By Karen Lynch | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor
6 Min Read | February 14, 2020 in Cards
Necessity—that legendary “mother of invention”—is changing Americans’ relationships with their favorite local small businesses. As people began seeking ways to solve new challenges arising in daily life in 2020, many local merchants, producers, and service providers with little or no web presence stepped up their game online. Now, experts say that our online shopping habits born of hard times are likely to stick around in better times, too.
Americans have formed new digital ties with local small businesses—combining their enthusiasm for online shopping and social media with their loyalty to local entrepreneurs (see “Ways You Can Support Local Small Businesses”). Shoppers, fitness enthusiasts—even people who just need to get their laundry done—have been latching onto new online and smartphone options for shopping locally.
Many local businesses launched or upgraded their websites in early 2020, or established their presence on e-commerce marketplaces and videoconferencing platforms. This enabled surges in remote ordering, curbside pickup, online services, virtual personal shoppers, delivery services, and more. Local patrons gained access to an expanding variety of shopping tools old and new—quickly moving beyond communicating by phone and email to using online order forms, modern payment methods, customer apps, direct messaging, and engagement across the spectrum of social media sites.
What’s more, customers can increasingly tap into points and other rewards when shopping local online. One way is through loyalty programs.1 In another example, some local community banks offer a smartphone app with rewards for cardholders purchasing local.2
These and other online shopping trends were expected to continue reshaping the local small business-customer relationship long after 2020 enters the history books.
Americans’ changing shopping behaviors are being studied closely. Here are some recent findings:
Internet analysts point out that most of these local shopping developments represent an acceleration of trends that have been coming for years.9
If you search for your favorite local small businesses online, you could find a surprising array of their products and services available for pickup or delivery. Here’s a sample:
Your grocer: Your grocery store might deliver now, or could be using one of the smartphone delivery services that experienced an explosion in demand in 2020. (For more, read “How to Save Money on Food and Grocery Delivery.”) But observers are also seeing a mini-revolution in groceries. Today, you can shop online for everything from pantry staples to artisanal herbs directly from local restaurants, kitchenware stores, farmers’ markets, farms, and even “the milkman.” Many of these small local businesses have added or expanded grocery offerings online in 2020. One shopper said she finally “pulled the trigger” on community supported agriculture (CSA), signing up for a long-contemplated membership to receive local produce monthly, while also leaning more heavily on the milkman for bread, eggs, and his expanding list of other groceries online.
Your gym: Local gyms, yoga studios, and other fitness centers have rushed to adopt videoconferencing, training videos, peer-to-peer payments, and social media marketing. Going forward, many see online activities complementing in-place sessions. One personal trainer told of plans to continue online service indefinitely, even if only to cater to traveling or otherwise indisposed clients. A yoga instructor suggested that once reopened, socially distanced studio classes could be augmented online. A fitness client hoped she could keep attending workout classes from home forever instead of driving to the gym.
Your local retailer: A women’s clothing store that has served a college town since 1972 now has its first-ever website serving shoppers at home. In another town, regulars can arrange for “try on bags” delivered to their door—similar to nationwide personal shopping services. Meanwhile, in LA, virtual image and closet styling sessions are offered online.
Your (fill in the blank): While there are too many local small business innovations to fit in a single article, here are a few more: the local laundromat that rolled out a smartphone app for a new pickup and delivery service; the upholstery shop that opened up online—making and selling facemasks along the way; and the toy shop that featured its “Top 10 Stay-at-Home Ideas.”10
With these changes, Main Street is becoming a decidedly two-way street in 2020. People are not only steering their business to Mom & Pop stores, buying and tipping extra when they can afford it, but they’re also talking about it and encouraging others to do the same—all to help keep their local small businesses and economies going. For their part, many local shopkeepers are offering discounts and rewards to keep their customers happy online. And both shopkeepers and patrons are engaging in charitable giving—often via links from small local business websites.
Along the way, many state governments have been pitching in with training, tools, and other digital boosts to local small businesses.11 Business associations12 and even individual businesses13 have also joined in with their support.
Not to be left out, technology companies have been paving the way for even more local online shopping. Here are just a few initiatives, large and small:
Big Tech: One major e-commerce platform that hosts small businesses has launched a “first-of-its-kind” app to help shoppers discover local businesses online, receive information, check out, and track purchases.14 The same company reported that new online storefronts on its platform grew over 60% in March-April 2020, and that these shops were seeing more local customers.15 Meanwhile, a leading social media company launched an app that helps small businesses go online and makes it easier for people to shop from them.16
Small Tech: Smaller e-commerce platforms and tech enterprises have also been making it easier to shop online. For example, a platform for local farmers reported steep growth in recent months.17 In another example, a tech entrepreneur was offering a “rapid deployment program” for small local businesses to begin accepting orders online.18
Experts expect these trends to stick around, as people “blend their new habits with their old routines.”19 Online capabilities will continue to evolve—locally and globally. As the NPD research group said: “A different kind of digital dialog that goes beyond traditional descriptions, addressing the touch, feel, and quality of a product, can be a powerful tool in making up for some of what is lost in the virtual shopping environment.” Shoppers will be looking for solutions that address these needs.20
Our favorite local small businesses are going online, with many of us going right along with them by shopping small, and locally, online. These recent developments may have been driven by necessity, but they also represent an acceleration and localization of trends long in the making. In other words, most are likely to stick with us. Welcome to the new Main Street.
1 “How to Create a Rewards Program for Small Business,” Fundera
2 “Reward. Support. Thrive.,” Buzz Points
5 “Most Americans Say Coronavirus Outbreak Has Impacted Their Lives,” Pew Research Center
6 “State of Small Business Report,” Small Business Roundtable and Facebook
7 “Do Shoppers Think Their COVID-19 Shopping Behaviors Will Continue?,” Food Industry Association
8 “COVID-19: The Unexpected Catalyst for Tech Adoption,” Nielsen
10 “Top 10 Stay-at-Home Ideas,” Henry Bear’s Park
11 “Tech Resources and Free Help,” Rhode Island Commerce
12 “Too Local to Fail,” Minneapolis Regional Chamber et al
13 "Stand for Small," American Express et al
14 “Shopify Unveils its Consumer App: Shop,” Shopify
15 “Shopify Announces First-Quarter 2020 Financial Results,” Shopify
18 “Stay Open—Set Up Online Ordering Fast!,” e|tab
19 “COVID-19 Is Spawning New Consumer Food-Buying Habits,” AgDaily