The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed an avalanche of uncertainty on the business community, with some industries experiencing catastrophic impacts to their revenue streams.
At the time of this writing, there is hope on the horizon as vaccines are just reaching the approval stage. Though widespread deployment and ultimately disease immunity is still months away, and a return to anything resembling pre-COVID levels is possibly even years out.
But we are not here to harp on the things which we cannot control. We instead choose to focus on the things that we can to move our businesses forward.
Skipping The Politics
We’re not going to debate the decisions made by officials. We don’t envy their positions, nor do we have the type of information access they do to make the calls.
Our focus instead is on the consumer. Because it is they who ultimately choose when and where to spend their dollars in our consumer-driven economy and, hopefully, spend those dollars on our product or service.
To begin to understand what consumers are thinking and how we can best serve them in these times, we need some data.
Fortunately, consumer sentiment is one of the most studied buying triggers. This means we can track how they have reacted to COVID, and how they have evolved as the pandemic has played out.
Online Solutions – No Longer Optional
One of the things that became obvious in the early days as portions of the economy started to slow or even shut down— the flight to digital and online services.
This is a situation where Big Box stores were already leaning in with convenience services in a way that Mom and Pop retailers on Main Street USA would struggle to match.
Large online vendors like Amazon were already putting the hurt to local retail. Personal shopping services like InstaCart and Shipt were also gaining traction.That’s outside of delivery services such as Door Dash, Grub Hub or Uber Eats and their impact on the restaurant and casual food industry.
For establishments not prepared or desiring to give into those delivery models, it was an abrupt wakeup call.
We had reached a point where, in many areas of the country, consumers could shop online in the evening and have their orders dropped off on their porch by noon the following day. Alternately, consumers could order most any type of food they wished and have it delivered as easily as we have had pizza delivered for decades.
Consumer expectations have seen a major shift and businesses not willing to adapt and compete are likely going to be left behind. The old saying, “the horse is out of the barn applies to this one.
We did a Facebook live series on specific strategies such as curbside delivery earlier in the lockdown phase of the pandemic and we plan to update on these shortly.
An Extinction Event?
A harsh question, indeed. But perhaps the kind of wake-up call food-for-thought that sparks clear thinking and action.
We experienced the perfect storm of bigger players already having the infrastructure that was better able to deal with the pandemic and the shutdowns that resulted.
But by no means does that dictate the fate of small business owners. As long as they are nimble and flexible in the way they do business going forward.
For the restaurant industry hit particularly hard that may mean businesses that had never offered takeout but needing a delivery service having to give in to the delivery companies, at least in the short term. But the reality is the 11%, 18%, and in extreme cases 30% cut these companies take for their services, it’s not a long-term sustainable model for a business owner expecting to make a go of it. For the time being, it may be a necessary evil.
Restaurants risk having to raise prices to cover those costs which turn off their customer base, making it a self-defeating exercise.
For brick-and-mortar retail, adopting shipping and local delivery whenever possible is likely to be a requirement for survival. The consumer is demanding it. As evidenced by the explosive growth in the home delivery model.
Enterprising small businesses are deploying staff, even family members in some instances, to fill these billets. But again, costs will eventually dictate the viability of this model in the long run.
The average small business owner cannot compete with Amazon Prime and one-day “Free” delivery. Nor should they try.
What is Your Customer Thinking?
Instead of dwelling on doom and gloom factors, many of which we can’t control, let’s come at this from a different angle.
Let’s understand what is driving consumer sentiment during COVID-19, and what has it changed in terms of market trends. Because it is the trends with longer behavior timelines that you want to get in front of, whenever possible.
For months now we’ve been following reports at McKinsey.com as they track the evolution of consumer sentiment and anxieties related to COVID.
At one point in the early days of the pandemic, as many as 80% of consumers expressed high anxiety about engaging in any activity in a public place where larger crowds gather.
That does not bode well for an economy that is 70% consumer-spending driven. Because while people will continue to consume essentials during those times, luxury activities such as travel and entertainment are going to take long-term casualties with that mindset being so widespread.
To a degree, it would not matter what policies were put in place by elected officials. Consumers will still vote with their feet. It’s not likely you would be selling out big public venues or events due to the elevated risk factor. At least not at any pre-pandemic levels.
Delivery services like Shipt (Target’s in-house service) didn’t explode in popularity and hire 70,000 people in April 2020 because of massive new interest in products offered by Target. That happened because people didn’t want to leave their homes.
While other players like Instacart are looking to hire 300,000 to fill the need and allow people to stay out of stores.
That anxiety reality and impact on foot traffic has only abated to a point.
By November of 2020, the anxiety levels polled in the McKinsey reports had dropped to ~64%. Meaning 2 out of 3 people still didn’t want to venture out if they could avoid it.
Instead of going to malls in the Black Friday tradition, online orders blew up by 39% year-over-year. An amazing and abrupt shift in consumer buying behavior.
Early reports from the retail organizations are that consumer spending is tracking with last year. But if you visit a mall or the main street in most anywhere right now, it’s a ghost town. Eerie to witness, actually.
It’s now about overflowing UPS or FedEx trucks and an army of Amazon Prime delivery vans. For the Amazon factor, realize that 2 years ago these delivery vans didn’t even exist, and now they are deploying vans the size of the larger UPS vans we are all accustomed to seeing on the streets.
What an amazing shift in a relatively short time frame!
What Does Small Business Do To Compete?
