What Small Businesses Can Do (shared from Institute for Local Self-Reliance)
1. First and Foremost, Help Prevent the Novel Coronavirus from Spreading
Small businesses throughout the US have moved quickly to help prevent virus transmission.
- Offer curbside pickup: Restaurants everywhere now offer curbside pickup to customers ordering carry-out food. Other types of businesses are doing so as well. A toy store in Washington, DC is offering a toy concierge service; a customer calls the store, describes what they’re looking for, and the store recommends several toys or games. The store then delivers the package curbside when the customer arrives.
- Limit the number of customers inside: While most stores, offices, and restaurants are closed, businesses considered essential — particularly grocery stores, pharmacies, and gas stations — remain open. But, to ensure that customers maintain a safe distance, many of these essential businesses are limiting the numbers of customers inside at a given time. With coffee shops closing because of the virus, Weaver’s Way, a grocery co-op in Philadelphia, found that its customers were gathering in the store to share news and swap stories. While the co-op’s staff was of course glad that the store was serving as a gathering place, it was concerned about the potential for virus transmission. It is now limiting the number of customers in the store at any given time.
- Clean and sterilize: The Oneota Co-op, in Decorah, Iowa, has converted its outdoor seating area to a shopping cart sterilization station, sterilizing carts after each use.
- Adjust store hours. Rennoldson’s Market, in Naples, Indiana, is closing a little earlier so that its staff can re-stock the shelves. It is opening an hour earlier to help its older and disabled customers. And, it is setting aside some baby formula, toilet paper, and other products that customers might need, in the event that some panicked shoppers buy out the products on the shelves.
- Offer cashless transactions: Many towns and cities now require businesses to accept cash for purchases, since people who do not have bank accounts, credit cards, or smartphones cannot make cashless payments. With the possibility of COVID-19 being transmitted on the surface of credit cards or cash, however, it is important to offer cashless transactions, in addition to accepting cash and credit cards. Venmo, PayPal, and Apple/Google/Samsung Pay all offer relatively easy solutions.
2. Communicate With Your Customers
Communicating clearly with your customers about what you are doing to protect public health, what you are doing to continue to meet their needs, what you are doing to support the community — and especially the challenges you are facing and what customers can do. Your loyal customers want to support you. Make sure your customers know they can buy from your business online and by phone. Post regular updates on social media.
- Cheesetique, a cheese-centric restaurant and delicatessen in Alexandria, Virginia, has posted a detailed list of the steps it takes to keep its kitchen clean and sanitary on its website, followed by a commitment to not lay off staff or require its staff to take unpaid leave — and a request that customers consider supporting the restaurant by buying gift cards, carry-out meals, and gift baskets.
3. Maintain Contact With Your Customers
Consider offering online classes, product demonstrations, merchandise previews, or tours of the shop to keep customers engaged and to remind them that your business is still there. Facebook Live and Zoom are both easy ways to do this.
4. Develop New Distribution Channels and Other Ways for Customers to Reach You
Many, if not most, of the nation’s small businesses are closing in-store or in-office activities for a few weeks or months during the pandemic. But many small businesses are finding new ways to reach their customers and keep sales coming in. For example:
- Curbside pickup. Pike Place Fish, in Seattle, offers curbside pickup for orders placed by phone. They are promoting the service via Twitter. Captain Frank’s Hotdog Emporium, in Danville, Kentucky, now offers curbside delivery to customers who call ahead to place orders. Owner Jon McWilliams says that they also plan to begin making deliveries. Many restaurants throughout the nation are doing the same.
- Free shipping. Leah Eyles, owner of Scout, a gift boutique in Toronto, received 20 orders the day after she sent the free shipping offer to her customer list.
- Personal shopping. The Swarthmore Co-op, a grocery store in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, is offering to fill and deliver orders to local customers for free. Co-op volunteers make the deliveries.
- Make local deliveries. Arepa Zone, a Venezuelan restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, is offering deliveries not just of its famous arepas but also its bulk ingredients — cheese, meats, flour, vegetables — for people who can’t get to the grocery store.
- Launch an online storefront — or, if your business already has one, take a fresh look at it and make some tweaks. IndieCommerce, one of the American Booksellers Association’s two e-commerce platforms, reports that, as of March 15, online book sales revenues have increased 750 percent over the same day last year. Web-based services like Shopify and SquareSpace make it easy to put together an online storefront in just a few hours. An online storefront not only makes it possible for your current customers to do business with you during this pandemic, it also introduces your business to potential new customers throughout the world.
- Store-in-store sales. Perhaps your business could rent a small amount of sales or display space inside a business that’s open during the pandemic, such as a grocery store or pharmacy. Use your storefront window as an active sales platform.
- Gift cards. If your business does not yet offer online gift cards, consider doing so. Customers can buy them now, then redeem them later, when the pandemic subsides and businesses reopen — and that can help your business with current cash flow.
