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For small business owners, planning for the future may still feel as uncertain as it was at the beginning of lockdown.
Most businesses have already had to adapt in some way to keep afloat. For some, this has meant providing support to employees who are working from home, while for others it’s meant almost completely rethinking their business model. And as always, companies are still looking for ways to make their products and services stand out from the crowd.
For cafes, bakeries and other catering businesses, lockdown has meant contact with their customer base vanishing overnight, but independent cafe and bakery Pinkmans is a great example of how it is possible to quickly change your offer and capitalise on a loyal customer base.
Pinkmans had a good position from which to expand, with a clear brand and strong social media presence already in place. By maintaining their Instagram account with regular updates, they kept followers interested and could build up to the opening of their home delivery service, which launched just under a month after the start of lockdown.
By keeping things simple, beginning with a few products and limited delivery days, Pinkmans were able to quickly set up and trial their new system. A limited product range not only keeps things easy for staff to begin with, but also maintains a level of interest among customers when goods are selling out quickly. The bakery’s Instagram allowed them to advertise their delivery service and gain feedback from customers, and by acting upon this feedback, they were able to grow their popularity and support and translate it into business.
In a similar vein, wine bar and deli Kask have converted their shop to an online format for lockdown. As well as continuing to offer a range of their wines for home delivery, Kask have come up with a lockdown-safe alternative to their wine tasting events. Customers can order a set of wine samples, along with cheese and charcuterie pairings curated by the deli staff.
Throughout lockdown, many customers have been looking to recreate the experiences they miss from more normal times, and Kask’s offer adds an element of unique experience which elevates the standard home delivery option.
All ‘non-essential’ shops were required to close from 23 March, and for many of these businesses, organising home delivery was not a viable option. Those in rural areas, for example, face a challenge as their customers are spread over too wide an area for a limited delivery service.
Some warehouse-based businesses have been able to offer a click-and-collect style system, however, and for smaller companies that usually sell in bulk to customers with their own vehicles, this kind of offer works well.
Yorkshire-based suppliers Pharmall specialise in animal feeds and medicines, meaning their service is classed as ‘essential’. However, the firm has had to adapt in order to keep running while maintaining social distancing. A key element of this is Pharmall’s online shop.
As the store needed to close in order to safeguard staff, customers have been able to continue buying online or over the phone, then collect their purchases from designated bays in the car park.
Robert Harper, director of Pharmall, says the size of the business was an advantage in this situation: “With bigger companies, all their decisions have to go through head office, but because we’re a small team we can make changes very quickly”.
There have also been unexpected wins for the firm as a result of the lockdown: “Because garden centres have been shut we’ve done maybe twenty times more compost than before. That’s been a real success!"
Another group who have really had to rethink their approach during lockdown are artists, craftspeople and other creatives, particularly those who teach as part of their business. Small organisations that usually rely heavily on the ability to hold events and workshops have had this option abruptly removed.
Printmaker Victoria Willmott would usually run workshops for adults and children, both independently and as part of Bristol Print Collective, and she believes that there is demand for online equivalents of these workshops: “People like to follow local artists and relate them to current themes – it’s about putting your own take on them.”
During lockdown she has adapted her approach by creating videos of herself completing art activities, which are then posted by the art galleries she would normally work with.
Victoria has also created lino cut printing kits, which allow customers to make their own prints at home. The kits include tools and materials, plus instructions written by the experienced printmakers at the Collective. These kits have been popular so far, and may end up being something they continue to offer.
“We’ve posted one to Lancashire and one to Wiltshire,” says Victoria. “So it is making our audience wider!”
This is a limitation of real life workshops which the home kits can solve – people who live too far away to attend the Print Collective’s usual events can now get involved wherever they live.
It’s clear that the internet has been a lifeline for countless small businesses adjusting to this crisis. By using it to their advantage, many have been able to turn looming uncertainty into opportunity.
With the UK beginning to navigate its way out of lockdown, and certain limitations set to stay in place for the foreseeable future, many employers may find that their last-minute contingency plans end up turning into a way to future-proof their business.