These are unprecedented times, and for business and communities, it is hard to know where to turn and exactly how to proceed. WEDC’s downtown development team has published a guide to help small businesses and communities come up with strategies to address the current challenges. “Navigating through COVID-19 in Wisconsin” contains guidance for meeting residents and customers in the digital space, providing resources to address short- and long-term challenges businesses and residents are facing, and continuing to market downtown communities even strict limits are placed on in-person interaction.
Below you will find the following for how to navigate through COVID-19 in Wisconsin:
With community members urged to stay at home and practice social distancing, small businesses are struggling due to reduced foot traffic. Although customers may not be able to shop in the way they are used to doing, goods and services offered by these small businesses are still needed by residents. While each business will need to adjust its specific offerings to accommodate customer needs, communities and civic organizations can provide support to businesses struggling to identify appropriate strategies; serve as a central source of information about business closures; and help coordinate and/or promote newly available online, delivery or to-go offerings at local businesses. Some of strategies for supporting your small businesses during this time include network and information sharing, maintaining customer communication, creating a menu database, promoting digital retail and coordinating activities.
Network and information sharing
The environment is changing rapidly, and business owners may not have capacity to stay informed on changing guidelines. Providing regular updates on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local authorities, as well as local closures and other circumstances likely to change traffic patterns, will help them customize their strategies effectively. Civic organizations may also want to consider having a weekly ‘Town Hall Chat’ on an online videoconference or phone line to provide a venue for discussing challenges and best practices among businesses and your organization and/or municipality.
Maintaining customer communication
Allowing customers to access information on business status (open/closed), hours of operation and online/delivery-based options for your community on a centralized website can help reduce confusion and make it easier for customers to support local businesses.
Creating a menu database
Create a list of local restaurants that allow take-out or have delivery options, and scan in or link to their menus. Some organizations have also created large-font versions of these menus to accommodate senior audiences.
Promoting digital retail
Promoting online shopping—for example, through creating a series of social media posts highlighting online options, coordinating a centralized online marketplace or making community gift certificates available for purchase (and future use) online—can streamline options for customers wanting to make a difference. Some communities are also coordinating gift card rallies to generate sales for local businesses and creating virtual tip jars linking online payment options for local service employees such as baristas, bartenders or stylists so customers can use an online platform to send tips.
Community support organizations also have a role to play in helping businesses band together and take advantage of economies of scale—as well as a responsibility for helping the municipal environment and infrastructure support new ways of engaging with local business.
- Disinfecting public amenities (benches and drinking fountains), especially in parks where people may still be out and about in smaller numbers
- Compiling information on local resources such as health care hotlines, free meal outlets, phone lines to check on housebound seniors etc.
- Utilizing a public plaza or central location to distribute free community meals or other goods provided for those in need
- Coordinating a delivery service. In communities without formal delivery services such as Grubhub, DoorDash and UberEats, businesses may be able to coordinate to share staff as a delivery service to deliver food to customers. In addition, communities with existing taxi or ride-sharing programs may be able to engage these drivers on behalf of downtown businesses.
- Advocating for relaxed regulations or altered parking situations to accommodate additional drive-up, pickup and takeout traffic. This may involve the addition of temporary short-term parking spaces and/or temporarily waiving parking fees (e.g., on side streets for employees through the crisis period). Bars and restaurants may need help to extend their premises to allow for curbside pickup of bottled beer or wine with dinner.
Retail and service businesses will need to be creative to accommodate new customer habits. Considering the needs of homebound customers can help shape effective strategies for your business and is essential for maintaining sales in the near term. Consider the following list of potential strategies, grouped by business type, to identify ideas that may work for your business.
Any business that doesn’t already have an online sales platform will want to create one now to allow customers to purchase gift cards, monthly memberships or local delivery options. This could be a standalone element of your website, a DIY online store on a platform such as Wix, or a system tied to existing social media platforms. If you have always wanted to take the leap into online sales, consider this a golden opportunity to explore online sales options that coordinate with your existing point-ofsale system.