- Offer services by webcam. Yoga, fitness, and dance studios have quickly transitioned to online classes. Customers of Bridge and Lila, a yoga studio in Portland, Maine, pay for their class online, and the studio emails them a link to the live class, offered on Zoom. The DC-based Levine School of Music is making all 190 of its instructors’ private and group lessons available online, via Zoom. There are several HIPAA-compliant video apps available for health care professionals, such as Doxy, DoctorFirst, and Theralink. Kansas City artist and studio owner Anastacia Drake is offering online painting classes.
- Offer sales by webcam. Several years ago, ScubaToys, a dive shop in Carrollton, Texas, let customers shop by phone and webcam, with sales staff showing products to customers online, explaining their features. They would then complete the sale by phone and ship the order to the customer.
5. Add a New Product or Service
Prairie, a San Francisco restaurant, has converted itself into a general store for the pandemic, selling pre-prepared meals and quarantine pantry kits (including toilet paper and bleach wipes). Be My Guest, a personal chef and caterer in Metuchen, New Jersey, has pivoted to family-style meals serving 4-6 people and is offering to deliver products from other local small businesses in his daily delivery rounds.
6. Reward Your Customers for Their Ongoing Support
A group of stores and restaurants in downtown Seguin, Texas are offering a $5 coupon with every $25 gift card purchased. Cheesetique now offers a ten percent bonus on its $100 gift cards — buy a gift card for $100, and it’s worth $110.
7. Negotiate with Your Landlord
If your business is stretched too thin to cover the rent until the pandemic is under control and sales pick up again, contact your landlord, explain your position, and ask to renegotiate your lease terms. Some options might include suspending rent for several months, with the amount due for those several months paid at the end of the overall lease term, spread evenly over the remaining lease term, or the amount due traded for a percentage of your business’s gross sales once the national emergency order has been lifted. Contact your suppliers, also, and work out payment plans with them.
8. Apply for Business Continuation Grants and Loans
Local, state, and federal legislators are moving quickly to put together grant and loan programs to help keep small businesses afloat during the pandemic and to help them adapt to new circumstances. Apply as soon as possible. Depending on the type of loan or grant you need, it might take several days, or even a week or more, for your application to be reviewed. Check ILSR’s website for information on federal action to support small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.
The US Small Business Administration already offers several loan programs:
- Microloan program makes loans through nonprofit lending organizations to underserved markets. Loan proceeds can be used for working capital, supplies, machinery and equipment. The maximum loan available is $50,000; the average loan is $14,000.
- 7(a) program makes loans of up to $5 million. Loans may be used for working capital; including physical construction, expansion, or renovation; equipment; fixtures; seasonal lines of credit; inventory; and certain other core business needs.
- Express loan program provides loans up to $350,000 for up to seven years. The turnaround time for approval or denial is 36 hours. Loan proceeds may be used just as those from the 7(a) program.And, as we publish this, Congress is considering expanding the SBA’s lending and loan guarantee capacity to help businesses coping with the pandemic. The SBA’s Lender Match website helps businesses find SBA-approved lenders.
9. Help Your Employees
If you need to temporarily or permanently downsize your staff, work with them to figure out a good solution to ensure they receive some compensation. It may be more advantageous for them to take paid sick leave, then for your business to receive a credit on your next quarterly payroll tax return and for them to apply for unemployment insurance right away. (This refundable tax credit is one of the provisions in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, signed into law on March 18, 2020.)
10. Closed for a Few Weeks? Use This Time Productively
The coronavirus pandemic is affecting almost every business in the US— retail, hospitality, service-sector, manufacturing, everything. It is likely that almost all business owners will have some down time over the next few weeks or months. Rather than binge-watching a streaming show, you could spend that time strengthening your business — or even launching a new one. Some possibilities:
- Design amazing storefront window displays. People confined to their homes all day (especially parents taking care of school-age kids) will likely be eager to take walks around the neighborhood— and that provides a perfect opportunity for your storefront window to shine.
- Take some online classes. Coursera, edX, and Udemy all offer free or inexpensive classes on a range of business topics. Lynda, which specializes in software training, is available for free online through many public libraries.
- Study your business’s performance indexes. It’s always good practice to measure your business’s performance on an ongoing basis— but, when business is busy, this sometimes slips off the radar screen. If you have some downtime now, you might want to use some of your time to take a look at your business’s performance over the past quarter and fiscal year. Indexes vary from industry to industry, but the most commonly used indexes include:
- Quick ratio: This measures whether a business’s current assets that could be converted to cash are enough to cover the business’s current liabilities. Add up the business’s cash, cash equivalents, short-term investments, and current receivables, and divide this by its current liabilities. 0.5 is average, but higher is better.
- Profitability ratio: This measures a business’s profitability, after sales and tax-deductible expenses are accounted for— so, in essence, it’s a measurement of operating efficiency. To calculate it, divide the business’s profit before taxes by its total sales.
- Inventory turnover: This measures how often a store’s entire inventory is sold and replaced during a typical year. To calculate it, divide the cost of inventory sold by the value of inventory remaining at the end of the year.
- Explore options for secondary supply chains. One of the weaknesses that the coronavirus pandemic has exposed is a supply chain reliant on products or components from overseas. This could be a good time to research supply and product availability closer to home.