Certainly, the average business owner is NOT buying a local delivery van anytime soon. We could see some cottage industries popping up that cater to local business needs.
But there’s nothing preventing using existing carriers like UPS, FedEx, or USPS for delivering products to customers where it makes sense.
UPS or FedEx ground is an overnight proposition within a certain radius of your business location. This will meet the needs of most customers, and sizes up favorably with Amazon Prime delivery timelines.
Restaurants can continue to use the popular delivery options. They pretty much have to for now. While staying away from some of the other pricey options these services try to foist on them such as advertising, reservations, or reputation services. There are cheaper options (we know, we sell them).
In the next couple of years, as we emerge from this unprecedented shock to the local business community, we will start to refine these trends.
The worst thing you could do as a business owner is to simply sit and wait. Expecting that once the pandemic is under control that things are going right back to the way they were.
Because that’s not likely.
The consumer has experienced a new taste of convenience and they probably won’t abandon them across the board once this blows over.
The cost proved it wasn’t a barrier to have your favorite eatery’s fare delivered to your door so you didn’t have to go out.
Having to wait a day or two to have that shiny new thing delivered instead of carting it out of the local store yourself didn’t prove to be an obstacle, either.
Consumers are still shopping. They are just doing it from the comfort and safety of their caves. It’s up to you, Mr./Mrs. Small Business Owner, to figure out a way to make your product or services best fit into that model. Consumers have spoken loudly— that is what they now expect.
This is where you can get in the game by using the currency of caring. But demonstrating you will address their concerns while still providing excellent customer service.
Practical Ways To Compete
We already mentioned the shipping factor. Since most of your regular clients will be local, the one-day shipping options will suffice.
Beyond that, we suggest rediscovering the long-lost art of customer service. 🙂
Sounds cliche. But the truth is the big box experience is largely impersonal, lacking empathy when there are issues, and about as appealing as a tooth extraction for many consumers right now.
Start by getting to know your customers better. Make a transaction the start of an ongoing conversation.
Build and work your customer list. If you don’t have one, start today!
Businesses that had never built or utilized customer lists were devastated in our area during the initial shutdowns. Because besides foot traffic being shut off overnight, print advertising disappeared for a period of time. They had no way to reach out to customers even if they wanted to!
A properly nurtured list could have avoided that.
You should be capturing customer information to include email and mobile numbers. Regularly communicate with those folks to let them know you appreciate them. Reach out at least once a month, if not more frequently.
Sales, events, new products. Loyalty programs.
If you have been running advertising or marketing campaigns and NOT capturing this data during the sales transaction, it’s like lighting money on fire.
To recapture the attention of those folks in the future requires another ad and more money out-of-pocket.
Whereas a properly managed customer list is an email or SMS text campaign away from getting your business top-of-mind once again.
Remarketing works. It’s 80% cheaper than doing cold marketing over and over to capture that next sale.
Curbside Pickup is the new buzz phrase. There is no reason that most businesses can’t deploy one.
If big business is deliberately marking off portions of their parking lot specifically for this activity, that should illustrate the popularity and that it’s not going away soon.
Loyalty programs have taken a bit of a hit under COVID. But that’s most likely due to their structure in that in-person dining or shopping is a focal point of traditional programs.
If you’re just now adopting or building a loyalty program, consider the changing consumer behavior and how you can get your program to cater to that.
Don’t overlook the need to have clear statements on COVID policy. It’s a factor that has been closely followed as much as a part of consumer sentiment.
Data clearly shows that businesses showing empathy and concern over consumer safety regarding COVID is going to win the day.
Don’t let your competitor down the street be the only one who looks like they are paying attention.
Gift Cards. A must during shutdowns to keep the revenue flowing. Use services like Paypal Merchant which does not charge a fee over the basic transaction cost.
Another thing that is important, and I cannot stress this enough; make the delivery models convenient.
Streamline your SMS system for curbside delivery. Make your gift cards readily available online without customers having to root around your website and a hundred mouse clicks just to buy one.
Make your customer list signups simple and automated to the fullest extent possible. I’ve personally passed many times when signing up was a pen and clipboard affair. While something as simple as scanning a QR code at the checkout counter or on a receipt will get you many more signups.
If I have to visit your store and talk to 3 people to buy a gift card, while your competitor down the street has a simple pop-up on his website and 3 mouse clicks later an e-card is on its way, guess where I’m shopping?
Not saying old school does not work. If it’s all you’ve got, go with it.
But the people offering convenience are going to beat you more times than not, and if they follow up with that cold prospect with a strong loyalty program, you may never get a second shot.
None of what we have discussed here are earth-shattering new ideas. Most of it is just common sense “giving them what they want”.
Folks that are only used to old school marketing might struggle a little more than others. But improving your online presence and delivery model is fairly straightforward, and it doesn’t require spending thousands to pull it off.
Simple landing pages to improve your brand awareness. Automated capture of customer information for list-building. Pop-ups to sell gift cards.
There are even free solutions for restaurants that need to shift to online ordering. You can be up and running in hours, not days or weeks.
Reach out to your digital marketing person to raise your online game now. The competitiveness isn’t going to be any less as we emerge from COVID-19. This new consumer buying behavior is here to stay.
You can always reach out to us for a free consultation.
Make sure you are adjusting your brand’s business model to accommodate whatever we’re going to call this coming out the other side so that your business stays around to serve these new consumer expectations.
Not sure how to deploy these strategies in your local business? Schedule a free consultation and we’ll show you what fits for your situation.