Most businesses have been hit hard by the global pandemic, but perhaps no segment has been more crippled or left with a future more uncertain than the Main Street local establishments that rely on daily sales for traffic. Whether they happen to be a restaurant or boutique, they make their money when people come in and buy an item or order lunch.
Going for a few weeks with no daily sales because social-distancing rules have forced them to close their doors is simply not a sustainable solution for these firms. They simply don’t have the cash necessary to survive an indefinite pause in their business.
That’s why the past several weeks have seen so many local firms scrambling to cobble together digital solutions to try keep their revenue streams — at least long enough to get past the current economic pause.
The majority of firms we talked to in our most recent survey of SMB owners believe that what’s happening now will mark a change in how they do businesses going forward. They think a shift to digital will be a feature that lasts well beyond the shutdown period.
Some 66.4 percent of small- to medium-sized business (SMB) owners polled told us they expect to generate more online sales after the COVID-19 outbreak than they did beforehand. That includes 34.8 percent who said they’ll rely “somewhat more” on such sales, plus 31.6 percent reporting they lean “much more” on online sales. Only a third of those polled (30.7 percent) believe they’ll have the same level of digital sales as they had in the past. (Another 3 percent said they’ll rely more on brick-and-mortar sales in the future.)
In fact, the pandemic has many SMBs looking to rely less and less on physical traffic along Main Street than they have in the past. They aren’t looking to abandon or even drastically curtail their physical operations, but want to expand their offering set to be less reliant on them.
PYMNTS’ survey found that 23.8 percent of SMB owners aim to maintain their brick-and-mortar presence in the future, but reduce their reliance on in-store sales. Only 11.7 percent plan to rent less space for their physical stores and just 2.5 percent aim to eliminate their brick-and-mortar presence entirely.
But while local businesses want to stay local and keep their Main Street stores alive, they also want to expand digital and remote-retail experiences. And in those efforts, America’s mom-and-pop shops are getting a boost from the digital economy’s biggest platform players — Facebook, Google, PayPal and Shopify.
Here’s a look at some of what the platforms are offering:
Shopify has recently focused its efforts around making it easier for local businesses to open digital outposts that they can easily operate in tandem with their brick-and-mortar shops.
Earlier this month, Shopify announced the launch of a “rebuilt and reimagined” omnichannel point-of-sale setup pitched to the COVID-19 era. The company called the offering a point-of-sale opportunity that brings “in-person and online sales together in one place,” according to a company announcement.
“Retailers need help right now. Shopify is doing everything we can to help retailers adapt to current challenges and come back stronger,” said Ian Black, director of retail at Shopify. “We are releasing our new Shopify POS to give retailers — especially small, local businesses — every possible advantage.”
The new POS includes revved up omnichannel capability that makes it possible to integrate online and offline orders, products and payments. It also allows a shop’s staff to provide checkout anywhere in the store or curbside via a connected device, and can do things like calculate shipping rates at checkout.
Shopify paired the POS release with introduction of a new app called “Shop.” The app offers personalized recommendations and helps people find and shop with local businesses.
Shopify is far from alone in its efforts to help to guide local merchants into the digital commerce fold. Facebook is rolling out two new shopping services for small businesses — Facebook Shops and Instagram Shops.
The new products aim to make it easy for small businesses to open an online store on Facebook or Instagram using templates that allow businesses to choose the products they want to feature. Shops can then customize their look to put forward to potential shoppers.
Transactions can be handled without leaving the app using Facebook’s Checkout, an invitation-only program that Facebook is testing. Or, people can buy through a redirect to the business’s website.
Facebook is rolling out Facebook Shops first. Instagram Shops will launch later this summer based on a similar model.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told CNBC that both services will be free, while noting that Shops could still be a revenue driver for Facebook.
“Our business model here is ads,” he said. “So rather than charge businesses for Shops, we know that if Shops are valuable for businesses, they’re going to in general want to bid more for ads. We’ll eventually make money that way.”
Also looking to give Main Street merchants an easier way to set up digital shop online is OfferUp.
Though best known as a C2C resale platform, CEO and Founder Nick Huzar told Karen Webster during a recent digital discussion that over the past few years, the platform has seen an increasing influx of Main Street merchants appearing on the platform. They use OfferUp as a core part of a multichannel sales strategy, he said.
“A good example would be a local furniture store here in Seattle that has sold $2 million worth of furniture in two years on OfferUp,” Huzar told Webster.
He said the store is literally a mom-and-pop furniture business that early on saw the possible opportunity to have a line out to a new consumer demographic and put nearly their entire store inventory on the platform. And that hasn’t just been a consistent revenue generator for the store over the past few years. Huzar said it’s also allowed the business to pivot quickly for COVID-19 by simply adding in, “Hey, we also do free delivery.”
Huzar added that of late, OfferUp has also seen a host of car dealerships on the platform make their inventory easily viewable to consumers who can’t or won’t go to showrooms right now. Then the dealer makes it easy to negotiate the entire deal, including end-to-end financing, all over the phone. From there, he noted, cars are delivered to driveways, the keys are left under the mat and the deal is done fast — but without unwanted contact.
Digital payment platform Paytronix has spent the past several weeks helping restaurant clients pivot to pandemic-proof their businesses by tapping into Paytronix Order & Delivery. This lets them experiment with previously unexplored areas such as grocery sales, meal kits and alcohol to go.
“Paytronix Order & Delivery continues to add functionality, such as our Rapid Launch, that empowers restaurants and c-stores in this time of industry transition,” Tim Ridgely, head of Order & Delivery for Paytronix, said in a statement on Wednesday (May 20).
Meanwhile, PayPal is among the platforms focusing on helping physical retailers reopen the store experience by making it easy to opt for contactless payment.
On the hopeful assumption that consumers will one day return to physical stores, PayPal — the web’s most powerful mobile wallet player — is expanding its efforts into in-store payments via the introduction of QR codes for payments.
“We know that in the current environment, buying and selling goods in a health-conscious, safe and secure way is front of mind for many people around the world,” John Kunze, PayPal’s senior vice president of branded experiences, said in a statement on Tuesday (May 19).
PayPal hopes the use of QR codes creates a safer, cleaner payments experience for both buyers and sellers. The codes will soon be online in 28 global markets, including farmers’ markets and resale shops. They can be accessed within the PayPal wallet for in-person transactions and will be free for merchants to offer their customers.
“COVID-19 has changed the shopping experience as we know it,” PayPal Senior Director Lisa Scott noted in a statement. “The need for security and convenience is there as always, but we now need to be able to sell and buy in a way that is quick, safe and involves limited social contact. Digital payments, and this QR code functionality, provide people and small businesses with the means to pay and get paid during the crisis — and hopefully thrive in the future.”
Will The Platforms Save Main Street?
Of course, a future of thriving seems like a lot for any individual Main Street business these days, especially when PYMNTS polling found a large percent of SMBs are deeply uncertain if they’re going to survive the current crisis at all.
Will the digital life rafts that platform providers offer keep Main Street above water? For now, only time will tell if consumers will be able to adjust their commerce habits to “think local, act digital.”