How to help your favorite local business survive the coronavirus

by Hanna Horvath
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How to help your favorite local business survive the coronavirus

The coronavirus dealt a catastrophic blow to small businesses that rely on in-person interactions. A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found over 60% of small businesses experienced revenue losses due to the coronavirus.

Businesses must be flexible in adjusting to the new rules, but customers like you have a hand in helping the restaurants and stores you love survive the crisis.

A 'whirlwind' adjustment for small businesses

When the pandemic hit, Tessa Velazquez acted quickly. She closed the restaurant she co-owns with her family, LA Betty, in Washington, D.C. She was able to leave their two cafes, Baked & Wired and A Baked Joint, open for in-store pickup with a skeletal staff and limited hours.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Velazquez. “You get so used to doing things a certain way and now we are constantly adjusting the business to fit different guidelines. We are just trying to keep morale up and the doors open.”

While the cafe menu stayed the same, its way of doing business changed. Chairs went away to prevent in-store sitting. Tape appeared on the ground, 6 feet apart, to promote a socially-distanced line. Plastic shields popped up in front of the register.

A Baked Joint, located in the Mount Vernon neighborhood of the district, began selling produce and baking products, like flour and sugar, in response to grocery store shortages.

Business has held steady despite the changes.

“For us, it’s a testament to the importance of relating to your customers,” said Velazquez. “We know the regulars, we know their coffee orders and we know where they work. To see that recognition come back to us during this time is amazing.”

A couple of miles away, another small business was adjusting to the new normal. Fantom Comics, an independent comic book shop, has been closed since late March.

Before the coronavirus, the majority of business came from regular customers and in-store browsing, said Dave Bishop, owner of Fantom Comics. But major comic book distributors have closed their printing facilities, he said, and the lack of new comics has hurt sales.

“We’ve been trying to get people to go to our website and buy through there,” said Bishop. “It’s a bit of a homegrown effort.”

The store has been able to make some sales via mail order. Bishop partnered with a neighboring taco stand, Tiki Taco, for curbside pickup. His store also hosts trivia nights and comic readings via Zoom to drum up support.

“I’ve been trying to stay calm and roll with the punches,” he said. “We are trying to stay in contact and build a customer base online as much as we can.”

Bishop says he hopes to open the store “as soon as we get the green light.”

Can local businesses survive?

States have begun reopening, slowly. Some stores and restaurants have tentatively opened their doors, setting up outdoor seating and curbside pickup. Others are staying shuttered.

“The toughest part is how can these local businesses get back to profitability in this environment?” said Barry Moltz, speaker and small business expert. “They have to focus on convincing the customer it will be a safe experience.”

Some businesses have secured loans through the coronavirus aid bill passed in March. But it may not be enough to keep the lights on.

“It's going to be difficult to make up for lost sales,” said Beth Goldberg, director of the New York division of the Small Business Administration. “There’s been such a succession of blows to small businesses.”

The same survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found 52% of small businesses expect to be out of business within six months.

How can I help?

While you may be unable to shop shoulder-to-shoulder in your local store or sit at your diner’s corner booth anytime soon, there are other ways to show support.

The best way to support a small business is to … do business with them. If you’re ordering for a restaurant, call directly or place your order online instead of through a third party app, said Goldberg. There may be lower fees for the business, so the restaurant receives a larger cut of the bill. Avoid ordering retail products through marketplaces like Amazon or department store websites. Instead, order directly through the brand’s online shop. Additionally show support by promoting your local small business on social media.

For some services, like hair salons and auto repair shops, schedule services ahead of time.

Goldberg says she places a dinner order with her local restaurant at 4 p.m. on Friday to beat the weekend rush and prevent overwhelming the staff.

“Any way you can frequent the store, do that,” she said. “That includes getting delivery or pick-up.”

Ordering in? Here's how to save on takeout.

Servers and delivery workers are likely experiencing a decrease in business, and often rely on tips. While you should always tip something, consider tipping extra if you can, said Moltz.

Some restaurants are offering “dining bonds.” Diners buy them through the restaurant at a discount to redeem in the future for face value. (You can learn more about dining bonds here.) If that’s not an option, purchase a gift card to use at a later date. Both can help businesses address current cash needs.

Lastly, show some neighborly love. You may be feeling stressed, upset or uncertain during this time. Remember that essential workers are likely feeling the same way. Orders may be delayed or lines may be longer as the staff adapts to new routines. Cleaning requirements may require extra time and some businesses may be working with a limited staff. Having extra patience or taking the time to ask staff how they are doing can impact morale, said Velazquez.

“We are constantly just trying to adapt,” she said. “The dollars you give are important but it’s also just about connecting with us on a personal level. To have that encouragement from our customers with the pandemic going on, it means the world.”

Image: Shane Rounce