Customers want to support local businesses. It's up to the business to show them how, says Cheryl Boyer, co-executive director of the Center for Rural Enterprise Engagement.
New media expert urges businesses to start online presence
Businesses that adapt are likely to thrive, she says
June 15, 2020
MANHATTAN, Kan. – The executive director of a program that helps rural business owners manage new media says that the rush to using online marketing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic does not have to be complicated.
Cheryl Boyer, co-founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise Engagement at Kansas State University, talked recently to more than 60 small business owners during a First Friday webinar hosted by the university.
Boyer said she understands the anxiety among some to transform their brick-and-mortar, Main Street businesses into an online sales format. Yet, parts of society continue to be locked down or limited, and it’s not yet clear that consumers are ready to get back to shopping the way they once did.
“Businesses that can adapt to this new economy are more likely to thrive,” Boyer said. “And we want you to thrive. We want your businesses to stay functioning and thriving and for people to spend more money with you.”
The tangle of services that offer online business platforms can be overwhelming, including Wordpress, Weebly, Wix, Square, Shopify, Amazon and more. The number of payment tools also can be confusing, from WooCommerce, Authorize.net, Square, Stripe, PayPal, Cash, VenMo and others.
But Boyer urged business owners not to get paralyzed by the numerous options. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” she said.
“Get something up there, get started, don’t go out of business,” she said. “Find a way to communicate what you’re selling so that people can purchase something from you, because they want to buy from you; they just need to know how. Keep working at building your e-commerce presence over time. It doesn’t have to perfect and it doesn’t all have to be up there on day one.”
In her presentation, Boyer outlined advantages and disadvantages of many online platforms. Her full presentation is available online through the Center for Rural Enterprise Engagement. Boyer is also available to answer questions and give guidance by email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
She noted that while most stay-at-home orders have expired across the country, an online presence is still going to be valuable to most businesses. It may also become critical again in the case of future shutdowns.
“A lot of times when we’re setting up e-commerce, it’s new for everybody,” she said. “It’s new for you as a business owner and it’s new for the customer trying to make an order. I think the most critical piece is to respond to customers as quickly as possible. Even if you can’t give them all the information they need, acknowledge that you received it; let them know you exist, you heard them and it may take a while to get back to them with all the information but you are working on it.”
Establishing a valuable online store could include a lot of work, including gathering images of each product with descriptions, and uploading that information into a website. All of that has to be kept updated, as well.
“As a business owner, you should think about who in your community wants to help you be successful and can do a piece of the puzzle for you,” Boyer said. “Maybe there are current employees who you can re-direct to do this work, or maybe there are local allied businesses that you can partner with. And in a lot of communities there may be students who are looking for experience and have the knowledge to be able to do some of that work.”
In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported that 8 in 10 Americans are online shoppers, and 15% buy products online weekly. Those numbers have likely increased during the pandemic when all Americans – at one point – were under government stay-at-home orders.
It led many businesses to get creative in how they are serving customers, including online sales, curbside pickup, home delivery and email ordering. For businesses, Boyer said it also required a new set of best practices for businesses, including:
- Communicate clearly. Let customers know you are following guidelines set forth by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and you are telling people exactly what you are doing to be safe in your store
- Put up signs encouraging social distancing.
- Make sure your staff is following safety guidelines, such as wearing masks, practicing social distancing, cleaning displays and washing hands.
- Install clear dividers between staff and customers at checkout stands and other appropriate areas.
- Disinfect surfaces between customers, and make sure they see you doing it.
- Check guidelines regularly. The CDC’s coronavirus page is at cdc.gov/coronavirus.