Small business reopening has been on everyone’s mind as the United States nears the second month of COVID-19 quarantine.
With some states lifting restrictions and others preparing to do so in the near future, small business owners everywhere ponder on reopenings. Safety of operations and financial viability become major issues in all cases as the threat of the virus remains.
Some businesses have been weathering the quarantine with limited or no cash flow. They might have incurred debt or exhausted their savings. Some switched to remote operations, having to implement and learn new practices, such as business communications and ways to hire and interview remotely. Others had to make an instant change from brick-and-mortar to online. All had to go through some type of adjustment.
As states lift restrictions and allow reopening, many businesses face unprecedented challenges.
But “smooth seas do not make skillful sailors,” as an old African proverb says.
“According to IRI, a market research firm, demand for toilet paper swelled in March. Sales peaked at $1.45 billion for the four-week period ending March 29. That’s a 112% increase from a year earlier.” (Arizona Federal)
Little Greek Fresh Grill, a 44-store Floridian restaurant chain, noticed that many guests were struggling to find basic goods due to panic buying. The company then stepped up with a solution, using its connections with vendors and suppliers. The chain began offering staples like chicken, eggs – and toilet paper – through virtual “community stores.” Using an online ordering platform Paytronix, restaurant locations offered no-contact curb-side pick up service.
“It’s a very unique thing. It’s helpful,” said Jennifer Bujalski,director of administrative services.“We were able to do it so early on.”
This restaurant’s story shows a great example of divergent thinking. The pandemic forced companies to alter the services they provided. Small business reopening in the age of coronavirus does take everything “back to normal” by any means. Crisis changed “normal” forever.
For successful small business reopening entrepreneurs must continue to think creatively.
Coming up with alternative services, products, and ways to meet customers’ needs must become a priority for small businesses.
As in the example above, restaurant business strategies can include offering additional products and services. Newly emerging eating trends, such as return to home cooking, healthier eating, local food sourcing, and stricter safety guidelines could help shape the changes.
“Everything new is well-forgotten old,” another proverb says (Russian, this time).
This rings true when it comes to innovative practices small business opening requires.
John Strabley, CEO of International Monetary Systems Barter (IMS), has some ideas.
IMS is a financial services firm that built its business on the good old-fashioned barter system. Acting as a third party, it facilitates transactions between businesses by utilizing trade dollars, its monetary unit of currency. Clients set prices—in IMS dollars—for their products and services; other members of the network pay in kind through the IMS payment platform. Businesses pay a monthly membership charge, plus a fee per transaction.
“Since the abrupt economic shutdown in March, our marketplace has hit record online purchasing volume,” Strabley said. “ Our website, IMSBarter.com, has seen a tremendous increase in traffic.”
The company saw similar trades during the economic reception of 2008. Strabley explains the trending popularity of the service by age-old trade model business model. By trading their unused capacity and/or surplus products, stalled businesses generate another revenue source, reduce costs, and purchase necessities without spending cash.
Companies can look for other ways to partner with businesses with beneficial results.
When the COVID-19 outbreak began forcing restaurants to close their doors to guests, Zukku Sushi’s three locations faced a unique dilemma. Each of its three restaurants were located inside food halls.
With multiple restaurants serving a cafeteria-like public space, the halls were among the first eateries to shut down, leaving Zukku’s flagship location in Tampa, Florida inaccessible, even to staff. So the restaurant’s leadership got creative.
Ferdian Jap, a partner at Zukku, reached out to a friend in the business. A fellow restaurant owner had an unutilized kitchen, available through the quarantine. Together they launched their own version of a ghost kitchen. Thanks to their online ordering platform, Jap and his partners have been able to keep operations running across all three locations.
These examples show that together we truly do better. Working as a team, entrepreneurs can help one another as more small businesses reopen.
3. Using Touchless and No-contact Tech
Technology has a solid and permanent place in people’s lives. During the pandemic, this is especially true. Many use technology to complete work tasks, connect with friends and family, and purchase necessities.
Touchless technology got an extra boost from COVID-19. For example, the touchless sensing market is projected to reach $15.3 billion in 2025. That’s an annual growth of 17.4 % from $6.8 billion in 2020. (Market and Market)
As businesses reopen, health and safety will remain a priority for everyone. Touchless technology can help businesses keep their customers, employees, and partners safe.
Here are some examples of touchless technologies that can help make small businesses reopening successful.
Telemedicine can help small practices connect with patients when an office visit is not necessary. The practice has been growing in popularity. In fact, 74% of patients have said they were comfortable with communicating with their doctors using technology instead of seeing them in person. (eVisit). Lately, teletherapy and veterinary telemedicine have also gained success with patients. Using this tech can save medical practices money and keep everyone safe, eliminating the need for face-to-face interactions.
QR codes can assist small businesses in a variety of operations. From new advertising opportunities to zero-touch retail, scanning codes with a smart device brings convenience to customers. This technology also gives business wonders new opportunities in the world of limited physical contact.
Touchless hardware for office buildings has made its entrance with automatic doors years ago. However, new hygiene standards require more touchless technology. Bluetooth-powered locks, elevator doors, and even Wi-Fi connections eliminate the need to touch any surfaces or screens.
