Photo by Brian Shull

“Creativity, innovation.” If anything is going to help small businesses survive the coronavirus pandemic it is just that.

It is innovation that helps businesses set themselves apart from their competition even in the best of times. 

Tom Peters, the very well-respected management guru, wrote about it in his book, In Pursuit of Wow, the WOW being what distinguishes a business from its competition.  You know, it is that dry cleaner that will deliver in the middle of the night, the pharmacist who answers a frantic call from a customer in search of needed medication, even at 3 in the morning. It is not the guy who says wait until tomorrow.

And in these times, it is the small businesses that revamp the way they operate to bump up internet sales, or the chamber of commerce that hosts a Facebook live event each weekend, spotlighting area stores and facilitating online sales.

It is happening. The Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce in Westerly and Pawcatuck has held two weekends worth of Facebook live visits to a few dozen businesses so far, from the olive oil shop to the florist.

It is happening, at numerous restaurants around the state where they have either enhanced or developed a takeout business.

It is happening, at the bookstore where customers can order online and pick up the book at the store, the merchandise brought to your car or brought to a table in front of the store.

It is happening, and those are the businesses with the best chance of survival.  No, they will not make back what they would have if fully operational, but they will generate some cash flow that can serve as a bridge to when the economy returns to normal or returns to whatever normal will become. 

I spent a decade as editor of the area’s business publication, dealing with business owners and executives from the largest corporations in our area to the mom and pop shop on Main Street in anywhere, Rhode Island.

Those that not only survived but thrived were those that recognized the importance to innovate, to adjust to whatever fate dealt them. Take Unicom, the large technology consultant in Woonsocket. It started as a small camera shop in Providence, grew to the state’s largest – United Camera – and began embracing technology when Apple started developing computers for schools. 

Today, you cannot buy a camera or computer at Unicom, but you can get excellent service for all your technology needs. And the company’s annual revenues are north of $100 million.

Evan Smith, executive director of Discover Newport, said that when restaurants re-open they will need to embrace “creativity and innovation” if they are to recapture their customers, and do so on terms that accept the new normal, whatever that will be.

Those restaurants that have developed a takeout business, Smith says, will have to bring that to another level. They will have to become innovative about their space, understanding they will perhaps only be able to operate at half their occupancy levels. Smith suggests they will have to look toward outdoor seating, and the city fathers and mothers will have to embrace that as well.

While many small businesses have looked to financial aid from government – as they should – they also should explore how buying habits are changing. We have been seeing it for several years now, as internet sales have skyrocketed and bricks and mortar stores, mainly chains, have consolidated.

With a population leery of going out in crowds, some stores might capitalize on turning to internet sales. Like Amazon, but with a local flair. Take this time to develop a website that shows off your store and its merchandise. Develop, if you do not already have one, internet sales capability. And when the economy opens, offer internet sales, in-store sales, delivery, or pick-up. 

And, what is that advertisement with the three P’s? Promote Promote Promote. If you do not have an email list, develop one. If you do not have a mailing list, develop one. Promote by mail, email, social media, and, yes, advertisements. 

What sets you apart from the Amazons? Besides your merchandise or service, you are local. It is not Amazon that sponsors the local Little League team or lets the Girl Scouts set up in front of their store to sell cookies. It is not Amazon that shops in the local stores or pays property taxes in support of city or town services.

You are local. Your customers are your neighbors. 

And when someone has a question or problem with or about merchandise, they can stop in, not get twisted in some phone system that has them talking with someone in a third world country.

One last thought ask your employees and your customers for ideas. It is amazing what you can learn by just listening to what they have to say. 

Further Reading: Is Motley Fool worth it?

Frank Prosnitz

Frank Prosnitz brings to WhatsUpNewp several years in journalism, including 10 as editor of the Providence (RI) Business News and 14 years as a reporter and bureau manager at the Providence (RI) Journal....