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Managing a Business

How to Adapt your Small Business to Social Distancing

Recent events have been disruptive for all businesses. From restaurants to gift shops to cleaning services, entrepreneurs have had to make split-second decisions to completely restructure the way they do business. 

Many have made day-to-day changes, such as offering online ordering and curbside pickups or closing more often to clean and restock. While restrictions are beginning to lift, businesses are adjusting to the “new normal.”

We’re at a time when small business owners are shifting gears and considering their options. To help navigate this new environment, we’ve rounded up a number of ways your small business can adapt to social distancing. Whether that’s pivoting to online operations or adjusting aspects of your trade to work ‘from a safe distance,’ this guide will serve to help you stay operational.  

How is Social Distancing Affecting Small Businesses?

The current limitations affect businesses differently. While some could pivot to operating virtually, others swiftly adjusted operations to stay open, and others shut shop completely. A business’s ability to resume any sense of “normal” operations depends on factors like whether or not:

  • the business a physical location
  • operations depend on direct customer contact (beauty salons, personal training) or indirect contact (restaurants, gift shops) 
  • owners can enforce social distancing 

One thing unites the small business community right now; each business faces challenges on the path to recovery. Restrictions are slowly lifting. There are ways that you can better connect with customers and continue to bring in revenue. Let’s get started.

How to Adapt Your Business to Social Distancing

To navigate this uncharted territory, the main focus is flexibility. Everyone is getting creative to make things work. Whether you’re a high-traffic business like a retail store, a small services business like an accounting firm, or even a restaurant or coffee shop, here are actions that you can consider to help keep you, your customers, and the community safer. 

Yeti wearing mask holding a box for shipping

Safety First for Brick and Mortar Businesses

Since most people have been practicing social distancing for some time now, wearing masks and gloves in public, your social distancing measures won’t feel too strange to your regulars. Here are some tips to stay safe when it’s time to open your doors and reassure your customers.

  • Put the health of your staff and customers first

To operate in this environment, prioritize the health of your staff and customers. That includes providing protective masks for anyone dealing with the public and protective shields at payment areas. If you run a salon or barbershop, ýour safety measures might include disposable gowns for customers and gloves for the hairdressers. Ideally, make washbasins and hand sanitizer available to all in dressing rooms, toilet facilities, break areas, and at the entrance of your premises.

  • Clean and sanitize regularly

Anyone opening their doors should consider cleaning and sanitizing your premises more frequently. That includes wiping down handrails, toilets, and other surfaces several times per day. Wash tables and chairs in meeting rooms in between meetings. These steps will help protect yourself, your customers, and your employees.

  • Keep your distance

As your regulars return to your premises, it may be tempting to greet them as we did in the good old days. It’s best to avoid a casual pat on the back, a handshake, or a hug. You’ll soon find new ways to display your usual level of camaraderie, like friendly waves and nods. Remember, we are all in this together, and the general public will understand. 

  • Enable flexible scheduling

For employees who must be physically present, consider staggering their work schedules. This way, you can have a smaller number of employees present at your location. 

  • Stagger customer flow

The same goes for your customers. To avoid a congested space, stagger customer flow in some way. For example, you may choose to serve customers only one at a time. Also, instead of allowing walk-ins, take reservations, implement virtual queuing, or switch to an appointment-only policy. Applying just one of these methods can ensure your establishment doesn’t become overcrowded. 

  • Create additional physical space in brick-and-mortar locations

If you run the type of business where essential people are in close contact — such as a restaurant or a nail bar, you’ll have to alter some things to operate safely. To increase the distance between those customers, you might widen shopping aisles or rearrange your furniture to create more distance. 

  • Go cashless 

Another thing to take a closer look at is your payment policy. As a temporary measure, reduce or eliminate cash handling. Instead, use tap-based or digital payment systems whenever possible to reduce physical contact. 

There’s also the added self-serve checkout and kiosks where customers place orders from your menu, scan products they’re buying, and make payments for their purchases through the same terminal. Naturally, this is going to be at a cost, but by adding this technology, you could get a leg up on their competitors or compete better as others do so. 

