Even a few months on, businesses are feeling the pain caused by the Covid-19 economic downturn. Especially hard hit are small businesses that rely on customers to come in and shop, dine or use on-site services. But many entrepreneurs are discovering a silver lining to what otherwise is a devastating pandemic. The way they’re dealing with new health regulations is by adapting their business model and improving their online marketing strategy.
Online marketing for small business owners is the best way for companies of all stripes to meet today’s unique difficulties. It means that from the safety of home, customers can browse a restaurant’s menus, order pre-cooked meals and family-dinner kits, and even shop for groceries. Realtors can give virtual tours and later complete much of a real estate transaction online. Most retailers have virtual shops, but with a few website tweaks, they can make browsing easier and give shoppers the option to pick up their items curbside.
One of the most crucial strategies businesses need to adopt right now is the ability to be flexible. And a little creativity will go a long way, too. Here are some ways resourceful businesses are coping with social distancing, reduced on-site capacity and consumer insecurity.
Expand Your Services
It’s hard to believe that curbside pickup is something that restaurants and retailers have only been offering for a few months. But that’s not the only way that these businesses have been adapting to the new normal. After shelter-in-place mandates passed, many cafes found themselves with packed pantries and refrigerators full of meat and dairy. While their sales dropped by double digits, grocery stores were having the opposite problem. Consumers were picking shelves clean, especially staples like milk, eggs, flour and yeast. That’s when it clicked for restaurant owners. Instead of tossing perfectly good food, they added a grocery button to their Covid-ready online shops. That’s one way that online marketing for small business owners works.
Restaurants sell groceries and food kits
Salt & Time in Austin, Texas is an example of a restaurant that used internet marketing and creativity to adapt to shifting consumer demands. The restaurant/butcher shop set up an easy-to-browse online store. But they sold more than just fresh beef and pork. Salt & Time had lots of extra dairy products and dry goods in stock that were never meant to be sold to consumers. If you recall early on, items like rice and coffee beans were sparse at supermarkets. So Salt & Time posted them on their new “grocery” page. Along with these staples, the store also sold products like tinned fish, dry rubs and burger buns. Suddenly, customers had even more incentive to shop on the restaurant’s website.
Salt & Time also hosts on-site classes. This actually isn’t a new service. But with increased website traffic from the business’s new internet marketing strategy helped get them through a difficult few months.
Coffee roasters use online marketing to reach more consumers
Speaking of coffee beans, recently Plazaly wrote about how roasters in Austin were expanding their customer base. Since grocery stores couldn’t keep beans or even mass-market ground coffee on shelves, roasteries jumped in to help meet demand. Some of the coffee shops and roasters we covered had previously sold beans online for bulk purchase and to commercial clients only. Shifting to online consumer sales was an experiment these vulnerable small businesses couldn’t afford not to try.
Bars sell booze to go
In every state, non-essential businesses have re-opened. But some of them, like bars and salons, are still facing steep challenges. Especially those located in counties that enacted strict social-distancing mandates and regulations reducing on-site capacity. And in some states, it’s even harder for bars because there are already existing restrictive laws in place. In Pennsylvania, for instance, only recently could folks purchase beer and wine in grocery stores. And liquor is only sold at “state stores.” Texas is another conservative state when it comes to regulating alcohol sales. Thanks to archaic blue laws, Texans are restricted from purchasing liquor on Sundays.
Once the coronavirus hit, though, legislators did have the sense to allow pubs and taverns to sell booze for carry-out and delivery. There was just one catch. In order to get libations to go, customers also had to order food.
After a month, the loosened laws were such a boon for businesses that officials hinted the change may be permanent. The governor Tweeted, “From what I hear from Texans, we may just let this keep on going forever.”
How online marketing helped save bars
So that’s great news for pubs that serve food, but what about kitchen-free taverns? Pubs started partnering with brick and mortar restaurants and food trucks. And internet marketing for small businesses help bar owners stay connected to their regulars and reach new customers. They simply launch a new web page that combines menus from both businesses. It means customers can go to a single site to purchase food and alcohol for curbside pickup and delivery. Bars that didn’t have a way for customers to complete purchases online have implemented point of sale platforms like Chownow or Toast.
