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Friday, May 8, 2020

Ohio Small Businesses Are Charting a New Path During the Pandemic

Posted By on Fri, May 8, 2020 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge ALI HOVEN
  • Ali Hoven
Cindy Michael, owner of Harps & Thistles Yarn Emporium in Cuyahoga Falls, was worried when she had to close her doors to customers because of the coronavirus in March. For many, knitting and crocheting are social activities, and Michael thought customers not being able to gather in her shop would negatively affect her business.

So, she started spending more time promoting her inventory online — and these orders, once a small portion of her sales, have increased since the pandemic. So far, her business is staying afloat.



"Knitting and crocheting are very calming, very soothing, very meditative," she said. "I think right now, when it's so stressful because we can't get out — and also because people have more time on their hands because they're not getting out — they're more focused on working on their handcrafting."

With social distancing and shelter-at-home orders in place, many Ohio small business owners are struggling. Small businesses employ 45.8% of the state's workers, according to the 2019 Small Business Profile from the Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy. The new Office of Small Business Relief and local SBA offices are among the resources available to these businesses to help them gain a better understanding of how to handle the pandemic.

Kevin Boehner, director of the Ohio Small Business Council, said cash flow is the general concern he has heard from small business owners, since no or fewer customers are coming into their spaces.

"That's where some of the Paycheck Protection Program is at least attempting to get more funding or money back into small business owners' accounts, so they can keep their workers employed during this time," he said. "And hopefully, it gets additional funding here soon."

However, Boehner acknowledged there are still a lot of unknowns that make it difficult to predict what the future holds for small business owners.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced his intention to restart Ohio's economy with a three-phase plan that began May 1. Yet few details have been made clear about how the plan will affect small businesses, how long the phases will be and what life will look like as Ohioans work together to reopen the state. To survive in the meantime, many small businesses have refocused their efforts toward reaching customers online.

HOW SMALL BUSINESSES ARE COPING: RETAIL

In addition to increasing her online sales, Cindy Michael also started Zoom sessions for Harps & Thistles, which she said have been fairly popular. Anyone can work on their handcrafts together — at a distance.

"It's a very social thing," she said. "People want to sit together and get together, work on things together, share what they're making and ask others for advice, and so forth. So, that connection is really important to my community. And I felt like if I could keep that going, then I stand a better chance of making it through."

Whitney Milligan is the co-owner of Jean + Lou, a retail collective in Cuyahoga Falls that sells clothing, jewelry, home goods and gift items. She said adjusting to the pandemic was more difficult because the one-year-old business did not have a website when it had to close its doors to customers in March.

At first, Milligan said the collective relied primarily on social media to stay top-of-mind for customers. Having a website was on the to-do list, and since closing, they were able to focus on it. They've been getting online orders for two weeks now.

"Going into 2020, we knew we were going to prioritize our website — but it's funny, sometimes you really just have to kind of suck it up and do it," she said. "Because who knows how long we would've put it off had we not had to do it? In that aspect, it's all good. We have a website now. We'll continue having a website even when we open back up, so it's kind of a blessing in disguise."

Mary McCarthy, co-founder and executive director of the Women's Small Business Accelerator, said a website without ecommerce doesn't typically generate revenue. And just because a business has a website doesn't necessarily mean the owners are tech savvy, especially if they have little prior experience with internet tools. What if, for instance, they need to virtually meet with a supplier — or even a customer?

"If you're going to go online, you want to look for something that's simple and easy to use that you can share with your customers," she said. "So Zoom (is) an easy one, GoToWebinar is an easy one. But if they don't have that, honestly, they can pick up the phone and chat with people. It's interesting how we forget that we can do that, but people are sitting at home, so now they're more accessible than they've been in the past."

On top of working to get online, Milligan said the hardest part of navigating this situation are the unknowns.

"I remember thinking, 'Let's just close for a couple weeks, let this pass and then everything will be fine,' but that was so wrong," she said. "Is it another week, is it another two weeks, is it another month? Maybe we can open up, but do we have to limit five customers at a time? It's just not knowing what the future is going to look like — because without knowing, it's hard to plan for it. It's hard to make sure you're bringing in enough inventory to still give people options to shop online, but you're not bringing in too much because we're not doing normal business."

Kristin Hadari, owner of REVERIE, a gift shop in its first year of business in Cuyahoga Falls, also struggled with ecommerce without an online presence; her main focus also was social media. Hadari said she likes to focus on the positives, and the pandemic pushed her to innovate more and get her inventory online.

