How to rebuild the brick-and-mortar

As many states continue to re-open, small businesses are looking to take lessons from the crisis to better engage customers in years to come.

When the pandemic forced Jeff Moriarty’s small-town jewelry store to close, the family owners immediately adopted a new digital strategy, launching a virtual gem show—a live exhibition showcasing new gemstones at discounted prices to viewers. The impact was profound, not only allowing the company to stay afloat, but thrive. Moriarty credits the virtual shows and a robust online storefront for an 80 percent increase in sales in 2020.

“We were so surprised how well those shows did,” said Moriarty, a digital marketer who helps his family’s store and many other small businesses throughout the Midwest. “We were doing them every two weeks. We scaled back to once a month after we opened up, but we’ve kept it going.”

The jewelry store isn’t an outlier. Although the pandemic presented unprecedented challenges for small businesses, many have retained and added customers over the past year by employing dramatic pivots. They’re engaging customers on new platforms, utilizing advanced technology to maintain sales and connecting with communities on key social issues. And now, with many states entering recovery phases, many are looking to integrate these strategies to continue to grow into the future.

“Small businesses are looking at how they survived to this point,” said Courtney Campbell of Campbell Creative, a branding agency based in South Florida. “They’re using this opportunity to lean into what’s working and decide what they want to continue as they move into a post-pandemic world.”

Once you go digital, you never go back

Maintaining a robust digital operation will be critical for brick-and-mortar stores seeking to better engage customers going forward. But as the social distancing restrictions relax, experts say online efforts should be focused not on replacing an in-store experience, but rather augmenting it. “The pandemic has certainly solidified the desire to do more online,” said Megan Flynn, owner of Megan Flynn Marketing, a marketing agency in Washington, D.C, “but people also are missing the ability to do things in person.”

One effective tactic is targeted social media marketing, which can be a useful way to lure local customers who might not have found you otherwise. Moriarty, for example, drew customers into his reopened gem store by advertising free ring cleaning via a social network to anyone who came within a square mile of the store. And with more people using their phones rather than their feet to find local stores, it’s more important than ever for small businesses to make the most of features like free online map listings, Moriarty added.

Digital technology is also being utilized to make it more efficient for customers to search for, buy and pick up products. “Main street retailers should prepare and provide a very different shopping environment as consumers return to stores,” said Carlos Castelán, managing director of The Navio Group, a retail consultancy. “Hybrid” fulfillment methods such as buy-online, pickup-in-store or curbside pickup will remain popular, Castelán predicts.

Meanwhile, re-vitalized QR code checkout technology, such as that from PayPal, has transformed the payment process, allowing for rapid, touch-free payment with no need to exchange a card or cash, or handle other hardware. PayPal QR Codes enable customers to simply scan a QR code displayed at the register with their phone to minimize contact with both surfaces and people, which is paramount as customers continue to prioritize their safety. PayPal QR Codes are already accepted at over 600,000 retail locations and adoption will continue to pick up speed as more merchants experience the benefits—not just for their customers’ peace of mind, but their business’s bottom line. During PayPal’s Q4 2020 earnings call in February, President and CEO Dan Schulman revealed merchants are seeing double-digit increases in average basket sizes with customers who frequently use PayPal QR Codes.

Self-checkout and touch-free payments create a more “seamless” and “efficient” checkout that “enhances the customer experience,” Castelán said.

The value of values

Embracing technology isn’t the only tool small businesses can leverage to find enduring success. Another is embracing values. According to a recent survey, 71 percent of consumers prefer buying from companies that align with their principles. The extent to which small businesses have embraced this ethos was on display during the pandemic, when many organizations chose to speak out on a range of social justice issues. Experts don’t expect this to change going forward.

“Small businesses have always been more engaged than large firms because they are members of the community,” Flynn said. “Things like donation drives or directing a portion of sales to a local community group or nonprofit are ways to get people engaged with an issue, but also your business.”

In a post-pandemic environment, these values-based efforts may also include a simple commitment to safety. “For many people, this has really permanently shifted the way they think about how many people they’re in contact with,” Flynn noted. Businesses can take these concerns seriously with simple measures, such as increasing their digital presence, adopting touch-free payment options like PayPal QR Codes, keeping doors and windows open, or redesigning their space with an eye towards public health guidelines.

There’s no doubt that even as the health crisis recedes, small businesses still face a raft of challenges. Customer behavior—not to mention the trajectory of the pandemic—remains uncertain. But leaning into the engagement tactics that were effective during the worst months of the crisis can lead to sustainable growth. And ultimately those tactics boil down to the simple mandate to understand customers in this unique moment.

“Look at your audience, figure out what motivates them and tap into that,” said Campbell.