Small businesses have suffered badly during the pandemic, but many consumers are reluctant to trek out to local shops and potentially expose themselves to the virus. But there are plenty of ways to support local businesses while staying safe.
The holiday season is underway, and unfortunately, it’s coinciding with a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases.
Although everyone knows small businesses have suffered badly during the pandemic, they may be reluctant to trek out to local shops and potentially expose themselves to the virus.
While ordering all of your gifts from Amazon or big box stores may seem like the best way to go this year, there are plenty of ways to support local businesses while staying safe.
Shop during businesses’ slowest hours
If you’re not sure when you’ll find the emptiest aisles, call the stores and ask. Shopping during the slow periods provides you with multiple benefits, including not having to wait in long lines to check out. You’ll also reduce your risk of coming into contact with someone who has COVID-19, and you may help protect store staff by not piling in during a rush.
Chances are, you’ll have a better shopping experience as well. If you need to ask questions about products or services, it will be easier to stand six feet from sales associates when there aren’t a bunch of other people jostling around you. And, of course, wear a mask at all times while shopping.
See related: How to navigate the 2020 shopping season
If you don’t see a delivery option, call the storeMany small businesses have had to pivot in 2020, bringing their products online and navigating the digital retail space. With so many logistical and financial challenges, they may not have updated their websites with details on delivery orders or curbside pickup policies. But that doesn’t mean they don’t offer those options, or that they wouldn’t be willing to accommodate your needs.
“A lot of people are accommodating, because they don’t have a choice,” said Greg Gillman, chief revenue officer at Los Angeles-based marketing agency MuteSix.
Local mandates may force businesses to reduce their in-store capacities or offer delivery or curbside pickup options, so it’s always worth calling and asking about their policies.
That call may also give you a chance to forge a bond with the owner or to connect more with the brand, Gillman said.
“It’s fun when you call and you might actually find out more about the business and want to support [them] even more,” he said. “We’re so inclined toward these digital transactions where there’s no emotion. When you go into a store and actually talk to someone, it’s a different vibe.”
Although face-to-face interactions may be limited, a phone call can help you understand who you’re buying from and make for a more meaningful shopping experience.
Buy from online businesses and sellers
If you live in an area with limited shopping options, or you want to avoid in-person shopping altogether, you can still support small businesses. Look for brands that sell exclusively online, or check out platforms such as Etsy. You can find gift ideas for everyone on your list there, and you’ll be supporting independent artists, crafters and entrepreneurs by ordering through their Etsy pages.
You might also consider purchasing subscriptions for online zines, digital albums from independent musicians or commission pieces from up-and-coming artists. All of this can be done digitally, and it’s a great way to give unique gifts that your loved ones can enjoy all year round.
Ask for discounts
The beauty of small businesses is that they may have more flexibility in offering personalized discounts and services than big chains, says James Chong, founder of New York company Top Generator.
“In general, the smaller the store, the more likely it is to be willing to offer a personalized discount to you,” Chong said. “For example, a local mom-and-pop general store with only a couple of employees … would very likely be able to budge on prices, while a larger supermarket with tens of employees would be relatively unlikely to be open to personalized discounts.”
Chong recommends shopping in-store, and when a sales associate approaches you, broaching the possibility of a discount.
“Feel free to ask directly if there are any discounts going on at this time,” he said. “Sometimes stores offer discounts to students, teachers or veterans that aren’t openly advertised, and sometimes stores will issue coupons to anyone who signs up for their loyalty program.”
You can also ask whether they offer discounts for paying cash, or if there’s any room for a price reduction on products with minor scuffs or scratches, Chong said.
If you’re on a tighter budget this year due to COVID-19, shopping locally could save you some money and help keep small businesses afloat.
If a company can’t offer a discount, don’t write them off. Most small businesses don’t have the resources or market share of places like Amazon, so they simply can’t afford to lower their prices.
“Small businesses are just trying to stay afloat this year. Small businesses don’t have as much influence as a company like Amazon or Walmart, and they don’t have the same power to purchase items as scale,” said Colin Palfrey, chief marketing officer at Majesty Coffee. “Their prices are inherently higher because of these factors, which pushes consumers toward Amazon again. It’s a vicious cycle.”
To help break the cycle, opt for the local version instead of the cheaper item on Amazon. Or purchase whatever you can from a store. Even small items or gift cards you can use later on may help a local company keep its doors open.
See related: Business success in the time of COVID
Leave a review
Reviews can be huge for small businesses, since they offer social proof that other people are fans of their products and services. But to really help local companies, go beyond giving them five stars or simply saying you were happy with your experience.
“You should include why you like the business, how you found the company and what makes them unique,” Palfrey suggested. “Provide details, when possible. If you’re reviewing a restaurant, for example, write down what you ate and what you liked about it.”
Specifics give people a better idea of what they’re getting with a particular company and may make them more likely to buy.
Share your purchases on social media
If you buy (or receive) a great holiday gift, let your social networks know about it. Post a photo or video of the item and tag the company that made it.
When you tag businesses and post about their products on social media, not only are you making other people aware of the brand, you also give the company additional marketing materials to work with, Gillman said. For a small business with a shoestring budget, getting lots of social mentions and reviews that they can re-share can make a big difference when getting the word out about what they offer.
See related: Marketing in the digital age
If you want to return something, go through the seller
Perhaps your purchases arrive and you realize you ordered the wrong gift or you’re not quite as thrilled with an item in person as you were online. If you want to support small businesses, make sure to contact them to initiate a return rather than disputing the charge through your credit card company.
Disputing a transaction through the credit card company is known as a chargeback, and it’s a costly process for sellers. Monica Eaton-Cardone, co-founder and COO of Chargebacks911.com, cautions that it’s also akin to theft on the part of the consumer.
Should you receive a product and then initiate a chargeback without going through the retailer, you effectively receive something for nothing. That leaves the seller with chargeback fees, less revenue and less product to sell.
“If you really want to help your favorite small business, please let them have an opportunity to refund your money, or accept a return,” Eaton-Cardone said. “This will help us reduce the cost of fraud – which, in turn, helps keep all of our prices low this holiday season.”
Shopping this holiday season requires more thought than past years. You’re thinking about your health, your budget and your community, and trying to make the best all-around choices. Fortunately, there are many ways you can support local entrepreneurs while keeping yourself and your loved ones safe.