Post Pandemic Consumer Trends

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on May 6, 2021. Hope springs eternal. All the indicators seem to be headed in the right direction and social distancing restrictions are scaling back. Many of us have begun taking small steps toward the lifestyle… Read more »

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on May 6, 2021.

Hope springs eternal. All the indicators seem to be headed in the right direction and social distancing restrictions are scaling back.

Many of us have begun taking small steps toward the lifestyle we experienced – and perhaps took for granted – 15 long months ago. We’re now confronting personal decisions about our own comfort zones in public settings. While we’re eager for our lives to return to normal, we rationally acknowledge things will not be exactly the same.

As mentioned in a previous column, Alexandria SBDC has begun a series of webinars on the “Fundamentals of Post Pandemic Success.” The first session last week, “The Future of Customers and Consumer Behavior,” described consumer habits acquired during the pandemic and highlighted some of the adjustments business owners must consider. Presenters shared both academic research and practical hands-on experience.

George Mason University Professor Gautham Vadakkepatt illustrated how digital is the new normal. Not only is it now integral to our daily business interactions and home entertainment, but even Ganny and Pop-pop are comfortable digitally connecting with the grandkids. Pandemic-imposed digital fluency is here to stay, and it necessitates businesses stepping up to that reality to interface with customers of all ages and types.

During the pandemic, convenience became the crucial deciding factor in our search for goods and services. Businesses have gone beyond online ordering and curbside pickup to compete on who’s providing convenience, value and superior attention to a broad range of customer preferences. Vadakkepatt pointed out that the post-pandemic economy has raised the customer experience bar, and that businesses must substantially up their game.

Computer displaying pinterest board about home decor

He also described customer expectations around health, safety, work/ life balance, employer treatment of their employees and connections to nature. Post-pandemic customers also prefer more transparency so they know who they’re buying from and how that business approaches sustainability, social change and service to the community.

Victoria Vergason, owner of The Hour, an Alexandria store celebrating the art of the cocktail, presented her experiences and successes concentrating her efforts on expanding her store’s website and social media presence. In addition to her Old Town store, Vergason years ago started a partnership with Neiman Marcus and opened boutiques in several of their stores. She also launched TheHourShop.com.

While Vergason had already begun greater emphasis on online sales, the pandemic prompted her to beef up the website as the way of the future. Her presentation described approaches to the challenges of shipping, photographing products and posting them on her website and onto Pinterest Boards.

She also shared tips on working with Shopify, Instagram and Facebook, and talked about engaging experts for areas not in her comfort zone. Vergason detailed how she’s settled into the routine of online sales, and has seen an astounding increase in online customers and sales vs. in store.

The next session of the series will be “Digital Tools and Technology for the Future” at the end of May. Recordings of past sessions and registration links for upcoming programs can be found under Workshops at https://alexandriasbdc.org/

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Are You Ready for the Recovery?

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on March 4, 2021. Going into the pandemic was chaotic and unpredictable and we had to make consequential decisions on the fly. The road ahead certainly has its share of unpredictability, but the rollout of vaccines… Read more »

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on March 4, 2021.

Going into the pandemic was chaotic and unpredictable and we had to make consequential decisions on the fly.

The road ahead certainly has its share of unpredictability, but the rollout of vaccines holds promise for our return to normalcy – or as close as we can get to what our lives were like before COVID-19.

Now is a good time to take stock and begin planning for the decisions and approaches we’ll need to make in the coming months. Exiting the pandemic might be just as chaotic as going into it, but research and preparation will help business owners make sound choices.

Some of the critical considerations include changing consumer behavior, post-pandemic technology fundamentals, supply chain concerns, reevaluating financial circumstances and workforce matters. We must also closely monitor how the state and jurisdictions scale back their social distancing restrictions.

