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Pandemic Pushes Smaller Retailers Online

Peggy Parker standing in store
Peggy Parker
Peggy Parker revamped her Normal store's website after the pandemic hit to boost online sales.

The pandemic has hurt many small businesses, but it's been especially tough for those that rely mostly on foot traffic. The pandemic has forced many mom-and-pop businesses to learn how to sell online.Peggy Parker owns Christmas Creations in Normal. It's a holiday pop-up shop she opens every November and December. The store has been around for 40 years. Parker figures she didn't need to advertise much. When more retailers went online years ago, she viewed e-commerce as competition.

“This was not going to be good for brick-and-mortar stores to be pushing people to online stores, and I couldn’t understand why other businesses were doing that,” Parker reasoned.

She had a website, but did little with it. Parker said when the pandemic hit, she didn't know if she would be able to open her store at the Shoppes at College Hills this year. So she decided to focus more on online retail.

And as it often true in any business, it helps to know someone.

Chad Parker setting at table outside
Credit Cybernautic
Chad Parker, President and CEO of Cybernautic in Bloomington, said many customers are looking to boost online sales during the pandemic.

Chad Parker runs a web design company in Bloomington and he's Peggy Parker's son. He said the online marketing business is booming.

“We got hit with a barrage of minor updates, things like, ‘We had a few of your products online, we need all of our products online,’ or restaurants saying, ‘We don’t have anything about curbside on our website. We have to get that up right now,’” he said.

Chad Parker said most businesses are selling more online since the pandemic began. For some customers, he said e-commerce has more than doubled over the last year.

Patrick Hoban is president and CEO of the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council. He said the pandemic gave that final push for many companies to dive into digital.

head shot of Patrick Hoban
Credit BN EDC
Patrick Hoban, President and CEO of the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council, said many businesses face higher technology costs as they they to expand their digital platforms.

“In the past, if the system is not broke, there’s no reason to fix it,” Hoban said. "If you are a business here in town and you rely on a lot of word-of-mouth and walk-in traffic, it wasn’t really necessary. Some of that has been eliminated now, so it’s time to adapt to the 21st century.”

The EDC is issuing to to $600,000 in forgivable loans to small businessesto offset some pandemic-related costs. McLean County is funding the program.

Hoban said many retailers have to spend more on technology now.

“I think the pandemic has done that for most businesses and organizations across the board, whether that’s adapting to online file sharing or using (the video conferencing app) Zoom or using these new online ordering systems,” Hoban said. “It’s definitely pushed everyone toward that direction.”

These unexpected costs come at a time when the pandemic has upended much of the economy. Karen Bussone is director of the McLean County Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Illinois Wesleyan University. She said spending thousands of dollars for a revamped website isn't possible for many mom-and-pop retailers.

head shot of Karen Bussone
Credit SBDC
Karen Bussone, director of the McLean County Small Business Development Center, said requests for technical assistance are up close to 40% this year.

“Amazon has the financial resources to do that, small businesses don’t,” Bussone explained. “It costs a lot of money to create a website from scratch, especially if you use a marketing company.”

The SBDC offers free consultation for all kinds of business needs. Its funding comes from the federal government, Bloomington and Normal governments and IWU. Students at Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan offer web design and social media marketing strategies.

Bussone figures, so what if these Gen Zers haven't run a business? They are the digital natives you need.

“They believe in e-commerce and that’s a convenience. Consumer trends (show that) they love convenience,” said Bussone, adding the SBDC's requests for assistance are up nearly 40% this year.

Marketing with 'purpose'

Online retail is about more than just hocking your wares.

“You don’t want every single post to be, ‘Please buy our stuff. Our stuff is the best,’” said Ashlee Sang, a social media consultant in Bloomington.

Sang focuses on what she calls purpose-driven businesses. She encourages clients to show their humanity, the causes they support, and how their customers' dollars can serve a greater purpose.

portrait of Ashlee Sang
Credit Ashlee Sang
Social media consultant Ashlee Sang said retailers should consider that people buy from people as they develop marketing strategies.

“Anyone can shop at a big box store. Anyone can shop at whatever is the most convenient, but they choose to go to you because your business is doing something right. Your business is doing something that they believe in.”

One way some like to show their humanity is through humor.

John Cerda owns Chenoa Fitness Center, one of the businesses that got marketing help from the SBDC.

“My kids are both pretty funny kids,” Cerda said. “I’m probably not very funny. I think I am sometimes.”

Cerda’s son Dylan produces light-hearted videos on Facebook to attract customers for events like wine yoga and cardio drumming.

Cerda said bringing in out-of-towners is key. Chenoa has fewer than 2,000 people.

“Nobody in Bloomington was going to know about that unless we pushed that on the social media and put it on the website,” Cerda said. “Since we did that, we were able to pick up people from those locations.”

Peggy Parker at Christmas Creations revamped her holiday store website this year. That includes a web address change to Christmas Creations USA. It shows she will ship anywhere across the country. Parker said now 25% of her business is online. She even sells on Amazon. She said that makes it easier for her to buy product, because if it doesn't sell in Bloomington-Normal, she expects someone, somewhere will probably buy it.

“My whole mindset has changed,"Parker explained. “If you are going to be in business, you have to be online or you are not going to survive.”

She now considers her website as her second store, and now sells handmade ornaments throughout the year, not just during the holidays.

The U.S. Department of Commerce reports e-commerce sales made up 10% off all retail sales in 2019. That figure rose to 16% in the second quarter of this year.

Bussone said that online trend will likely continue after the pandemic is over.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.