In the span of a little over a month, the coronavirus pandemic has completely upended American society and sent our national economy reeling toward a recession (assuming we’re lucky). While the fog appears to be lifting somewhat locally, the impact of the last few weeks will be likely felt for months and years to come …
And remember, this could just be the first wave of the virus …
Our news outlet has covered the pandemic from a variety of different angles, but today we wanted to zoom in and focus on the economic fallout – particularly how the coronavirus shutdowns have impacted small businesses in our home state of South Carolina.
For some perspective on that topic, we sat down with Tracy Wright – owner of Just The Thing and president of the Devine Street Association, a group of local retailers. We wanted to get Tracy’s thoughts because in addition to being a small business owner herself, she also works as an advocate for small business interests – affording her a unique vantage point on this evolving economic crisis.
Here is that conversation …
FITS: First of all, tell our readers a little bit about who you are and what you do. You’re a businesswoman but you are also a local small business leader. Tell us about those roles. How long have you had them? What sort of demands do they place on you? What other roles do you balance? And lastly … how have these roles been challenged by the current crisis?
Tracy: I am the owner of Just the Thing on Devine Street and the President of Devine Street Association. Just the Thing has been part of Columbia since 2002 and I have been president of the association for four years. I am passionate about Devine street, Columbia, and small business in general. Aside from my day job, I am a mom to eleven-year-old twins. We are balancing homeschooling with continuing a limited (mostly online) operation of Just the Thing. This means trips to the store to fill and ship orders and film daily videos for social media. It has become a family affair, as my husband drives us around Columbia each evening to deliver orders to people’s doorsteps. My children have become my videographers, models and stylists. I also have some amazing employees who have kept our website fresh and filled orders for me on a daily basis. It definitely takes a village.
FITS: Let’s get right down to it: How bad is it out there for small businesses right now? How bad is it in Columbia? What sort of numbers are you seeing? And what sort of anecdotal evidence are you picking up from your network of businesses about current conditions? Tell us about the impacts you are seeing …
Tracy: It’s definitely hard for small business right now, everywhere! From the people along Devine Street that I have spoken with, the reality is retail and restaurants are suffering tremendously. For me, 90 percent of our business comes from people walking in off the street and the other 10 percent is from online sales. For those without websites or social media presence, that number may be 100 percent from walk-ins. This pandemic has definitely altered the way we do business. We’ve all built and cultivated relationships with our customers and that is definitely missing in an “online” platform. It is the interpersonal relationships that come with shopping at local brick and mortar stores or eating in a local restaurant that makes it an experience.
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FITS: Businesses large and small seem to be ramping up interaction with clients or prospective clients during this crisis. Talk to us about striking the right balance there. How are you communicating with your market? How would you advise other small businesses to communicate with their clients? Have there been any success stories amid the fallout from all of this? Have you been able to identify any effective response methods or changes to your business practices that have produced results?
Tracy: Traditional media doesn’t work now – no one is driving around and seeing billboards or sitting in their cars listening to radio ads. Therefore, the best way to reach customers now is through their devices on social media. Personally, I am doing daily videos where I highlight different products and place myself directly into the customers home via their device. I find it the most effective way to stay in contact with the customer and remind them that we are “here.” I tell them what they “need” and why. It seems to be working. Stores, including ours, are getting creative by offering curbside pick up, home delivery, and sales/ discounts. We are ALL posting on social media, so the only way to separate yourself is to offer sales/ discounts and free shipping offers. Being discounted at a time that we are already losing money is the only way to stay competitive, because, at this time, cash flow is the most important thing. With Spring being one of the busiest retail seasons, it’s difficult not being able to make our margins during this time. Normally, we would not consider offering discounts during these prime selling months.
FITS: One of the few silver linings in a crisis like this is it has the potential to bring our communities together. As divided as our country can be at times, there are still tons of people who genuinely want to help those in need – including many with the ability to help. How can communities help small businesses right now? Shopping online? Buying gift cards for friends or neighbors? Pledging to “shop local” when business restrictions are eventually lifted? Can you walk us through some of the most important things that those of us who want to support small business can do right now?
