Imagine that you have put years of time, effort, passion, and money into building a business. From the early years of raising capital or going the lean start-up route, through the growing pains that come with scaling from a small to medium sized business and all the new challenges that it presents.
Human resource considerations, targeted marketing campaigns, sound financial practices, and efficient operations are all challenges and obstacles that have been faced and refined on your way to becoming a larger wide-scale success.
Imagine getting to that point where you feel like you have made it. Your company is seen as one of the success stories, a local leader in your industry. All of your work has paid off. All the sacrifices you have made over the years to get to where you are today have been worth it. You feel like you are on top of the world.
Now imagine having all of that slip away, right before your eyes.
In March of 2020, the entire world came to a standstill. A pandemic. Something that had been depicted in books and Hollywood movies for years was happening in real life. Plagues and epidemics have ravaged humanity throughout its existence, often changing the course of history. But nothing has seemed to impact the entire world at the exact same time like COVID-19 has in 2020.
The virus may not be as deadly as some others in the past, but it spreads quickly. The eventual impact it has had on businesses can be broken into three categories.
- Some have tragically been forced to close their operations, not being able to survive the impact the virus has had on the economy.
- Some have benefitted from the situation, due to the nature of their business. Perhaps they were already producing or providing products or services where there was a heightened demand due to the virus.
- Some businesses have been forced to get creative or even take on large transformations in how they do business in order to continue operating.
From Hands-On to Hands-Off
In March, the Ontario government notified the public that all non-essential public-facing services would need to close their doors until further notice.
As an essential service, any businesses that serve food to the public were allowed to remain open, but were required to change the way they operate to keep the public safe. For grocery stores, that meant they needed to start putting measures in place to restrict the number of customers that could be in the store at one time. People could only walk down the aisles in one direction and were asked to stand six feet apart while in line. For restaurants, they had to make a switch to take out and delivery only. Filling the dining area of restaurants with customers was not an option.
The switch for grocery stores and restaurants was not easy, but manageable.
Burns Bulk Food
But what about bulk food stores? Shopping there is a different experience than at a regular grocery store. Much of the food is not pre-packaged. The charm of a bulk food store is the ability to scoop as much of each product as you would like from the various bins throughout the establishment.
Dan Burns is the owner of Burns Bulk Food store in Lindsay and when coronavirus hit, he was faced with a big challenge. Burns admits that the bulk food model is one that resonates very well with the seniors in the community, making up one of his largest customer segments.
With the restrictions now in place for people to be cautious about how closely they interact with each other and the virus seeming to be more detrimental to seniors, the new way of shopping (pick ups and deliveries only) was not very conducive to the bulk food model. Burns needed to think outside the box.
Luckily, prior to the COVID-19 situation, he had already started to invest in an order pickup model. Signage was already in place and a system for how people could call in and pick up orders at the back entrance of his bulk food store. Prior to the outbreak, this was not a large part of his business and was typically done through phone orders only.
To adjust to the new demands, Burns had to make some quick strategic changes to his business model. Taking orders one at a time over the phone would not be efficient, so he invested in implementing a method for his customers to place their orders online.
People would not want to, or even be allowed to, come into his store to pick out and handle the scoops and bags for the various products they were looking for. Burns had to ramp up the curbside pickup model of his business and also created a delivery service option that was free for customers with an order over $20.
This meant the staff would be the ones scooping, packaging, and weighing all the orders. Customers would not be handling anything directly. With the handling of the online orders, the curbside pickups, the packing of the orders, and the delivers this all meant more staff was required.
But Burns and team made the transition quickly and have been keeping customers happy. However, what he soon noticed was the impulse shopping that would typically occur in the old model was gone. There was no chance for customers to browse the store and decide they need to treat themselves to a few dozen chocolate almonds. This was a big part of the allure and the success of the bulk food experience.
To account for the drop off in sales, Burns Bulk Food decided to come up with pre-packaged novelty gift bags and baskets. Baskets and bags full of the appropriate goodies for Easter and Mother’s Day were a big hit with customers. This has since spawned other gift basket ideas such as the “Chocolatarian,” “Crazy for Candy”, and “Movie night” snack pack gift bags. Understanding and knowing his customers and then testing out new ways to serve them is exactly what has allowed Burns Bulk Food to continue being a staple of the community.
Aaron Young is a local serial entrepreneur. In the months before the pandemic hit, Young had purchased a once-thriving wine shop in the heart of downtown Lindsay that had been struggling for the past few years.
His plan was to utilize half the location to continue with the wine shop and get it back to the flourishing business that it once was. The other half of the location would be leased out as prime real estate location for another business to use.
When the virus hit, Young decided he needed to help and used the empty side of his new location to set up shop to produce masks to help people stay safe. Funding and material for the masks were received through donations, with people also volunteering their time to help produce them. This was a great way to help the community in a time of crisis. The masks are free although Young does accept donations for them, as well as for the food bank and bottle drive.
The great by-product of this act of altruism was that his wine sales shot up for Fermented Cellar. People recognized, resonated with, and appreciated his customer-centric and innovative values and began to support his wine business as a result.
What Are the Common Threads?
Both of the stories share some things in common. They had a foundation in place that is based on being customer-oriented and innovative. These are entrepreneurs who were set up to be able to pivot and adapt to the crisis they faced with the pandemic.
The ability to understand and empathize with their current and future customers was already a foundational piece of what made these businesses successful. The willingness and capacity to adapt allowed these businesses to be innovative.
They show us the mindsets and strategies that we need to navigate our businesses at the best of times — not just through COVID-19, but always.