How to support local small businesses during pandemic reopening

Small local businesses that have survived the worst of the pandemic still need your help during the reopening.
Small local businesses that have survived the worst of the pandemic still need your help during the reopening.
Image: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
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In the fall, my explorations of my new neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn quickly landed me at Willoughby General, a general store a few blocks from my apartment. I seemed to be pulled there by gravity, compelled to buy a cheddar biscuit sandwich with fig jam, letting my eyes run over the carefully displayed boxes of artisanal pastas and homemade masks. I envisioned a past version of myself, busy on my way to work (or really just going anywhere beyond a four-block radius), stopping in for a quick coffee and a hello.

“Most of our business is supported by the same 50 people or so. We know their dog’s name, we know when they broke up with their boyfriend,” says Lauren Cawdrey, a prop stylist who bought the shop in 2018. She attributes the steady traffic to the fact that coming in offers a sense of normalcy in times that feel anything but. Willoughby General never closed when the city shut down because of Covid-19, and though life hasn’t returned to a pre-pandemic normal, Cawdrey says, she’s not as scared for her business as she was in those early days.

Everyone has a favorite local haunt like this, if my colleagues are any indication. When I asked them for suggestions of small businesses that have gotten them through the pandemic, I had dozens of enthusiastic messages telling me why their favorite spot was the best.

During the first lockdowns, many of these independent restaurants, coffeeshops, hardware stores, pharmacies, bookshops, and other small businesses felt the local love. But as the pandemic has dragged on, many have struggled to survive.

Those that have made it through aren’t out of danger, even as cities stir back to life. Government PPP loans are set to expire at the end of May, and downtowns are still quiet.

“It can happen to anyone. I don’t care how well you’re doing right now, you could close up tomorrow,” says Stephanie Floyd, who runs World Class Cleaning Services in Richmond, Virginia. “Everyone’s getting vaccinated and thinking things are fine, but they’re really not.”

Here are some ways consumers can help keep their local businesses open, straight from nine business owners across the US.

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Buy something

No real magic here—this is just the best way to keep a business you love afloat. “It’s simple to say we need people to keep shopping, but that’s what we need,” says Vincent Onorati, a co-owner of WORD bookstores with locations in Jersey City, New Jersey and Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Exactly which products help the business most with its bottom line varies a lot—Onorati says his shops make more on “sideline items” like stationary and candles, since they can’t raise the price of books (“Books are the only consumer product with the price printed on it,” Onorati says), while Cawdrey says the hustle of selling perishable prepared foods means those are the best buy from her. If this is something you’re keeping in mind as you browse the shelves of your favorite shop, you can ask the proprietor and they’ll be glad to help you out. And if appropriate, leave a big tip.

Go inside the shop

Whitney Gallagher has had a tough run. She and her business partner—her mother Lilia—opened their Brooklyn-based board game and coffeeshop the day before the city shut down. They’ve relied on scant sales and donations to keep operations going.

“Honestly, it’s just when people come in. I know that’s a big one for me,” Gallagher says. “I know people are still kind of fearful to go into places, a little less now. But when more people walk in and walk around, buy a drink or buy a game, that helps lift up the store.”

Purchase a gift card

Nigel Price opened Drip Coffee in Brooklyn in Jan. 2020. “In March and April [2020], when things got serious, things slowed down a lot, but that’s how I actually got to meet all my neighbors,” he says. “They’d take their 10-minute walk outside, they’d come to the shop…it became the neighborhood spot.”

He says lately he’s been telling customers who offer a little extra help to buy gift cards. “That to me is the less painful way to contribute,” he says, because he “feels really weird” about just taking money from someone. A gift card is a win-win, plus, it’s effectively a donation: “A big industry secret is that a lot of people never redeem them,” he adds.

June Chow, who owns Hello Dumpling in Dallas, Texas, was similarly effusive about the value of gift cards: “If the business has a gift card program, that’s really helpful. You’re not just handing the money over—you’re helping them with liquid assets that maybe they could use.”

Shop (or pick up) in person instead of delivery

“Visiting businesses is one of the best ways [to help],” says Jesse Chong, the owner of Irving Wine and Spirits in Mount Pleasant, Washington, DC. “You cut a lot of these middleman fees out.” Chong says he’s seen delivery services charge anywhere from 15% to 30% of the total sale cost, which can eat up most or all of a business’s profit (services like Seamless and DoorDash charge restaurants 30%). Delivery then becomes something like a marketing tool, not a real way to keep the business going. “Running a business at slim or negative margins, you can’t survive,” he adds. People who come to the store also tend to spend more as they might spontaneously pick something up, Chong notes.

