June Wilcox is the owner of M. Judson Booksellers, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that she’s got a way with words. Still, Wilcox managed to summarize the pressure, the stress, the heartbreak — as well as the go-for-it spirit and optimistic energy — of today’s small business owner in just a couple of sentences.
When the economy halted in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, “I think the whole world was just like, ‘Gosh, we don’t know what to do, but we got to figure this out, especially because we care so much about serving a community. And we want to make it convenient for people to still shop with us and not automatically default to Amazon,'” Wilcox said.
Independent business owners throughout the Upstate embraced innovation to keep the lights on during the pandemic, even when they couldn’t open the doors. And more often than not, those adjustments took root on the world wide web. In the last eight months or so, they’ve launched new online stores or sold goods on social media. It’s a natural response to a contagious disease: E-commerce allows for buyers and sellers to stay safe and socially distanced during transactions.
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The coronavirus has impacted even the big box stores and shopping deal traditions like Black Friday and Cyber Monday, a concept that’s celebrating its 15th year in 2020. Health officials are discouraging the traditional big shopping crowds for the holidays. Retailers like Wayfair, Best Buy, Walmart and Target have responded by moving more deals online and posting them earlier in the shopping season.
Online business, however, is not natural for brick-and-mortar operations. You don’t just pay for the product; you support the personalized customer service. But business owners say they are not only adapting, but these adjustments may be long-term additions to their business models.
“It’s a year that has required a lot of creativity and the need to be super nimble and ready to kind of pivot at any moment … This is unprecedented for all of us,” Wilcox said.
Those pivots at M. Judson Booksellers looked like a curbside book and gift pickup at its downtown Greenville store. Adding more options to the subscription book services. New online shopping through a nationwide local book store alternative to Amazon called Bookshop.
Oh, and a new cafe. A wholesale bookmark operation. Private shopping sessions.
They’ll even sell you the vintage furniture that’s in the shop today.
Some local businesses were able to make adjustments and move to internet sales because the state loosened restrictions during COVID-19.
In March, Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order that allowed restaurants and businesses to sell unopened beer and wine curbside or in ‘to-go’ orders. His order followed the lead of other state officials across the country who were trying to soften the devastating blow the pandemic landed on the hospitality industry.
This law change allowed Nicole Cendrowski, co-owner of Fireforge Crafted Beer in Greenville, to accelerate one of her brewery’s long-term goals.
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They invested in a small 16-ounce canning machine and created an online shop. People can now pay in advance and pick up beer when they are ready. “That’s been really convenient for people, especially if they don’t live in Greenville and they’re just passing through,” she said.
They are also selling food through an online portal for both pickup and for a contact-less experience if you are eating at the brewery. The website also features some merchandise, and another COVID-19 necessity: Handmade face masks.
Folks at The Community Tap, a beer and wine shop with two locations in Greenville, launched its curbside business in an old-school way.
They started with a cell phone. They took curbside orders by text, explained co-owner Ed Buffington. This immediate solution was quickly rendered obsolete because they were able to launch an online shop quickly and effectively through a vendor they partnered with previously.
Since March, McMaster has rolled back business restrictions, like closures of certain businesses, designed to curb the spread of the pandemic. That means that The Community Tap is now able to sell inside its stores. They have decided to cap each location at 50% capacity, Buffington said, for the safety of their staff and customers.
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And the online shop is still open. You can snag beer, wine, some groceries, merchandise — even tip the staff through The Community Tap’s website.
He’s learned that a segment of shoppers wants to place orders first thing in the morning, pay online and pick up on their way home. Others still want to browse, take their time, chat with the staff about recommendations.
“We absolutely plan on continuing to use (the online store) and utilize that as a tool,” Buffington said.
For Javela Singleton, online business has, well, always been her business. She launched Gifted Hands Artisan Soap in 2013 as an e-commerce operation based in Easley.
That’s not to say that the owner and head creative didn’t add make some 2020 adjustments for her customers.
She added a local pickup option “to give my customers a safe option to get the products they love and need while continuing to support the local economy,” Singleton said via email. And, of course, they could save a little bit of cash with no shipping fees.
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Singleton also added Afterpay, which is an interest-free, no credit check plan that allows you to spread out out a purchase into four biweekly payments. Afterpay “just made sense in a time where many people have lost income whether partially or fully,” she said.
“As a handmade artisan soap company, we don’t just provide a beautiful product we provide a functional product so we wanted to make access easy for everyone,” she said.
Southern Sisters Boutique is a classic Main Street concept: Both locations in Greer and Fountain Inn are on walkable, downtown local business corridors. (And it’s actually run by two sisters, Danielle and Mary Prestifilippo.)
But when COVID-19 hit, “we pivoted and put all our energy into social media,” said Danielle Prestifilippo.
“I think the most important thing, in any situation, is to ask yourself, ‘What can I do?'” she said. “Because there is always something you can do.”
They now host regular Facebook Live shopping experiences. It works like this: A staff member will show new jewelry, clothes and gifts on the Southern Sisters Facebook page. And customers comment to purchase the items.
This year, the store has hosted 75 Facebook Live shopping experiences.
On Nov. 12, the virtual shopping experience lasted about two hours and yielded more than 660 comments.
Prestifilippo sees these events as not just a way to garner sales. “We wanted to provide as much joy and normalcy as possible so people could shop from the comfort of their own home,” she said.
This type of shopping experience, however, has become part of the “normal.”
“I think people are worried we will stop (the Facebook Live shopping), and we have assured our customers will keep with it,” Prestifilippo said. “It’s a great way to shop online, but still have an interactive experience.”
This article originally appeared on Greenville News: During COVID-19, small businesses go online and get creative to compete with the big box stores