  • Delivery & carryout/curbside pickup

Local businesses, cafes, restaurants, bars, and shops pivoted to takeout and delivery services. The option for curbside pickup has become a popular option for relaying deliveries. Local businesses are also in a unique position to drive sales this way, and customers appreciate that contact is eliminated during the pickup and purchase process.

One option is to relay orders yourself via an in-house delivery service. This way, you can use your own staff to box up the orders and deliver them. For your customers that don’t have internet access, or prefer doing things the old-fashioned way, provide an option to call in an order. This way, someone mans the phones and relays the orders to the kitchen as they would for a typical “in-house” customer. 

Alternatively, you can use a third-party service. With services like GrubHub, customers can easily place online orders for pickup or delivery, and you won’t have to add extra staff to handle your deliveries. These services take a cut of sales, so consider whether this option is cost-effective. Small mom-and-pop style restaurants are better off handling the delivery themselves; just make sure people know you are now offering this service (more on this later). 

  • Keep informed

There’s a lot of information out there, and it might not apply to your circumstances. For details on how reopening should look in your state (or country). For the most accurate and up-to-date information, consult local government agencies and public health organizations. Don’t forget to inform your employees which measures you will adopt to ensure their safety.

Storefront on a mobile device

Find Creative Solutions to the Current Constraints

The current situation has forced businesses to get creative and find solutions. While you think about how to adapt your business, consider the following:

  • Make the leap to e-commerce sales

Whether or not your doors are open to the public, you can still provide your products to customers that are at home shopping online. E-commerce might feel like alien territory, but you’d be surprised at how easy it is for small retailers to switch to online sales. 

You’ll likely need a website or the capability to add an online shop to your existing web presence. Check out our article on e-commerce to find out how that’s done.

  • Sell through your social media channels

There are several advantages to selling on social media. You don’t need a website to make sales, so it’s quick, easy, and inexpensive to launch. For business owners that don’t fancy setting up a full-blown e-commerce store right now, selling through social media is a great option to reach customers and bring in revenue — especially for retailers with a large online following. 

  • Expand your market

Right now, small businesses are hastily redesigning their core products or services to meet the demands of their local community in self-isolation. Start momentum and think about your core services — how can you expand them to meet current market conditions? 

Discounts themed around a crisis are nothing new. While it might seem like a marketing push, themed discounts can serve a valiant purpose. They acknowledge that it’s not just businesses that are affected. A gesture such as a “STAYATHOME” discount code or free shipping will show that a business is in touch with its customer base. 

Furthermore, if you offer a package of services, how about revising them to just the essentials for a discounted price? 

How about marketing new products or kits for the people stuck at home and restless?  Online gift shop, the Malicious Women Co quickly developed a product line with candles labeled things like “Sorry Covid Ruined Your…” which proved so popular they sold out within a matter of days. 

Bundles such as DIY craft kits for gardening, candle making, and knitting are popular right now. Likewise, luxury stay-at-home bundles for self-care beauty products to food and luxury liquor are becoming popular with consumers who are self-isolating.

If you can’t open right now, how about incentivizing purchases to use your services in the future? For example, the tourist industry is offering discounts on advanced bookings or the option to lock in this year’s rates for the following year.    

To adapt to any curfews restricting operating hours, restaurants could offer freshly prepared meals to take away. With “take and bake,” customers can still enjoy restaurant-quality food, and they can heat up at home for a quick, restaurant-quality dinner.

  • Partner with other businesses

According to Jennifer DaSilva, the founder and director of Start Small Think Big, a non-profit focused on helping entrepreneurs from disadvantaged communities.

“One of the things about a crisis is that it does bring out creativity and ingenuity and, typically, collaboration and incredible generosity,”

As is the case for Metro Bis, these struggling businesses partnered with a less-affected business to make up for a dramatic shift to zero customers in-house. By selling pre-prepared meals at a local grocery store, they are able to continue generating revenue under safe conditions. RISE Westwood Collective was set up to give small businesses in Denver a space to sell their goods online together. It’s now easy for the local community to order from multiple businesses at once for collection or delivery. 

