assistant Program. Make sure your employees are educated about those benefits. Thanks to telehealth, it’s easier than ever for people to access mental health services.
Refactor your technology
As you support new ways of working, you may have new technology needs to consider. Many small business owners picked up and plan to keep using the tech tools that helped them collaborate and communicate better during the pandemic, like Zoom, Teams, and Slack.
You’ve probably also heard about ransomware attacks recently, which some say have increased thanks to the pandemic. Ransomware attacks can cost small businesses big time. Now is as good a time as any to think hard about cybersecurity and how you protect the data you use to operate. Don’t forget to factor in how much bandwidth you’ll need for any collaboration tools or cloud-based applications you want to use during your small business recovery.
Small business recovery starts with your community
During the pandemic, everything became hyper-local as people sheltered at home and, travel was limited. People also became acutely aware of what the loss of beloved local businesses would mean to their communities. We saw areas across the country rally and turn out to support small businesses when they needed it most.
Small businesses and their communities worked together to create coalitions and resources that offered support. Many small businesses teamed up together to reach customers and stay afloat during a trying economic time.
Now that things are beginning to open back up, small business owners are uniquely positioned to connect communities back to what really matters: other people. Working together could be the key to thriving after surviving.
The first step to take is to learn about small business recovery efforts in your area. Reach out to local institutions, like the chamber of commerce or small business organizations, for information about any revitalization efforts in your area and how you can take advantage of them.
Check to see if your small business qualifies for any grants or loans from your local government. You may also be eligible for assistance from community foundations and institutions. There may be other local resources that your small business can take advantage of too, like mentoring or training. On the flip side, you may be able to offer resources to other companies.
Combine the powers of your small business with another to collaborate with them or share resources. You can target the same audiences and offer an experience that is unique to your community. Basically, you might just become an unstoppable team.
For example, a local hairdresser, nail salon, and facialist could come together to create a spa package. Or a coffee shop and bakery could team up to create the ultimate breakfast experience. Collaborating is a way to get your name out there and make your community aware of what you bring to the table during small business recovery.
As a small business owner, you probably already know that $68 of every $100 spent locally stays in the community. Support the local businesses in your area by taking clients out to eat at the neighborhood diner or by getting a statement blazer from the boutique down the street.
By shopping locally, you’re also putting your money where your mouth is and leading by example for your whole community. That’s what we call a win-win.
The world has undoubtedly changed since the COVID-19 pandemic. Small business recovery means focusing on the humans that are your customers, employees, and communities and actively serving their needs.
Do you have any tips for small business recovery? Share them in the comments below!