What Will COVID-19 Mean for “Main Street?”

There’s so little any of us can predict with certainty about our local economies after The Pandemic. But let’s speculate.

Even as restrictions on our social interaction begin to ease, official permissions will probably roll out slowly and within prescribed geographies (certain towns, certain cities). That means we’ll all be staying close to home even after we return to our schools and jobs. Especially if there are repeated rounds of social distancing dictated by new flair-ups.

Further, experiencing new things in unfamiliar places with new people will present a psychological hurdle for many long after COVID-19 is a memory. And this unusual dynamic may create responsibilities and opportunities for local business districts.

Locals spending more of their money locally? Amid all of the pessimism, this could well be one of the lasting legacies of our current situation.  And there are no customers more valuable. Repeat business is nearly assured of a satisfied local!  How indie businesses appeal to local customers in the next twelve months could have real, long term impact.

 Cha cha cha changes

First, the bad news. On “Main Streets,” our influencer restaurants are radically affected. And the longer term, trickle down ramifications of permanent closures will be very real.  These eateries lured crucial traffic into our communities before COVID-19. Whatever your business category, a thriving local restaurant corridor clearly increases exposure and bolsters sales for adjacent shops and service providers.

But all types of small business are in trouble – and many are adapting as quickly as possible. For example, DIY local delivery – a new behavior for many – cuts out the Grubhubs and Instacarts in favor of employees (who need the work). Overnight, it’s a wildly popular tactic well beyond food service.  Some local restaurants are behaving more like grocery stores, packaging meal prep components together for purchase. Others sell everything from baked goods to pre-made sauces and even custom-butchered meats.

And it’s no surprise that the rush to create some sort of e-commerce capability among the roughly 65% of local indies without it is accelerating.

Another change that will likely have staying power revolves around Telegraphing Clean. Now it’s cool to reveal the sanitary procedures a business employs – from restaurant to fashion boutique. Look for more signage about this, even where you’d least expect it.  Other purposely visible indicators are suddenly everywhere – like sneeze guards and free hand sanitizer at checkout with queue-spacing marks painted on floors.

Masks, even when no longer required by mandate, will not surprise us. They’ll be as common in the US as they have been for many years in most of Asia’s largest cities. The ambient scents pervading upscale boutiques and gift emporiums may trend away from botanicals toward more antiseptic odors that signal “clean.” Even janitorial routines, until now relegated to “after business hours,” may move into prime time so shoppers can see (and be reassured by) cleaning-in-action.

New behaviors. New habits?

Local shoppers are adapting too. Many are researching a product online, buying it over the phone from a local independent, then fetching their purchase by appointment. (All of the sudden, providing “curbside pickup” is added value.) Indeed, our stay-at-home reality has shifted how and what we buy in many ways.

Some changes suggest possible upside for local indies in years to come. Trips to big box outlets, for example, have become joyless outings. Visits are far less frequent and focused now on quick, bulk buying of low-profit staples. Yes, we’re all shopping less in general. But when our innate consumerism rebounds, the thought of scratching that shopping itch in a crowded mall or superstore may remain a bridge too far for many of us. Another real possibility during our seclusion, is that we’ll realize how much online retail simply under-stimulates while over promising. In other words, as local indies reopen for business, a larger piece of the replenishment and impulse shopping pies may await.

That people everywhere are walking more – often as couples or in small groups – is another clear change in behavior. With gyms closed down and few legitimate reasons to drive, it turns out walking is the only rigorous activity to permit both social-distancing and conversation! The moist, shared air of a gym may now present more risks than we’re willing to take, and that means your local customers could easily make a habit of walking or jogging outdoors for exercise. When restrictions loosen, how might you take advantage of more foot traffic on the sidewalk in front of your store?

Space for optimism

Amazon is a bigger threat than ever, of course.  But there’s reason to believe a renewed enthusiasm for  “small” and “local” will accompany our first tentative steps back into society. And this may present exactly the opportunity we need to redefine our common future.

For example, the transition to working-from-home for many white collar jobs may be permanent. (Urban office space was always a burdensome overhead cost.) And the potential uptick this can deliver to some Local environs is significant. Lunches, Happy Hours and much of the work-day shopping that used to occur “downtown” will now naturally migrate to our neighborhood business districts. As “Main Street” business communities, the choices we make now could easily inspire new loyalties among local customers.

A crucial question for any independent small business is how it will meet more of the wants and needs of nearby residents within the next twelve months. Never have locals been so emotionally receptive to Shop Local as a clear imperative.

Marketing more assertively to these shoppers is vital, especially if they’ve felt under-served by your business in the past. A store that relied too much on non-local traffic may need to evolve its product selection to better reflect the needs and preferences of its home community.  Restaurant menus or formats may change  based on purely local tastes or gaps in the culinary landscape. Indeed,”new lead generation” could become an anachronism for small business as we build marketing plans that optimize loyalty and local impact.

This won’t be easy.  Many businesses will shutter, and our capacity for survival will stretch to its limits. But the people of your neighborhood need your pluck and determination more than ever. The business you’ve built may become important in ways you’ve yet to imagine.

Change happens, and change hurts. But, if history is any judge, change is often the precursor to new perspectives and opportunities.