Some products need to be shown to be understood. If your goods or services don’t lend themselves to a strictly click-and-buy online store, consider Facebook live demos of your product. While you can link the live video to your virtual store, you can also go low-tech and allow viewers to commit to buying in the comments, and then complete the transaction via direct message, or pay the minimal subscription fee for a platform that streamlines the process, such as CommentSold or Soldsie.
- Delivery options/curbside pickup: Allow customers to pick up online orders at the curb or have them delivered locally.
- Consider creating delivery bundles to make this cost-effective (learn-to-knit kits, craft-in-a-box, movie-watching-for-the-family, care packages etc.)
- Membership pricing: Create prepaid membership programs to spur cash flow now with a promise of future regular engagement (wine of the month club, knitting club etc.). Nearly all retail bundles can be bundled into a monthly membership option that customers can purchase now and use throughout the year.
- Online forums: knitting circles, tutorials, home shopping events, story hour from the bookstore—anything to keep customers engaged and your business top-of-mind
- Customized online services: personal shopping, home design consultations, etc.
Personal service providers (salons, pet care, therapists etc.)
- Online/virtual appointments: Therapists, health care providers etc. can utilize online appointments (Facebook Messenger is one app that has a scheduling option) to schedule virtual appointments for those who can’t come in person.
- Membership options can provide cash today and future customer loyalty. A veterinarian’s office membership can cover basic veterinary care with a monthly free. Salons and spas can offer pre-booking of future massages, facials, haircuts or other services at a discount to bring in cash today.
- Livestream fitness classes for participants at home
- Offer virtual training or form correction for clients at home
- Host a monthly challenge for users to upload screenshots or watch photos of their at-home workouts to log minutes for prizes
- Delivery/curbside pickup: Allow customers to order ahead for delivery or pickup.
- Family meal options: Consider a family meal option that packages a family-friendly meal (main dish and sides) as a dinner-to-go option.
- Offer par-cooked meals or DIY options such as pizzas or cookie decorating kits.
- Continue your existing trivia events with online livestream options.
- Feature social media posts that highlight your brewmaster or chef to foster personal connections and highlight what your business serves to customers.
- Offer pro tips for at-home cooking, planting, wine pairing etc.
Arts and cultural institutions
- Offer custom curated/celebrity livestream tours of venues or displays.
- Host author or artist discussion chats or Facebook/Instagram/YouTube live demos of the artists at work or rehearsing.
Event Planning and Marketing Ideas
Most community organizations have been busy planning events for the upcoming season. While most near-term events have been canceled or postponed, others can still be altered to foster a sense of community without requiring getting together in person.
Depending on the type of event and number of items that have been pre-committed or pre-paid, organizations will need to review the force majeure clauses included in their contracts. This ‘act of God’ clause provides participants and/or event planners with a non-payment option as a result of an unforeseen event. The ability to cancel with limited or no financial implications will depend on the strength of this clause in your contract (although many venues and vendors are attempting to work with planners to the degree possible).
As an alternative, all or a portion of your event may be able to move online to avoid a complete financial loss. Live auctions can become online auctions, trivia events can go online, livestreamed fashion shows can be launched complete with one-click shopping, and races can be converted into online challenges. All of these can allow participants to engage with the organization and replace an anticipated event with online engagement with fellow attendees (while potentially retaining some event revenues to offset non-refundable costs).
Communities, civic organizations and businesses will need to communicate frequently and clearly to provide relevant and timely information to customers, workers and residents. Many are aware of the hardships imposed by the situation on local businesses and individuals but are unsure as to how to effectively assist.
Communities can use social media to post helpful information to customers, workers and residents. This information can include how to shop locally, restaurants that offer delivery or curbside pick-up, and best practices for interacting with the district during this time. In addition, social media is a great place to share how your organization or community is practicing social distancing and activities customers can do during this time. Communities should also set up information pages in addition to their traditional Facebook page. For example, Future Omro created the page #supportOmro for posting relevant and timely information to customers, workers and residents about strategies and practices Omro is putting into place during the COVID-19 crisis.
Businesses should also be present on social media to communicate with their customers on the strategies they are putting into place and how to best interact with them during this time. It is a good idea to promote different promotions or specials happening during this time; this will further entice customers to shop locally and eat locally amidst this crisis.