Hadari realized people still have birthdays and other events to celebrate during this time of sheltering at home, so she partnered with Hope Soap, a neighboring small business, to create gift kits available online. Hadari and Hope Soap also collaborated on gift kits for customers to donate to health care workers.

While she is seeing some online orders, Hadari said the volume certainly isn't equal to what she would get in the gift shop. But online orders helped her sustain her business and she hopes to continue expanding her reach beyond the local community.

"I don't think a small business can really beat that in-person experience," she said. "We're very much about the customer experience people have when they come in and we help them pick out a gift together. While technology is great and we can replace some of those things, I don't ever think online will replace what we have been working towards in-store."

HOW SMALL BUSINESSES ARE COPING: RESTAURANTS

With locations in both Canton and Cuyahoga Falls, Jamie Piero, co-owner of Clean Eatz, said they're mostly known for their weekly meal plans, providing balanced portions for customers who may be too busy to prepare meals on their own. They also used their social media platforms to engage the community to make monetary donations that they then use to make meals to donate.

"People want to help and want to give back but don't know how," she said. "So we try to use our platform to say, 'Hey, we're offering this — if you want to donate money, we can totally use it to donate meals to our first responders.'"

HiHo Brewing Co. in Cuyahoga Falls was community-focused from the start, said co-founder Ali Hovan. Interaction between staff and customers in the taproom is a crucial part of their business. Now, they're strictly to-go, which is something Hovan said she never anticipated. She trimmed her staff from 18 people down to five. No one else is allowed in the building; all the orders for food and beer are made online and picked up in the parking lot, at a tent set up for carry out.

"We got a pizza oven last April. We were selling food before, but it was just a really small menu, so the pizza oven really brought a lot of people in," she said. "People were always asking, 'Can we get your pizza to go?'"

Hovan said she always discouraged that idea. "I want people to come in, enjoy the space, enjoy each other, socialize, eat their pizza, drink more beer and not be a carry-out place," she explained. "We didn't even have a pizza box in the brewery. Not one pizza box! And now, that's literally all we do, and it's just totally different."

She's concerned the current order pick-up experience is a disengaged one, with its focus on social distancing instead of socializing.

"We're not really interacting with people, just keeping our distance," Hovan said. "Our goal was interacting with people and being close, and talking about beer. And now, it's pretty much like, 'Order online and we'll put your stuff on a table and not talk to you — and then you grab it, and we wave from a distance.'"

She added that business is down between 50% to 70%, but the support from the community is what is keeping the brewery afloat.

Hovan is now in the process of navigating the future. If HiHo Brewing Co. was to open its 160-seat taproom, which often reaches capacity on Friday and Saturday nights, would only 10 customers be allowed inside, to accommodate social-distancing practices? How many staff members? And what would this mean for their business?

Hovan said the priority will be doing whatever is needed to keep people safe.

"It's just (about) being flexible," she said. "I guess it's kind of taught us that you have to be resilient and look at every day as a new challenge; and figure out how to problem solve and do what's best for the business and our employees, and the community."

Kim White, owner of Flury's Cafe in Cuyahoga Falls, also cut her staff as a result of customers not being able to dine in the cafe. She applied for a grant from the City of Cuyahoga Falls to help her with payroll.

Flury's does only take-out and delivery orders now, and White said their profit is down by about half. They are using their social media platforms to remain visible, sharing photos of meals they're preparing and encouraging orders, but like most small businesses, the eatery relies a great deal on community support.

"The bottom line is, they're telling people to stay home," White said. "Some of our days are busier than others. But we just do our best to get (people) to come down and get their meals to them — because, I mean, everybody needs to eat, so we're doing our best to do that. And in the meantime, stay safe and try to keep the lights on and the rent paid."

From scheduling to buying inventory, White says the whole situation is difficult. But for her, the hardest part is to see the cafe sitting empty.

"It'd be nice to have the crowd back, having fun and being crazy," she said. "People in the restaurant business, we thrive on craziness. It's like adrenaline rushes. Now, we don't have that."

White said Mr. Flury — the cafe's original owner, who ran the business for 25 years — gave her a good piece of advice in 1994 that she still reflects on today. He told her, "No matter what, you always have to be ready."

"Even if you slow down, or so-and-so didn't come in, you always have to have everything ready," she continued. "Don't sit down. Don't take a break. Don't be like, 'Oh, we'll get that in a minute.' You've got to do it now, because you don't know what's going to happen. And when things get tough, everybody comes together, and we do what we have to do to take care of each other and get things done."

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