Consumers became conditioned over the past year to online ordering, curbside pickup and contactless transactions. The essential safety measures of 2020 set a new baseline for buyer expectations. Even when we no longer feel the need to wear masks, we are still likely to appreciate businesses who take extra steps for our well being. Consumer behavior will vary by industry, so it behooves business owners to research and monitor trends in their business sector. The savviest owners are those who regularly collaborate and share smart practices with one another.

Individuals and the nature of commerce have gone through a digital transformation. The pandemic prompted more consumers to shop and transact online, and businesses must bridge this digital divide to remain viable. Owners should evaluate their online presence and how they stack up against the competition. They might also need enhanced cyber infrastructure for more efficient and sophisticated operations.

The pandemic disrupted customary supply chains and, while some items like toilet paper have largely resolved, others remain unpredictable. Supply chain issues apply to both consumer and service sectors. Business owners need to consider post-pandemic operations and how to ensure resiliency of operations.

While some businesses are navigating the pandemic adequately, many have been financially devastated. In addition to dealing with loan forgiveness or repayment, it will be crucial for owners to examine their financial circumstances and cash flow. Decisions ahead include adequacy of capital, where to trim for more efficiency and where to invest.

Another consideration is the complexities of the workforce – rehiring workers, attracting new employees or reskilling talent. With new business demands, roles in business operations might have shifted, and it’s important for small business owners to follow sound practices to avoid pitfalls and to ensure the most productive work environment.

Alexandria Small Business Development Center is planning a free webinar series that will help business owners explore the fundamentals of a post pandemic economy and examine the critical issues described above. It will be presented virtually and designed for owners to select the sessions and breakout sessions applicable to their circumstances. Announcements of the series will be forthcoming in SBDC bulletins.

For more information, subscribe to the SBDC’s mailing list at https:// alexandriasbdc.org/

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Reflections and Expectations

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on January 7, 2021. As we closed out 2020 there was unanimous consensus that it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year in almost every respect. As we toasted the incoming 2020, we had… Read more »

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on January 7, 2021.

As we closed out 2020 there was unanimous consensus that it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year in almost every respect.

As we toasted the incoming 2020, we had no way of knowing that the virus had already started to spread. The following months saw far too many deaths; families impoverished; community fixtures forced to close; other businesses holding on but under enormous pressure; and special occasions and community celebrations cancelled.

It’s worth reflecting on some of the achievements we’ve made under duress. We’ve become more comfortable with online meetings and processes. Work and commercial transactions will never be quite the same. New habits and practices should keep us healthier during future cold and flu seasons. We’ve realized how adaptive and resilient we are. Most importantly, the notion that we’re all in this together established a new sense of individual and community responsibility.

We witnessed healthcare workers, first responders, research scientists, everyday service providers – like those in our grocery stores, restaurants, retailers and pharmacies – rise to the occasion.

City government and business community leadership undertook swift, bold and creative actions. Business owners pioneered new business models to serve customer needs and continue supporting their employees. The nature of business was changed forever. Those most innovative and adaptive will fare best in the coming months and years.

What can we expect in the coming months? Hopefully, vaccines will ease our concerns about infection, and we can begin to resume contacts and activities. The return to normalcy will be gradual and require a lot of adjustments along the way.

The recently enacted relief legislation was a long time coming and is desperately needed. We’re now waiting for the implementing instructions from the Small Business Administration and Department of the Treasury and participating bank details. Our hope is that the application process will be less cumbersome and SBA communication with banks and borrowers will be swifter and clearer.

There are several things business owners can do to be ready to apply. First, they should monitor developments and be prepared to act promptly once the application process is announced. They should also keep track of their financial records by quarters for 2020 and how those compare to 2019. They’ll need to show a 25% drop in gross revenues for one of those quarters.

Having a banking relationship with one of the participating lenders, such as local banks, community lending institutions or credit unions, is vital. Those that already have those relationships should ask their contacts whether that institution will be participating in the next round of PPP and how they should keep in touch. Those who don’t have banking relationships need to develop them immediately.

