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Small Businesses Pivoted to E-Commerce When Shuttered During Pandemic

Tanvi Asher

Tanvi Asher

Tanvi Asher admits to being somewhat naïve when her store had to temporarily close in mid-March of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At first I thought we may be closed two weeks,” says Asher, designer and owner of Peppermint Boutique at the Culver Road Armory.

Asher soon realized, however, that the doors would be closed longer.

“After a week in, I began to wonder what the next step would be,” she says.

Asher, who also owns Salty Boutique on Park Avenue, turned her focus at that time to e-commerce initiatives as a way to continue to sell her wares.

The business had always had a strong social media presence, and in the early days of the pandemic, live events via Instagram became a very popular option for shoppers, she says.

Asher would pick a theme — such as holidays like Easter or Mother’s Day — and take shoppers on a virtual tour of products available in the store, noting shipments were still coming in even with the doors of the store closed.

The physical space, in fact, was transformed into a warehouse of products that could be shipped, delivered free within a five-to-seven-mile radius from the store or picked up curbside.

In addition to offering another sales outlet, Asher enjoyed the interaction with customers that came from the live virtual events.

A self-described people person, Asher was often doing the behind the scenes work for the store and this option gave her the chance to connect with customers.

Payments were easy, as well, she says, noting the store was able to email customers an invoice or accept a payment using Venmo.

The method was successful until the store re-opened in early June, when online sales dropped as more people opted for in-person purchases.

As a result, Asher stopped the live Instagram events.

“People were Zoomed out,” she says. “They wanted to get out and shop in person.”

The pandemic, however, stressed the importance of customer connections for Asher, which online events helped her continue to develop throughout COVID-19.

“No matter what you are selling, that connection with the customer is the most important part,” she says.

Like Asher, other small business owners expanded their e-commerce efforts in response to the pandemic; and customers were there to buy.

Total e-commerce sales for 2020 in the U.S. were some $791.7 billion, an increase of 32 percent from 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau of the Department of Commerce.

The popularity of e-commerce continued into 2021 with recently released data from the Census Bureau showing retail e-commerce sales for the first quarter of this year was $215 billion, up nearly 8 percent from e-commerce sales in the fourth quarter of 2020.

The city of Rochester saw the importance of e-commerce during the pandemic as well, rolling out funding programs in late December to support small businesses.

Among them was the ORDER grant, which provided up to $5,000 to eligible businesses seeking to develop or upgrade their capacity for e-commerce, including web-based ordering, payment and delivery management.

Gary Kirkmire, Rochester’s commissioner for neighborhood and business development, says 20 businesses were able to take part in the ORDER grant program, which was one of several initiatives the city enacted to help the community during the pandemic.

The focus, he says, was on finding ways businesses could keep serving customers and stay open while helping residents in need.

“Our goal was to create an equitable environment,” Kirkmire says.

Jason Barrett, founder and president of Black Button Distilling, says e-commerce played a major role for the business during COVID-19.

“It was a huge lifeline for us,” Barrett says.

Online sales for the Rochester-based distillery totaled some $10,000 in 2019; last year Black Button posted over $200,000 in online sales. In 2021, Barrett is projecting online sales of some $400,000.

While the liquor industry is highly regulated, some restrictions were lifted during the pandemic, including the ability for such businesses to ship their products to customers in other states, Barrett explains, adding the change was a driving factor in increased online sales.

As a result, Black Button made some of its own changes. They included investing several thousand dollars to upgrade to an e-commerce platform specific to those in the spirits and liquor industry which allows for more ease of use for customers and better tracking for the business.

Black Button, which recently celebrated its 9th anniversary, also enhanced its social media presence and focused on customer email lists.

Barrett expects e-commerce efforts to continue to grow, noting it is a good way for a small, niche business to reach new customers.

Fleet Feet was just gearing up for its busy season and had received its shipments when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and shut down in-person shopping.

Brenner

Brenner

Turning to e-commerce helped the business decrease that inventory and cover some expenses, including vendor payments, says Ellen Brenner, co-owner, vice president and chief financial officer of Fleet Feet and YellowJacket Racing.

Almost immediately after the shut-down was announced last year, the business was able to shift to online activity as well as curbside pickups, she notes.

Although it is not used as heavily as before, curbside pickup is still in use today, Brenner says, noting it allows customers to choose their items online and have the order quickly fulfilled at one of the local stores.

“It’s an easy option for people,” she says.

Brenner has four Fleet Feet locations: two in Rochester, one in Victor and one in Buffalo.

As a franchise owner, Brenner was able to draw on the company’s national resources when COVID-19 hit.

That included access to a complete list of inventories at all Fleet Feet locations. Some vendors also allowed Fleet Feet to sell their products online, including the popular brand Patagonia.

“It allowed us to keep customers in our ecosystem,” Brenner says.

Online shopping has become a much more powerful tool of late, she adds, providing a larger catalog and breadth of products, especially as retailers still deal with shipment delays from vendors who are catching up on product demand.

“We can really service a multitude of customers, whether they are in Rochester or elsewhere,” Brenner says.

Andrea Deckert is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

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