Nickel City is a bar in Austin that does not have food service. While they have a long list of awards and nominations, including Best New Bar by Austin Monthly and were one of Esquire’s Best Bars in America, their accolades couldn’t pay the rent after the bar shut down for two months. So to kickstart the business in a new economy, Nickel City partnered with Delray Cafe, a food truck parked outside the bar’s side door. The two businesses launched a new portal that let customers order hot dogs, burgers, beer and decadent frozen coladas.
Adapt to Customers’ Needs
Most states have re-opened businesses by now. But a lot of consumers still don’t want to take chances on getting or spreading a contagious virus. So instead of waiting on the sidelines for a full return of consumer security, small businesses are finding out what customers need and providing those services.
Coworking spaces adapt to new member needs
Createscape coworking went from hosting about 80 members a day to just 10. The depressing fact is that coworking spaces all over the country are bleeding members. Many will surely be forced to close as a result. But at Createscape, owner Keller Davis came up with a list of services people needed after they started working from home. Members could request desk chairs, laptop stands, computer monitors and other office equipment. They could also access services like an online notary and getting their business mail scanned and forwarded. Staff also delivered equipment to members’ home offices.
At Createscape, members were not charged for new amenities. The goal was to make the space indispensable for professionals so they would continue finding value in maintaining their coworking membership. Also, knowing that a percentage of members were laid off or lost billing hours, Davis altered the company’s terms of service. Members had the option to pause their plans for months at a time rather than terminate their membership altogether. The change meant that when a member was ready to work onsite again, they would not have to pay new member onboarding fees.
Virtual real estate transactions
Even with Silicon Valley’s efforts to take the real estate industry almost entirely online, buying and selling a home is still a very in-person transaction. Of course, most people won’t purchase a new home sight unseen. And parts of a closing still require a “wet” signature. So rather than let the industry grind to a halt while the virus spread, realtors adapted by implementing a variety of virtual services.
Increasing numbers of agents are posting online property tours on their business websites and social media sites. And mortgage and title agents are also meeting customers’ changing needs more. “They’re enabling clients to sign documents digitally, they’re accepting and securing payments via mobile app and offering remote online notarization,” according to RealtyLine, a trade publication for real estate professionals in Austin.
Coffee, commissary and groceries to go
Flightpath Coffeehouse has been serving lattes since 1992. It was a favorite gathering place for Austin gig workers and students who would set up laptops starting around the crack of dawn and work or study till closing time. Then came Covid-19.
These days, the coffee shop has taken on the moniker Flightpath Bodega. They put up a new POS portal and explained, “It’s a retail pop-up grocery that we created to try to make ends meet.”
Customers are invited to shop on-site, online or call ahead to place orders for curbside pickup or delivery. The baristas stock everything from Cascade dishwasher detergent to boxed malbec, apple pies, face masks and tomato grapes. And, of course, customers can order fresh roasted coffee beans by the pound.
But that’s not all. Flightpath has always been a staunch advocate for the community. So they launched Flightpath Neighborhood Commissary. They wrote, “If you lost your job because of the crisis, then we would like to help you out.” Anyone who’s struggling can purchase bulk foods at cost, plus a 30-percent discount on food items from the coffeeshop’s grocery page.
Education goes online
Homeschool isn’t just for undergrads these days. Professionals who need continuing education credits in order to renew their license can typically enroll in on-site or online classes. That includes accountants, engineers, real estate agents and many others. But now trade schools, as well as colleges and universities, are investing heavily in online education. The goal is to reduce the need for teachers, students and employees to occupy physical spaces.
Online education isn’t just for accreditation and degree programs, though. We recently reported in “Build a Home Exercise Program During the Pandemic” how yoga schools and personal trainers have taken fitness classes out of studios and into living rooms. The same goes for academic tutors, religious advisors and music teachers. They’ve launched virtual businesses by updating their websites so new students can start signing up for online sessions.
Open a Virtual Shop Online Now
For entrepreneurs who are teetering on the edge, it’s important to know that there are ways to make things work. Just know that it might take a little time and investment to develop a new internet marketing strategy. But for most small businesses, it’s possible to turn this turd of a virus into a golden opportunity. The first step is to be sure customers can find you and that they’re able to buy what you’re selling. So updating your small business website or setting up a new online store is usually just the first rung on the ladder. If you’re ready to open a virtual shop, Plazaly can help. Find out how!