Our center stands ready to help Alexandria business owners in a variety of ways. Our staff provides owners objective guidance on business financials and operations and can refer them to timely resources. We also continually update our COVID-19 webpage with the latest relief legislation developments and guidance at: https://alexandriasbdc.org/resources-programs/ covid-19-information-resources.

Alexandria SBDC resources are funded by the city, SBA and local banks, and there is no charge for SBDC services.

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Roundtable Recap: Pivoting Your Small Business in 2021

This week’s post was written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3 Consulting, social media consultant and facilitator of the monthly Roundtable for the Alexandria SBDC.  As the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, started to circulate around the United States, Alexandria, Virginia small businesses began being impacted around March 14th when the City of Alexandria declared a local emergency…. Read more »

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This week’s post was written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3 Consulting, social media consultant and facilitator of the monthly Roundtable for the Alexandria SBDC. 

As the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, started to circulate around the United States, Alexandria, Virginia small businesses began being impacted around March 14th when the City of Alexandria declared a local emergency. It wouldn’t be until a day after that a Virginia man passed because of COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, and more followed. Things have certainly changed since those earlier days of the pandemic, and the situation continues to be dynamic.

This sounds bleak, and there are plenty of heightened emotions regarding the loss of lives, loss of normalcy, business losses, and more. But, with great adversity comes the greater resilience of Small Business in Alexandria. On November 17, 2020, Alexandria Small Business Development Center convened its last Business Development Roundtable of the year, which it resumed virtually for Alexandria business owners to connect and share lessons learned throughout this challenging year.

During the Roundtable, it was heartening to hear stories of small business owners making strategic, flexible choices about their businesses—pivoting your small business models and product/service delivery methods, modifying working arrangements for business continuity and staff safety, and new promotional tactics.

Diane Greenbaum was recently in the news about her pivot strategy success. And, she joined the Roundtable to provide some of her advice, having survived and thrived amidst this crisis. Greenbaum opened Kidcreate Studio in Old Town Alexandria on March 14, 2020, just two days before Alexandria City Public Schools would close their doors for the shutdown to stem the tide of the first coronavirus wave. She recounted how she made some smart decisions to change products and services (with Do-at-Home Art Kits, virtual classes and birthday parties), pricing, and working through human resources issues to help parents and children throughout Alexandria and the surrounding area. 

Diane Greenbaum, in her Kidcreate Studio located in Old Town Alexandria.

Other attendees noted that they needed to redefine their target audience, add new products and services to their overall package, and consider how to launch their digital experience (website, mobile, eCommerce, and other online presence components) in the coming year. Notably, Carolyn Alexander, owner of MomEase, has launched a virtual Ask the Experts program for expectant mothers. Bridget Gaddis, retail architect and owner of Gaddis Architect, is considering her overall search engine optimization strategy on her website and blog to attract new retail clients.

While the overall sentiment of the Roundtable participants was that 2020 was a tough year, there was a collective interest to get things back to normal and improve everyone’s businesses in 2021.

Alexandria SBDC resumes its Roundtable program (on the third Tuesdays of the month at noon) in January 2021, and we are available for business counseling virtually for Alexandria City small businesses. In the meantime, you can check out more pivoting strategies small business owners are trying in The New York Times ongoing COVID-19 business series, Small Business: Owning the Future.

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Continuing to Pivot

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on December 3, 2020. This has been a year when familiar terms took on new meaning and significance. Examples – “community spread,” “flattening the curve,” “nonessential businesses” and “pivot.” Let’s explore pivoting. Among the imperatives for… Read more »

The post Continuing to Pivot appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on December 3, 2020.

This has been a year when familiar terms took on new meaning and significance. Examples – “community spread,” “flattening the curve,” “nonessential businesses” and “pivot.” Let’s explore pivoting.

