Surviving the coronavirus crisis for physical small businesses: Take a lesson from creators! (Part 1)

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Two general categories of businesses have been hit hard by the coronavirus shutdown: services and non-essential products.

In the first case, while it’s regrettably the case that some small businesses might not survive, many services professionals can weather the storm if they get creative. In the second case, your storefront may be gone, but your business doesn't have to be. Chances are, your business is already online to some degree. Now's the time to go all in on e-commerce.

How can you survive, you ask? Simple. Take a lesson from creators.

A third industry that has been hit very hard is entertainment. Performers who make the majority of their income from productions and performances are, on the surface, totally screwed. Think about it. If you depend on a bunch of people crowding into a bar, concert hall, theater, studio or arena, what do you do?

You get creative, or you starve!

So let's take a look at what creators are doing.

Musicians, especially independent musicians, are doing live-streaming, direct selling of digital content and Patreon-based (or similar) fundraising with special perks. And they’re also creating new content and recording at home. Thanks to modern technology, at least if you live in a relatively quiet building or house, you can produce near studio quality for a fraction of what studio recordings used to cost, and you can definitely do recordings with a "live" feeling.

Comedians are doing online comedy or talk shows, for free, to engage with a fan base (that might in turn buy merchandise), or through third party ad-supported channels (and, when possible, taking a cut of the advertising revenue or getting a small commission from the platform). All they need to engage their audience is a laptop with a decent quality camera and mic and a web-sharing tool with recording capability.

Actors and performers are doing podcasts to stay relevant with their fan base, and some are using that to promote books or merchandise they have for sale. Post offices and delivery companies are still delivering.

In other words, while they have all lost their major income streams and often must perform from home, they haven't given up — and neither should you!

If you can't keep your small business going through the shutdown, you can at least keep going and maintain your relevance and be ready to be the first to recover when you can re-open and get back on track to normalcy. (And for those of you who can't keep your jobs, because your business can't keep going, we'll address options available to you in another article.)

First of all, let's step back and identify the areas of small business most impacted:

  • Retailers of non-essentials (which, in some jurisdictions, is everything except food and medicine)
  • Restaurants (which in some jurisdictions are permitted to stay open just for take-out service)
  • Non-essential healthcare (cosmetic procedures, nutritionists, etc.)
  • Personal services (child care, barbershops and hair salons, gyms, tattoo parlors, etc.)
  • Bars and coffee shops
  • Entertainment venues & galleries
  • Recreational facilities

In the first two cases, you have a product, and if you have a product, you can have a business. Let's look at a few of the different types of businesses impacted and how you might survive.

Apparel

If you have a dedicated client base that knows your product lines and their sizes in your product lines, you can survive if you can persuade them to buy online. Now, a lot of people want to know "what would I look like in this?" before buying something they intend to wear, but that's where modern technology, possibly coupled with really old technology, could help.

Most stores, because people can try something on, can get away with a single mannequin of standard size to display a new outfit, which gets someone's attention but doesn't show them what they'd look like. For that, if you have all of a person's relevant measurements on file, you can use modern technology to create a 3-D rendering (if you have an upscale client base buying high-priced items at enough margin to afford the technology, which has actually existed for almost two decades) or, you can make a one-time investment in about 20 mannequins that represent the standard adult size ranges for male and female, take high quality pictures for every other size from multiple angles, and put them all online.

This low tech option would work great on the lower end, and where your customers can't really afford to be paying shipping on one or two items, offer a low-cost delivery service for the local area. Queue up the orders for the next day, use some cheap route planning software (or plot the orders on a physical map and visualize a route) and have a salesperson make deliveries, rather than laying off staff. Or, if the customer is mobile, curb-side pickup is also an option in most places.

Housewares

Thanks to Amazon, we're all used to buying the goods we need online. And while you may have earned your loyal customer base from those who wanted to buy from a real person in a brick-and-mortar shop, your loyal customers would probably rather buy from you in an online fashion until they can go back to the store rather than buy from Amazon. Fortunately, with so many online platforms available to create a turn-key storefront, setting one up takes only a few days if you can find some good web-development talent, which is probably more readily available as big companies cut their services and contractor spending to weather the crisis.

Putting together an online catalog won't be hard, as all manufacturers already have all the info you need in electronic form. And, you can one-up those big faceless corporates by providing a one-on-one virtual buying experience for your customers by setting up one-on-one web-conferencing sessions where they can ask questions about a product, see it handled in 3-D over video, and even have you assemble orders for them in your system and simply send them an invoice, where they can pay using a credit card or PayPal in a secure system if they like, or you can take their credit card number over the virtual phone if they prefer the old fashioned way.

Your sales process may be hampered, and you might have to work a bit harder, but your sales don't have to stop if people still need your goods. And right now, it's about just getting through the crisis period.

Collectables

Collectables businesses often rely on face-to-face transactions and dealing with a clientele that’s been cultivated for years.

Your business may have some online shopping components, but it’s time for your e-commerce effort to target a global audience. Collectors are global — plus, you have a better chance to move the pricier or less desirable items in your collection if you go global.

However, a listing is not going to be enough when even consumers with excess cash are starting to be a bit more frugal just in case this situation lasts longer than expected (and their finances get hit harder than they expect). Take some videos, document the pedigree and be willing to have one-on-one conversations over web conferencing, just like the boutiques.

Personal service, even at a distance, makes a huge difference.

And if you've got a product, you've got potential. It's just going to take a more substantial effort if you previously depended on a highly physical model.

But what happens if you don't have a product? We'll explore that in Part 2 on Wednesday.

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