Most of the regulars at Mina’s World have never stepped foot inside. The Philadelphia cafe opened just 18 days before COVID-19 shut down the city, dashing any hopes for a bustling hangout spot.
Knowing they had to reimagine their business model, co-owners Sonam Parikh and Kate Egghart found a way to serve the community from a safe distance. Today, colorful merchandise hangs in the cafe’s windows, cashiers operate an online ordering system, and locals flock to the community fridge stationed outside, which has gained a large Instagram following.
Before 2020, few small businesses owners had even considered offering telehealth appointments, virtual consultations, or e-commerce options. Now, online options are an essential part of every business plan. In fact, from 2019 to 2020, online business grew by 33.6%—and in many cases, that online presence made the difference between a shuttered business and one that weathered the storm.
Experts predict the demand for virtual services will remain, even as social distancing restrictions loosen. Customers have come to expect the convenience of online offerings—and while nothing can replace an in-person connection, virtual options are beneficial for businesses too. Getting online has allowed businesses to reach new customers outside of their immediate location and develop new, innovative revenue streams.
“The market is not going to go back to the old normal,” said Todd Saxton, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “A significant segment of the population will continue to order online or go touch-free, so businesses need to be able to deal with customers in multiple modes.”
Many businesses built robust customer databases or email lists, starting by adding an email sign-up form on their social media, website, and other channels. Those connections will remain invaluable even as the world reopens. For example, when city touring company Chicago Detours pivoted to offering virtual tours, the owners spread the word on their mailing list—which grew by nearly 20% as customers returned with family and friends.
In addition to determining who you are connecting with, it’s just as important to be strategic about what message you are delivering to that audience. Identifying what those core customers love most is key, said Ali Kriegsman, co-founder and chief operating officer of the e-commerce wholesaler Bulletin. “Figure out what that is and think of creative ways to sprinkle it through your marketing and pivot your marketing to address that secret sauce.”
Invest in your employees
When the pandemic hit, small business owners had to become public health experts almost overnight—for both the safety of their customers and their staff. Mechanic Michael Wright studied the City of Los Angeles’ website for directions on how to protect his employees and operate safely. Now, health and safety protocols and sanitation are a routine part of business at R&M Automotive. “I took the initiative to implement all of those measures on my own because I didn’t want anyone to get sick,” he said in an interview with Vox. “I made sure that their health was the top priority, before anything else.”
The pandemic also laid bare countless health inequities—especially for workers on the front lines—and more businesses are paying attention. For instance, Brooklyn’s Love, Nelly cafe, which opened in the thick of COVID-19, increased the price of its products by 15% to afford to pay a living wage for all its workers. Other businesses implemented changes to make the workplace more equitable, such as flex work hours that accommodate employees caring for children at home.
Some struggling businesses owners found success by sharing expertise, resources, and even space with their peers. In one growing trend, “ghost kitchens” operate multiple delivery-only restaurants out of the same storefront. Although this innovation is particularly suited to a pandemic, business analysts predict it has staying power. Ghost kitchens allow business owners to cater to customers outside their typical base and capitalize on the rise of digital orders, which are growing by 20% a year.
Across industries, like-minded businesses have joined forces to provide unique customer experiences. In Chicago, florist Flowers For Dreams paired up with Sweet Shot Cookies for a virtual Valentine’s Day workshop, coaching guests over Zoom as they decorated cookies and created floral arrangements from a kit mailed to their home.
When it comes to technology, there are even more possibilities for collaboration. Partnerships with point of sale and management platforms, such as Shopify and Square, can help businesses bridge the digital divide. For anyone overwhelmed by the options, Kriegsman suggests asking other business owners in your neighborhood to see what platforms work for them. “This community loves helping each other,” she said. “The most valuable information you’re going to get is from business owners who are already using those platforms.”
Engage with the community
Small businesses have always played a role in supporting their communities: strengthening local economies, creating jobs, driving sustainable shopping alternatives, and more. The pandemic proved this work is not just beneficial, but essential, as small business owners stepped up to care for their customers in unexpected ways.
In Philadelphia, one in five residents lack regular access to daily meals. Parikh, who grew up watching their father bring food to neighbors, founded Mina’s World on the principle that “food is a human right, everyone deserves food, everyone should be able to eat.” When Parikh’s father died from COVID-19 last year, they decided to honor his legacy by installing a community fridge—known as “The People’s Fridge”—on the sidewalk outside the newly opened cafe. There, residents can take or leave food as they see fit, whether or not they buy a samosa or latte next door.
Introducing this powerful, community-building element helped make the cafe the local hub it is today. And though the fridge generates no profit, it’s now one of the cafe’s most valuable offerings to customers. “This place is very special,” wrote G.V. of Philadelphia after visiting Mina’s World. “Not only does Mina’s offer a pleasing variety of beverages, snacks, and items made from local artists, but right across the sidewalk is the community fridge, which helps serve the community by providing pantry staples free of cost… While you wait, drop off some groceries in the community fridge.”