Tracy: Communities can help small businesses by purchasing gift cards, ordering takeout, and shopping on their websites. Many of my neighboring businesses are telling me that if you are buying gift cards, please use them sooner rather than later. The most important thing your readers can do right NOW, is shop anyway you can. Almost everything you need can be purchased locally. Our local stores are doing free shipping, curbside pick-up or delivery to your front door. But don’t stop there! When you find something really great, spread the word. Share local store/ restaurant posts on your own social media to make others aware. It really does work. Also, think ahead to upcoming occasions like birthdays, teacher appreciation, Mother’s/ Father’s Day, graduations, wedding/ baby showers, etc. Take advantage of the discounts businesses are offering now. And then, when we are able to open up again, please support local businesses even more than ever.
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FITS: As you know, the federal government is undertaking a massive economic rescue initiative – likely to include multiple rounds of stimulus packages. Other efforts at the state and local level could follow. Is any of it helping? Are small businesses in Columbia eligible for this aid? Are they applying? What are their experiences with the application process?
Tracy: Small business associations, like the DSA, have been very helpful in keeping our members informed about government restrictions resulting from the pandemic as well as the various ordinances and lending programs. The information we receive from local officials is shared with our members for what is useful and relevant to our businesses. Yes, Devine Street businesses are definitely applying for loans and grants. It is helpful and very much needed. The application process and approval process was quick and easy, but few of us have received the funds yet, and it still may take a while. That is a little unnerving because we have been closed for several weeks because of government restrictions. That money that we have been approved for is needed to pay our employees. Many of those employees have not been at work since mid-March but still need to get paid. The sooner these funds become available, the better it will be for the businesses and employees it is intended to support.
FITS: When it comes to responding to this crisis, what more should government be doing? Or what should it be doing differently? We’re talking federal, state, local … you name it. Also, what other institutions or organizations need to be stepping up? And how can they help small businesses?
Tracy: The loosening of the purse strings needs to start at the top. The financial institutions and insurance companies need to remain flexible. Landlords need to help their tenants in whatever way possible. If delayed or reduced payments are an option, that would certainly be helpful. These small businesses will never be “whole” or be able to recover the losses they have already incurred. Our elected officials need to be focused on finding a way to get our state safely reopened as quickly as possible, We are already facing the possibility of re-opening during the typically slow summer months, having been closed during our busy Spring season.
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FITS: So … where do you see all of this going? It seems every day there is good news and bad news, but some of the most widely-watched coronavirus projections show things improving over the coming weeks – with an impact that appears to be much less severe than it could have been. Are you optimistic about a quick bounce back?
Tracy: I am certainly not an expert, but it seems SC closed early enough to prevent this pandemic from being worse than originally predicted, so hopefully we will be back up and operating soon. Being closed down in May would be another HUGE hit to retailers and restaurants. Small businesses have lost a tremendous amount and those losses will get exponentially worse the longer we stay closed. Even when we do re-open, and people resume buying like they usually do, it doesn’t really change the outcome for the year. March, April and May are so important to our yearly gross sales. Typically summer discounts begin Memorial Day weekend, so there really won’t be enough time for us to get our full margins. More goes into retail than you might imagine. We buy far in advance to prepare for the upcoming seasons. This crisis was unpredictable. I was out of town at market for 3 weeks in January and February buying merchandise for the store. Many of those orders had to be cancelled, and I know many of my fellow business owners had to do the same. It creates a ripple effect that impacts designers, vendors, manufacturers, suppliers etc.
FITS: Are you concerned about a possible second wave of the virus in the fall? How are you preparing for the next few months given all of the uncertainty?
Tracy: A reoccurrence in the fall that would require business closures would be devastating to small businesses. Honestly, I can’t think that far in advance when dealing with the here and now. It is my nature to remain positive, so I am still hopeful this will soon be behind us. I will definitely be cautious with my fall buying, while still remaining true to my customers by continuing to provide the selection they have come to expect. We are all going to need a change of scenery soon, and hopefully we’ll choose to dine locally at a favorite restaurant or shop with our friends at favorite local boutiques. And of course, I hope that you choose to “shop and dine” on Devine Street!
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