Creative ideas for local businesses. Big business is pivoting. Are you?

What’s going to sell big in a pandemic world?* Things you can do at home or nearby to home. Things that improve your home or home life, a shift to cozy and comfortable, to luxury at home. For those that want to get away, trips are probably not an option, but parking an RV on your own land or rustic state or federal land, or your boat on a lake might be the big ticket item that allows you to get out, but still be away from others. RV shops and boat dealers are smartly socially distancing and conducting business on Zoom, with safe delivery and key transfers. Bike shops are hot, with customers buying anything they can get their hands on and mechanics fixing bikes at a rapid pace, with backed-up customer requests.

We are already seeing people shift to nice shirts and track pants (sales of soft pants are up about 40-50%, a fact that every 8-12-year old will tell you was simply a smart idea. This article in The Guardian points out that as long as people are working from home, elastic waist pants are going to rule.

Online sales are nothing new, but we’re seeing a shift for small businesses and local businesses going online. In our local community, a family-owned wholesale produce supplier Stan Setas, who previously sold exclusively to restaurants, corporate and university cafeterias and prisons, now does consumer ‘fruit and veggie boxes’ repackaging cases of such produce staples as Romaine or melons in wholesale boxes with a mix of fresh items and offering delivery within their standard 15-mile radius. Advertising is by organic posts on community Facebook sites, and people passing the word, friend to friend, on social media. They tested small and large boxes, delivery prices in rapid fire, settling on large boxes with a $10 fee for delivery. Customers responded! Will they keep this? Unknown, but if they do, I think there is warm reception to the idea in the community.

Small local boutiques host Facebook live show-and-sell sessions, customers comment on items or purchase them on their nascent online stores. You can even purchase lingerie by this method, including personalized fitting help via Facebook messenger (unlike traditional online lingerie company commerce, this experience was highly personalized.) Yoga studios offer online yoga class subscriptions. Yoga class from home! Why leave your house on a snowy winter evening in 2021, when your favorite studio with your favorite local yogi allows you to log in and stream the class from your living room? Big businesses have always found ways to scale these ideas, but small businesses need to embrace their local, close connection to customers, their attention to hyper-focused customer service and take it online. It’s hard work.

I have purchased fabric from a local brick & mortar retailer, doing a combination of shopping on their website, and chatting via Facebook and phone with the owner. I completed my transaction by paying with an online invoice, then riding my bicycle to pick up my order outside her store. The process was entirely delightful.

Farms even offer subscriptions, with neighborhood drop off sites where customers can pick up their weekly produce, socially distanced, on their neighbor’s front porch (although this one already occurred in our community for some time, the farmer not wanting to give up every weekend to staffing a farmstand at area markets.)

If you’re not creating a second revenue stream based on online sales, you should be. And you should expect to keep this as an economically viable option in the case of a second wave of pandemic closure OR even just as a great second revenue stream.

Expanding your e-commerce store is smart. At some point, that Facebook store isn’t going to be robust enough to handle demand and the number of products you’ll need and you might be paying more in fees for your payment processor than you should be. Looking at six, twelve, and even 24-months down the road, we could bounce in and out of pandemic closures before we’re in the clear. Looking at stage two of your e-commerce business is a must right now. When Panera bread’s executives realized that they were in a position to be shut out for months, if not years of in-person café sales, they rapidly created an online grocery and fast-fresh casual meal package business that they intend to expand. If major retailers are making this kind of investment, small businesses need to be sure they are, as well.

  • People won’t feel comfortable shopping in environments where the goods may have been touched by others, so give them a virtual experience instead. Smart organizations look to subscription-based products and services, to online sales experiences.
  • Set up a membership site to deliver classes or services online, via monthly subscription. Good for dance studios, music educators, art educators, fitness studios – all of these can be delivered with protected content on both your own website, or platform sites like MindBody.
  • People love gifts so a “surprise” something-of-the-month from a retailer’s selection, with curbside pickup. You could make this a subscription that goes on all year, pandemic or not!
  • Charity + commerce: Combine Facebook sales with donated proceeds for organizations as diverse as the animal shelter or food bank.
  • New “buy a gift card and we’ll donate to this charity” helps both local retailers and the local charity.
  • Partner up with other online businesses. Does someone else sell things that are comparable to yours or compatible? Pair up to offer subscriptions. Examples include a local liquor store or winery with a local art studio. Sell art+wine experience packages for Zoom nights in with friends. Or, sell locally roasted coffee and learn-to-knit kits. Both businesses that participate creatively will benefit from these pairings. Curbside pickup encourages locals to get out, but stay safely apart.
  • If you sell products, offer online Zoom classes to pair up with products in a ‘kit’ format. “Kitting” or bundling up products and services is a smart way to maximize contact and connection with customers long term.

Be creative with selling:

A local used and rare bookseller with two locations offered a ‘donation with a mystery’ package. Donate to the store (at a minimum level), tell them a genre you like and your age, and they’d send a book from their collection to you.

A farm accidentally mixed up tomato start varieties during labeling and customers clamored for “mystery surprise” tomato start selections to plant.

A client of ours pivoted his business to offer Virtual School Visits, a key driver of sales of his children’s book. The Virtual School Visits allow him to visit more classrooms than ever. He could only do visits within a radius of his homes, but now, the world is available for a Virtual School Visit, and online marketing makes this simple.

Life as we know it is never going to be the same. But it can be a lot better, we can support local and independent businesses as we do this. We will have to work hard, and creatively to connect with customers when they don’t want to or cannot come in our stores or businesses at the same level of capacity as before. And truthfully, do we ever want to give up soft pants?

Related articles:

Get your business online in a hurry – part one

Get your business online in a hurry – part two


*The Guardian: Vogue Editor in Chief wears track pants

**The Wall Street Journal: Panera bread shifts to grocery

WWD: Sales of sweatpants as fashion trends go comfortable