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CT Expert Insights: How Small Businesses Can Reopen Safely, with Matt Wagner

Economies across the nation are beginning to reopen. While small businesses should adhere to state guidelines, there are more nuanced elements that must be considered as well. In this edition of Expert Insights, Matt Wagner reviews six tips for small businesses to reopen safely. Learn about providing safe shopping experiences, managing vendor relations, looking out for your staff, and more. Listen to this edition of Expert Insights to help ease the transition into recovery.


TRANSCRIPT:

Greg Corombos: Hi, I'm Greg Corombos. Our guest this week on Expert Insights is Matt Wagner, Vice President of Revitalization Programs at Main Street America. As your business reopens, or as you prepare to reopen soon, depending on what the situation is where you live, what do you need to keep in mind? Matt joins us now to go over some of the most important considerations and Matt, thanks so much for being with us.

Matt Wagner: Sure. Thanks for having me, Greg. Appreciate it.

GC: Well, Main Street America has given small business owners a great resource here. It's entitled “Reopening Safely: Helpful Tips for Small Business Owners ” and there are six different ones that we're going to go over quickly here. But before we get to point number one, what have you been hearing from businesses? Do they feel like they've got a generally a good handle on what to expect when things reopen? Or is guidance like this going to be very critical for them?

MW: Yeah, I think it's a little bit of a mixed bag. There's really a lot of great resources out there. But in our last round of business surveys across the country, one of the big considerations around reopening and recovery is, you know, how to operate safely. And I think that's a big point for many small businesses out there. Most of the state reopen guidelines are around sort of like occupancy and just giving you the opportunity to be open. But in terms of, you know, operating safely, I think that's of utmost concern for most small businesses. In fact, that was, the number one cited technical assistance need of small businesses was just how to operate safely.

GC: Well, let's dive in then. Number one seems pretty general on the surface: develop safe practices for your business. And you've got ideas here, suggesting anything from designating a cue area where folks can line up with appropriate social distancing, to limits of customers in the stores. We've certainly seen grocery stores develop this and I'm guessing other stores will as well.
And onto cleaning protocols, both for your own employees and for how customers can get germs at a minimum. So what's the main thing you want folks to take away in terms of developing safe practices?

MW: I think the significant thing here with developing safe practices is really a recognition. There is bound to be sort of a consumer psyche question here. You can reopen, but it's also imperative that customers feel safe in shopping, or dining at a restaurant. And so part of this is just having good safety protocols put in place, but it's also sort of a psychological cue for shoppers. I think when most people you know, obviously, now, going to the grocery store, you're becoming more used to seeing lines in the aisles about you know, maybe perhaps which direction to go, or, as you're waiting in line to check out that you have six feet of distance. And so I think these kinds of markers inside your small business, whether it's again, grocery store or a small retail store in a in a downtown, these are important considerations.

So things like having hand sanitizer out. Perhaps considering your employees, are they wearing masks or gloves? Do you have signage around the interior of your store that gives keys for social distancing or markers, you know, as you check out? Again, these are all really good both practices for employees and for safe shopping.

GC: Absolutely. And I think clarity is going to be critical here. And so I'm sure folks have seen in the grocery stores, they have one way aisles and a lot of places and I had to wait outside because they had a certain number of people. And so as long as those things are clear, and there's not a lot of confusion, I think that'll help a lot as well.

But another thing as we get into point two here, is the importance of understanding that it's not going to look the same at every business. Number two is: understand industry specific guidelines. You know, there are some businesses where you can't stay six feet apart and some you can. You know, if you're going to a car dealership, you can probably pull that off. If you're going to get a haircut, or you're going to the optometrist, not so much.

So how can folks realize this is not a one size fits all thing? And then where do they go to figure out what's right for them?

MW: Yeah, and then different retail sectors obviously operate differently. Going to get your hair cut is quite a different experience than going into an electronics store, by way of example, or going into a sit down restaurant. And so it's understandable that while there are sort of general guidelines much like we just talked about in point number one, there are also highly specific guidelines, I think, that are really critical depending upon the kind of retail store that you are in

Fortunately, I think this is where a lot of industry associations have done just a really good job, sort of taking what states have provided, or CDC guidance or OSHA guidelines, and really brought some specific nature to them. We on our website www.mainstreet.org have sort of agglomerated what we feel are sort of best practices from all the different industry types.

And so if there are small businesses out there trying to find out—whether you're a fitness center, or a clothing store, or again, a restaurant—there are many great resources out there to take sort of the foundational things, but really build on them in terms of the operations of your specific retail store.

GC: Number three is: to create a safe work environment for your employees. And this is basically making sure that they're healthy when they come in and I guess having flexibility about what you can do if they're not. So how drastic should you be in this situation should you be testing every day for fevers and so forth? Or is it really again, a business by business decision?

MW: Businesses are independent by nature, right? And first and foremost, everyone's human. And so you know, they are going to be people that decide to take different operating practices. So these are just intended to be guidelines. Again, the employees are your frontline folks. Those are the folks that are having the most interaction, whether they're servers or people checking customers out at the cashier. So these are frontline folks.

And so I think, you know, having some protocols put in place that allow you to sort of screen to ensure a safe operating business, I think it's just good standards to put in place. And again, these are questions that are unknown right now around who has liability? What's your risk management strategy? So I think the more protocols that you can put in place to not only protect your business, but also have a safe operating environment for your employees and shopping environment for your customers, I think it's just good practice.