For local businesses in Oklahoma City, banding together resulted in an entirely new business, City Box. Through the City box website, customers can buy themed boxes such as “Treat Yo’ Self” or “Date Night Inside” filled with products from various local vendors. They are doing extremely well, and the founders plan to continue the business venture long-term.

Keeping Things Going for Service-Oriented Businesses

For home service providers, social distancing measures pose new and unusual challenges: for many, it’s simply not possible to do their jobs without being inside their customers’ homes. If you enter other people’s homes, these extra safety measures provide customers with a greater sense of comfort. 

  • Wear shoe covers and gloves inside your customer’s home
  • Wash your  hands with soap and water before and after every visit
  • Check your temperature to be sure you don’t have a high temperature before setting off to a customer home
  • Follow social distancing
  • Take cashless payments 

If your business model involves one-on-one interactions, now’s the time to figure out how that can happen virtually. For example:

  • Fitness studios and independent teachers offer online classes.
  • Realtors deliver virtual apartment viewings.
  • Gift and toy stores offer a FaceTime browsing option, virtually walking kids around the store.
  • Beauty therapists provide virtual tutorials post-purchase.
  • Teach a workshop on your business expertise.
  • Demo your products virtually.
  • Show how to make your most popular recipes.

The thought of transforming from a traditional in-person business to trading online might seem overwhelming. For more information on creating exciting virtual events to engage your audience, this blog from Eventbrite is a fantastic resource. 

Hedgehog working on computer with cat on desk

Transition to Remote Working 

If any of your employees can do their jobs from home, let them. For some roles, remote work even leads to an increase in productivity. You’ll also save rent and go paperless if you continue working this way. 

  • Make sure you have security measures in place 

That means for all your data and access, including asking all remote employees to use a Virtual Private Network to log in to your servers if possible.

  • Replace in-person conversations with virtual ones

Instead of meeting face to face, meet virtually wherever possible. Cancel meetings that aren’t urgent or hold them by telephone or online. Pick a platform that will suit your meeting needs. If it’s a small meeting, Skype or Google Hangouts will fit the bill. If you need to host a webinar or a large meeting, try GoToWebinar. 

Stay Connected with Your Customers

Since social distancing was abruptly put in place, what your customers knew about your business has most likely changed. For example, they may question whether your business: 

  • Is still open 
  • Offers online delivery
  • Has what they need in stock 
  • Offers virtual consultations or live chat to answer their pressing questions 

In these uncertain times, it would be a mistake to assume your regular customer know whether you’re still operating and able to safely give them the products and services they’re looking for. You’ll need to shout from the digital rooftops to spread the message to your customers, who are all self-isolating at home.

Right now, there’s no need to drop off the radar. Take to virtual channels to give your business visibility and let people know how you can adapt together to ride out the storm. 

  • Add Your Business to Local Listings

Potential customers are searching online to see what’s available to them locally. People depend on local businesses, where they can quickly pick up the products they need. They’re also searching for local businesses that are now offering delivery services or virtual consultations. To make sure you’re the one they find, make sure you appear in a local search for Google, Bing, and Facebook.

  • Reach out to your customers

Missing the daily interactions with your customers, how are you to know what they need? As your customers directly, “what do you folks need from my business right now?” Their feedback is invaluable for a workable crisis strategy that ensures that you’re providing products and services people want. 

  • Communicate your plans

All of your effort to adapt right now is in vain if you don’t let your customers in on them. Don’t waste any time communicating these changes to them. Social media is a good first shout since many people are now stuck at home, checking their social media. Post about what’s happening with your business, any new services such as online orders, and any current and upcoming promotions. 

Not everyone uses social media, so make sure to keep all customers updated that have signed up to your email list and browse your website.

While the current hard times have brought the business community together, when it comes time to reopen, staying six feet apart will be the name of the game. To survive and thrive means being flexible and adaptable to consumers’ new and evolving needs. 

Your exact reopening strategy will depend on your business type and home state, and we recommend you stick to these guidelines. Nevertheless, we hope these tips help you ride out the storm or prepare for what might be the “new normal.” 

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Isobel Weston

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