Elizabeth Pattman Times-News, Burlington, N.C.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Elizabeth Pattman takes a look at how one community took a hands-on approach to help its small business owners learn how to thrive in the world of e-commerce.
As COVID-19 arrived in Alamance County and businesses were forced to close their doors, many local owners were compelled to adapt their business models to the unprecedented times. At the top of the list of changes required for many local businesses was shifting to an online, e-commerce environment.
Peter Bishop, the economic development director for the city of Burlington, said he believes this shift saved many local businesses and the changes are here to stay.
"There's sort of two different, distinct ways that COVID impacted everyday behaviors of folks in Burlington and one of those is through buying goods and services through e-commerce ... and your ability to do that with more options in Burlington," he said. "The other one is sort of the proliferation of Amazon warehouses and distribution warehouses that sort of serve the larger and more industrial side of e-commerce."
Bishop said Alamance County has been affected by both in a good way. "I certainly think that it's been a positive that businesses have pivoted to accommodate more e-commerce," he said.
When the COVID-19 shutdowns started, Bishop and his team, as well as many other business organizations in the county, were tasked with helping local entrepreneurs navigate the crisis. The shift to e-commerce and online ordering services was strongly encouraged for the business types that could support it.
While Bishop said it would be hard to put a number on exactly how many businesses he and his team helped shift to e-commerce, he said hundreds have come forward wanting to make that change. To facilitate the shift, Bishop said his team, in partnership with the Burlington Downtown Corporation, hosted several webinars and training sessions to assist local businesses.
"We spent a lot of time sharing resources and coaching and helping businesses find the resources that they needed to pivot to online commerce," he said.
Restaurants and local retailers, in particular, were eager to make the change in response to less contact with consumers.
"If you were a restaurant and didn't have an online ordering function a year ago, I'm sure you have one now and that's something that's going to enhance sales and productivity and efficiency of the business. So I see that as a positive."
The restaurant industry is a highlight of the shift to e-commerce as many in the community started offering online ordering and pickup services. An increase in DoorDash and UberEats delivery services, Bishop added, also came out of this shift.
Retailers of all types also sought out the help, though Bishop noted some of these businesses saw a little more difficulty in making the change.
"Businesses like clothing stores or art galleries maybe had a little more difficulty because there's an in-person aspect of that shopping. It can be challenging to buy a piece of art of something that's handmade without looking at it and, you know, pouring over it," Bishop explained.
"Things that aren't as shelf stable like buying baked goods or something to that effect can be a challenge. Even alcohol," he added.
Regardless of the difficulties, local businesses forged ahead with the shift to e-commerce in an attempt to keep their business going during the pandemic.
"I think what we've seen in local businesses have said we're not going to get closed out of this e-commerce surge and a lot of them have adapted their local websites and other platforms to be more welcoming to folks shopping from home," Bishop said. "Folks have found a way to be profitable in their business without having daily customer traffic."
Now that the shift to e-commerce is in place locally, Bishop said he believes the changes are here to stay.
"That's a good backstop to have when, fingers crossed, things are more opened up later this year if folks don't want to come to a store," he said. "Once people have learned to do things from the safety and comfort of their own home with the same results, they'll continue to do them."
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