GC: We've talked about customers, we've talked about employees. Number four is: evaluate your vendors. What should you be considering right now? If you were already happy with your vendors, what may have changed in the past couple of months that might make you need to reconsider?

MW: Well, yeah, I think this is an area that, you know, a lot of folks may not think about. We talk a lot about what the consumer is thinking, how will business operate? But a key consideration is the people that supply your businesses. From cleaning supplies, what does that territory look like? I think we all know what the run on toilet paper was initially at the grocery store and can you find bottles of hand sanitizer? So it's not only who's supplying you from the cleaning perspective, but many small businesses may remain closed.

And those might be people that are supplying you with inventory for the products that you carry, and so it’s just good to get a quick gauge on: did I lose any vendors? Suppliers? What is the timeframe for deliveries look like the batch change? Because I might have to adjust because of lead times whether or not I've got enough inventory for my store.

So I think, again, these are just good sound business practices to not only be able to have the product mix that's important for your customers, but make sure that you can get it in a timely business—and whether you need to switch quickly. You know, there's always a sort of a lag period to get on course with a new supplier. So I think it's just good fundamental business practices.

GC: And the sobering note here also that some suppliers might not still be in business. So you have to stay on top of that. I'm guessing if you've been monitoring things closely over the past couple of months, you probably know that but as we move on to number five here: deepen your online presence.

And we've talked about this a lot in the past couple of weeks on the podcast, and that's mainly because if you are used to a lot of your business happening at brick and mortar locations, there's a chance that even though you're reopening, the foot traffic is still not probably going to be what it was for a while because folks are just leery about reengaging face-to-face here. So what are you recommending in terms of ramping up the online aspect of your business to make up for what you're not going to get in person?

MW: This was an area of deep concern for us. You know, our organization works with lots of small mom and pop Main Street businesses all throughout the U.S. and when we did a national survey of about 6,000 small businesses, of which the majority of them have less than 20 employees, we were struck by the fact that two thirds of those businesses had absolutely no online e-commerce presence whatsoever.

And you think about, you know, stay at home orders and how shopping not only was e-commerce certainly one of the fastest growing segments of retail shopping before, but certainly in a pandemic it greatly accelerated. So as you come out of that, and you don't have an active way of reaching consumers that now have grown more heavily used to that, may have general concerns about going into a store still. This is just a must do activity for any small business. And fortunately, I think there's some great resources out there, there's some great low cost, you know, starting options. So I think this is a case of when you've had downtime, or perhaps you still have a little bit of downtime, and you're evaluating your business model and your strategies for reaching customers, this is just a must have.

And so the opportunity to get online, introduce your products to your customers, align that with your social media strategy, I think just makes good business practice.

GC: Matt, I want to dig into this a little bit more because you talked about all the mom and pop shops you deal with. Obviously they're trying to adapt as best they can. But what's the mood out there? I'm guessing it varies. I'm sure that some are confident that things will go back to normal and possibly even better at some point, hopefully soon. Others may be wondering if they'll survive. So what's the general sense out there? Are folks more afraid? Are they nervous? Are they excited that things are finally reopening? What's the general mood out there?

MW: First, I think it's important to know in the small businesses we've talked with, there's a couple of I guess, key words that pop out. Certainly, you know, excitement to the potential in terms of coming back and doing what they do and what they love to do. It's why they're in the businesses that they are. So I think that certainly that's part of it. Cautious, you know, cautiously optimistic on how folks, consumers will return to their storefronts.

And then they think a little bit of sort of queasiness as well, in terms of how long will this last. What are the new norms of consumerism? Prior to COVID, one of the strengths of small mom and pop businesses was the sort of social engagement that you got when you were in a downtown or urban neighborhood commercial district—the unique shopping experience. And so I think many of those things will still be important for consumers, it just may take a little bit of time to sort of bring that back as we work through the recovery.

GC: The sixth and final point on your list here, and that is: partner with other local businesses and community organizations. And I guess this is, first of all, promoting the fact that you're open again, maybe collaborating and coordinating for ways to help folks social distance and help each other, get pickup orders and so forth. So what does that look like? How do you start that conversation with other businesses and make it as seamless as possible for everyone?

MW: if there's any positive in the pandemic, it's that communities and businesses have really coalesced around the need to support each other. And that's going to bode well in a recovery situation. You know, any small business that you learn from each other, you network, you problem solve together, whether it's in a business association that's been formed, a Main Street organization or a chamber of commerce. These are all great resources to not only share the experience, to ask questions, to find out how people are adjusting to the recovery, and to also pick up some great examples. And so, use your networks that you have.

And then I think finally, you know, there's, I think, a real nice opportunity, especially in smaller downtown's, where as a small business trying to put your own delivery system together may be difficult, but the opportunities to sort of Co Op market, develop Co Op delivery as new business model shifts. I think these are great opportunities in the long run for small businesses,

GC: Well you can learn more about this and other issues related to small business particularly as it comes to reopening businesses in the wake of this pandemic, which is still unfolding but hopefully petering out here. You can learn more at Main street.org/COVID19resources. Matt, any other place you would encourage folks to go?

MW: If they have an industry association, the SBA, U.S. SBA has some great resources. And certainly for one-on-one counseling, I would definitely get in touch with your small business development centers in each of your states.

GC: Matt, thank you so much for being with us today. We greatly appreciate it and we look forward to successful reopenings here across the country.

MW: Thanks, Greg. Really appreciate it. Take care.

GC: You too, sir. Matt Wagner is Vice President of Revitalization Programs at Main Street America. I'm Greg Corombos reporting for Expert Insights

 

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