Take a gamble

At WORD bookstores, merchandise was sitting on shelves too long for Onorati’s taste. “We had all these books on the shelf that people weren’t browsing. We built an entire business on how to get people through the front door, and now that’s not what we do,” he says. “How do you sell books people can’t see?” So WORD started selling mystery boxes, curated bundles of books that people could send to friends or relatives at any price point. They’d often be full of less popular titles in underrated genres like romance, which for the company achieved the dual goal of generating some revenue and moving inventory.

“We have to reinvent. It’s not something new for booksellers, but it’s another step in that. And now the stakes are higher,” Onorati says.

Attend an event

Lots of businesses started hosting online events when meeting up in person was too risky, though that wouldn’t always lead to sales. Now that things are starting to open back up, Gallagher has revamped her offerings and created a slate of gatherings. There are comedy nights, bingo nights, and movie nights already on the schedule; trivia night will come soon, she says. This is all in an effort to make her shop a vital part of the community and to lure people in.

Post about it on social media

After a customer posted about a particularly meaningful experience she’d had at Price’s Drip Coffee, two more people stopped by. “Because of social media, we all have our little megaphones,” Price says. “I don’t think most people understand how powerful they can be.”

Several business owners said they had been using social media more themselves, particularly Instagram, over the past year to “be in people’s minds,” as Chong puts it, or to display new inventory.

“With Gen Z and millennials, a lot of what they do is predicated on what pops up in their feed,” Price says. “A repost or a mention in your social media feed is tantamount to what someone would have paid for a billboard in the 1950s or 60s. And it’s more authentic since they were actually touched by the experience.”

Floyd, who runs the cleaning business in Virginia, says reviews on sites like Google and NextDoor are helpful, too: “They’re like golden nuggets.”

Follow Covid-19 protocols

For months now, Chow has been worried about the safety of Hello Dumpling’s 16 employees. “I wake up every day with anxiety thinking about who has been exposed to what…the built-in alarm is who is coming on today,” she says. She closed her restaurant’s dining room in March 2020 and hasn’t reopened it, instead pivoting to outdoor dining and leaning harder into delivery. That’s mostly been going fine, she says, except when customers push back on the mask mandate. “I’ve had people—nutterball people—tell me to go back to my country when I tell them to wear their mask,” says Chow, who is Chinese.

The rules are an effort to prevent a Covid scare, which could shut her business down—”That’s a worse economic hit to our bottom line than anything else,” she says. “Frankly the best thing for us is for everyone to just keep vigilant with protocols, to be safe. At the end of the day our business will come back up because you do that.”

Be flexible

Felipe Reyes, who has run Reyes Landscape Construction in Sonoma, California for the past 15 years, says he saw an uptick in business last summer after people realized they’d be home for a while. But the biggest hurdle his business faces now is scheduling. “In the past we were able to tell clients ‘I can get your job done in a month or six months,’ whatever it was. That’s not the case anymore,” he says.

That’s because manufacturers are having trouble supplying some materials, or extending lead times without warning. For example, a supplier of low-voltage lights Reyes wanted to use for a job initially told him getting them would be no problem. “Four weeks later, no one is working at the factory, they have one guy, and you’re now looking at three months,” Reyes says. “I would hope our clients or potential clients would understand.” Don’t expect things to be done immediately, and maybe don’t get your heart set on that particular type of low-voltage light.

Be patient

Business at The West Hill Shop, which sells skis and bikes in Putney, Vermont, has been humming. Owner Zach Caldwell, who bought the shop along with his wife, Amy, in Oct. 2020, estimates its winter sales tripled from previous years—not all that surprising since demand for outdoor products has been high all through the pandemic.

But now, as the weather warms and the shop moves into bike season, there’s a new reason to stress. “The biggest challenge we’re facing now in bike season is…we simply can’t get product,” Caldwell says. Because of supply chain issues and high demand, Caldwell estimates they’ll be out of bikes in just two weeks, though Vermont’s bike season has barely started. That puts his staff in the unenviable position of being “the front-line barrier to people’s goals and enjoyment,” and risks alienating customers.

“On the one hand, customers want to support a local business with [their] dollars, but what we need support with now is their patience,” he says. “We need that enthusiasm to last a while.”

Correction: This article previously stated that Lauren Cawdrey bought Willoughby General in 2019, not 2018.