Other communicational, support, and organizational tools have supported remote workforce through the pandemic. The crisis showed that many businesses can operate remotely. Small business tools that support these operations can help eliminate the need for an office base altogether. A switch to fully-remote operations can help businesses save money and ensure employee safety.
4. Outsource Support to Enhance Customer Experience
Customer service is important to clients even if a business’ physical location is closed. Customers, current and potential, still have questions, inquiries, or require tech support. In fact, during the pandemic, demand for information and support increased dramatically. Since the states began quarantines mid-March 2020, HelpSquad noticed a tremendous growth in customer service inquiries. Live chat volumes grew as much as 1000%-2000% for some companies. (Tech Tribune)
Small business reopening will restart operations, but customer inquiries will not decrease. With more business transactions and caution when it comes to visiting physical locations, customers are more likely to resort to virtual customer service options.
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Moreover, changes in a business workforce structure and round-the-clock demand might leave companies overwhelmed, understaffed, and unable to meet customer service needs of their clients.
Outsourcing customer service, sales, and tech support might help lighten the load during small business reopening. Additionally, hiring professional customer support specialists will help increase sales and track and analyze online visitors’ behaviors. The service will enhance customer experience and save business money. After all, a 24/7 agent-supported support team costs much less than just one full-time employee, who would only be able to provide 40 hour/week coverage.
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After weeks of closures and the global economic situation not looking very well, business owners must plan their finance carefully.
Bruce Levitt, Esq. of Levitt & Slafkes, P.C advises my clients to take the following steps to address their financial situation before reopening.
“Upon completion of this five step process, small business owners will be able to make an informed decision as to whether to reopen and have a plan in place as to how to manage the debt once the reopening occurs.” (Bruce Levitt)
Five steps to debt management prior to small business reopening.
Identify and manage debt.
It is important to know what debts are outstanding, the type of debt and who owes the debt. Many small business owners use personal credit cards and sign personal guarantees for some debts.
Be strategic with payments.
If there is money available to pay debts, prioritize those debts based on the creditors and vendors that are absolutely necessary to rebuild the business. Rent is a good example.
Communicate with creditors.
If the business owner cannot pay a creditor, reach out to the creditor to explain how the business has been affected by the shutdown order and your intentions to reopen. This is better than having the creditor call looking for their money. Be honest with creditors. They will have to be partners in the reopening phase.
Decide if the business can survive.
After identifying the debt and getting a feel as to the flexibility of creditors, the business owner must next determine if the business is financially viable. This includes revenue projections taking into account social distancing and consumer confidence (or the lack thereof), as well as the ongoing costs of operating. Decide whether or not to take on debt or to infuse personal funds.
Understand debt relief options that may be available, including bankruptcy protection.
Congress recently passed the Small Business Reorganization Act that may make it easier for small businesses to defer debt payments and reopen their doors. There are other bankruptcy and non-bankruptcy options available to address debt relief and address creditor claims.
6. Considering Community Outreach
If anything, the pandemic has shown that even when isolated, American communities ties remain strong. Small businesses lie in the hearts of their communities. They know the people who live in the communities and they understand their needs.
For small businesses, lending a hand in the community is not just a nice thing to do. It’s the right thing to do.
Even after the quarantine lifts and the pandemic ends, communities will hurt financially, emotionally, and health-wise for a long time. Good relationships within communities will help not only present an image of sincerity and care for a small business, it will help secure its future financial stability. Doing the right thing will aid in small business survival. Giving in the time of need is good for humanity and is good for business.
What actions a company can take depends on the nature of the business.
Identify the needs of the community and get creative.
One Florida-based financial institution, Tropical Financial Credit Union, reaches out to its local community to make a difference in its members’ lives. During the course of quarantine it has sent help in the form of gift cards and facial masks to those who needed them.
“We have a program, SMILE, that allows any employee to give gifts and gift cards to members who express in conversation that they are either going through hardship or had something wonderful happen in their families.
Last week, we had a member whose daughter just graduated from college, and we sent a gift and a SMILE card for that member’s daughter. We believe such acts of kindness reinforce the message that even in these difficult times, we can and should still celebrate the good things that happen in our lives.
That is the difference in customer service. Not just conducting business, but also participating in the stories that make up our credit union family.” (Tropical Financial)
Community education is another way a company can help its members.
“Although there is no playbook for what we are encountering, we can look to 2008 for clues as to what the needs our customers will be facing.
For Tropical Financial Credit Union, we have created a financial education platform called Get Beyond Money (www.getbeyondmoney.com). It is aimed to help individuals define their own wants and needs. It then provides resources to reach whatever goals they are trying to achieve. Programs and platforms like this is what communities need once pandemic ends.”
Small business reopening will take lots of time and effort.
As cliche as it sounds, thinking outside the box will become crucial for small business owners. Between safety concerns, financial instability, limited resources, business owners are facing unprecedented challenges.
Creative thinking in terms of products and services, partnerships, technologies, and financial assets will help small businesses survive.