Among the imperatives for businesses surviving and thriving through the challenges of the pandemic is pivoting to new approaches. Most have experienced a drastic change in their market. Customers no longer have needs, or might not want as much as before, and fear of infection limits their dealings. Supply chains have dried up. Consumer priorities have shifted, and some central events or celebrations are now deemed too risky.

There’s no template for pivoting because the circumstances differ by industry and approaches are unique for each business. The concept is to carefully consider all the direct and indirect conditions that have changed your market and determine whether it’s possible to adapt your tactics to the new environment.

There are physical aspects such as social distancing and capacity restrictions, but also challenging are the emotional considerations where customers become afraid of involvement with your product or service. Consumers also have pent up urges for luxury, if you can find safe ways for them to indulge.

There are several fundamental strategies businesses can follow to adapt or grow their company. One is to develop new products, services or concepts. Another is to refine the product or service delivery to a level that appeals to the new circumstances or to new customers. Technology can play a key role.

Perhaps you can partner with or outsource to another business, or team up to mitigate one another’s challenges. 

Made in ALX, a new makers’ market, launched on 11/16 with several local partnerships, including local watercolor artist Alexandra Schmeling, jeweler Bonny McMahon, designer Diana Papazian and Torpedo Factory artist Betsy Grady, according to the release.

With shock and awe, COVID-19 unfolded in unpredictable ways, and we had no solutions on the shelf. Aside from the disease itself, coronavirus also precipitated reactions and conditions that took a toll on almost every person and every business.

There’s light at the end of the tunnel with new vaccines and treatments. Scientists are hopeful that we might be able to resume some of our prior approaches within months. We know, however, it won’t be like flipping the switch back to normal. Proceeding purposefully into 2021, it’s essential for businesses to anticipate the possible shock and awe coming out of COVID-19.

Even under the best scenarios, getting back will not be seamless. Restrictions will lessen and opportunities will broaden, but not everybody will be on the same timetable returning to old routines. Those who provide products and services will again have to recalibrate approaches – not doing it like we’re having to today, and not like we did it before. We will be entering an even newer new-normal.

Even while we grumbled, many have become accustomed to working from home and will find it stressful returning to the worksite. We’ve developed new patterns over the last nine months, and it will be interesting to see how we unwind those.

This offers opportunities – but also challenges – for businesses to develop new pivot strategies focused around the circumstance of returning to our earlier lifestyles. 

We are all in this together, and will be coming out of it together!

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Gold Standard Collaboration

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on October 1, 2020. While we wince at the scorched-earth chaos at the national level, there’s a contrasting sense of civility, collaboration and productivity in Northern Virginia and in our own community. The Northern Virginia Economic… Read more »

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on October 1, 2020.

While we wince at the scorched-earth chaos at the national level, there’s a contrasting sense of civility, collaboration and productivity in Northern Virginia and in our own community.

The Northern Virginia Economic Development Alliance, a joint effort by 10 jurisdictions to work across borders on business recruitment and marketing efforts, is celebrating its first anniversary. This collaboration grew out of the success of four Northern Virginia jurisdictions who worked together to win the Amazon HQ2 bid.

The concept of highlighting the region’s collective assets quickly adapted to coordinated efforts to weather the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the region’s businesses. The alliance enabled a more agile approach for participating jurisdictions to connect their businesses to resources, information and both national and local loan and grant programs. As for many of us, the alliance’s emphasis is now pivoting to focus on recovery and resilience processes.

The Alexandria community has long established itself as one of the foremost examples of collaboration and coordination of efforts. Collegiality is the hallmark of Alexandria’s economic development, small business, tourism, chamber of commerce, city government as well as business, nonprofit and civic associations. Our focus is not on who gets credit but instead, on sustaining a supportive ecosystem where businesses can thrive.

The severe impacts of this pandemic have necessitated all of us jumping into action, assessing what drastic steps need to be taken and working together to not only mitigate the challenges that seem to escalate daily, but also to implement approaches adapted to the new normal.

Alexandria’s leadership and business community have been at the forefront of responsive action. Some of the most obvious examples can be seen in the thriving outdoor dining scene on King Street, where longstanding right of way policies had to be quickly and drastically adapted. 

Business and economic development organizations have carefully coordinated information and outreach efforts so that individual business owners struggling with uncertainty and severe economic losses get the latest information, learn about assistance efforts and receive pointers on adapting their businesses to new realities. 

One of the realities that is becoming clearer is that the new normal is not a phase, and that social and business practices have likely been permanently changed. To succeed, businesses must make adjustments, and many community organizations are working together to help that happen.

The network of small business development centers throughout Virginia is pooling statewide small business expertise to answer complex questions. The SBDC network has established a Business Recovery site with timely guidance for business revival.

And it’s not just organizations that are working together. Businesses themselves are demonstrating unprecedented levels of collegiality by helping one another and passing along tips they’ve learned or sources they’ve uncovered. 

The pandemic has necessitated many reassessments of the way we used to do things, and it’s become essential to make quick adjustments on the fly. Our region and community are far ahead of others because we’ve practiced collaboration and know how to bring out the best in one another. We are all in this together.

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Alexandria’s Changing Landscape

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on September 3, 2020. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. Pandemic necessity has become the mother of re-invention of Alexandria’s public landscape.  Nobody expected the pandemic’s ripple effects to linger so long. COVID-19 is… Read more »

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on September 3, 2020.

It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. Pandemic necessity has become the mother of re-invention of Alexandria’s public landscape. 

Nobody expected the pandemic’s ripple effects to linger so long. COVID-19 is still easily transmissible and most analysts anticipate the public will continue to prefer forms of social distancing long after vaccines or treatments become available. 

Outdoor options for dining, shopping or entertainment are healthier, and they’ve given a new look to our sidewalks and streetscapes. What’s remarkable is how quickly and seamlessly it all came together. City staff and elected officials took quick and decisive actions to bypass public right-of-way restrictions to enable outdoor choices. It’s enlivened our streets and helped businesses survive, and everyone loves the convenience, safety and aesthetics of alfresco activities.

Photo credit: Visit Alexandria

With the help of lively outdoor spaces and loyal customers, restaurateurs have achieved sales much closer to prior year performance than they thought possible just months ago. At first, they thought these efforts were short term, but now their hope is to continue outdoor service indefinitely.

When phased reopening limited indoor capacity but offered outdoor options, innovative restaurateurs applied for spaces in front of their establishments. Some built decks and railing, added plants, canopies and even lighting powered by solar panels. Other variations include parking lots and alleys that have been converted for outdoor service with ambiance. 

The loyal outdoor customer following over the spring and summer now has restaurateurs scrambling to find ways to keep it going as cooler weather approaches. They hope that designs and equipment might enable outdoor options throughout the winter. 

The Alexandria Economic Development Partnership and the Small Business Development Center are planning a virtual program to acquaint more business owners with options and strategies for their own outdoor possibilities. The hope is to inspire additional restaurateurs, retailers and even other venues. The intent is that well-planned and well-executed designs might spread this new and functional landscape to all sectors of Alexandria.

The information to be shared will include how to apply for the public right-of-way space, design and construction ideas, compliance with ADA requirements, sources of materials and equipment and lessons learned. With more businesses undertaking these setups, it’s possible they could achieve economies of scale from coordinated group efforts. Panelists will include business owners who have built outdoor facilities and are glad to share their experiences. 

It’s incredible to look back over the past six or seven months at the dire circumstances that have caused so much grief and loss, and yet have not only inspired creative survival tactics, but also solutions that enliven our community. City officials and business leaders deserve kudos for their imaginative thinking and planning under pressure. The public also deserves praise for how readily they’ve adapted to new ways of thriving in the face of pandemic.  

The city is special because we have talented and innovative citizenry, and we must continue working hard and adaptively to keep it that way. We are all in this together.

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