The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has hit businesses hard, and continues to do so. Many store owners have had to shutter their businesses for long stretches of time, and others have had to close their doors completely.
Despite the dire economic outlook, some companies are managing to not just survive, but thrive, thanks to tech solutions that have enabled them to boost their business. This can be as simple as adopting video calling, adapting their point of sale systems, or even creating online stores for the first time.
We spoke to companies that had managed to adapt, to find out how they did it.
Creating an Online Store
When the pandemic hit its peak, the advice for many of us was to stay at home and not venture out if possible. While some areas have reopened, there is no doubt that shopping for many has transitioned largely to an online experience, delivering another blow for a high street that was already feeling the pinch of online competition.
45% of Americans have moved to shopping online exclusively, since the pandemic – Visa survey
According to a survey from Visa, 45% of Americans have moved to shopping online exclusively, since the pandemic.
While larger retailers have found the focus to online to be a smoother transition, thanks to an existing presence and years of investment, smaller businesses have been caught off guard. Suddenly, being faced with setting up an online store can be a daunting task for those who have no prior experience.
While existing platforms such as Amazon and eBay offer retailers a quick and easy way to list their products, there's a price to pay, quite literally, as the company's taking their cut for providing your business with a shop front.
That's why some business are creating their own retail websites, using ecommerce website builders which guide business owners through the process. The end result is a fully functioning online store that can take orders, manage stock and connect with existing social media channels. Services such as Wix offer online store tiers from $20 a month – many don't even take commission from online sales.
One company that refreshed its online offering was Team Manticore, a business that specialises in spooky plushes, comics and games. Despite a strong presence on the convention circuit, its online presence needed some love and attention, as co-owner Rowyn Golde told us:
“This was all much more simple when we could go to in-person conventions. I managed to research what similar companies are doing during this time. The answer was online sales. We already had a website, but I took the “opportunity” of the extra time given to us to revamp accordingly.
I needed better product photos now that we weren't relying on people being able to see and touch our products in person. I needed to be sure our descriptions were vivid and exact. People shopping online not only need to know exactly what they're buying, but also need to be able to trust us.”
A website needn't just focus on online sales either. The best ones complement their retail offerings with extra information, just like Team Manticore has:
“If you have a solid connection with your audience, you can ask what kinds of things they'd like to see too. Maybe they want videos, a tutorial, or a live Q&A. We also added a Thank You card with each order, that tells exactly where to find us online, and how to leave a review.”
As many businesses have found, the pandemic has offered businesses the opportunity to change course and consider a new approach, as Rowyn discovered:
“We made sure to let our fans know that we've been social distancing and staying safe, so our products are also safe. That is a big difference for obvious reasons. I've also used this time to concentrate more on things I've either neglected before, or never tried.
It's important to think about how things will be different in the future, and how to build on that, rather than starting from scratch.”
If you're considering creating an online store of your own, but don't know where to start, we've rounded up our top choices based on extensive testing, below:
Our score is based on independent assessments of ease of use, features, ecommerce functionality and value for money
Cheapest Ecommerce Plan (per month)
Click to check for deals, discounts and tiers of plans
BEST FOR SMALLER STORES
BEST FOR LARGER STORES
Moving to Video Conferencing
As retailers move their businesses model away from bricks and mortar to online, the distancing from customers needn't be the end of the relationship. Quite the opposite.
In some instances, it has allowed businesses to get to know their customers better, as well as fostering a deeper relationship with them. This has proven true for smaller businesses who have discovered that a regular, open online dialogue has fostered more of a sense of community than ever before. Simple things like working up a social media presence, or creating a local business listing on NextDoor can ensure customers don't lose sight of what you're up to.
Just like how many office workers have transitioned to the virtual meetings, many client-facing businesses are doing the same. Many have discovered that you don't need to be in physically the same place to speak to each other. In fact, connecting over video conferencing has also enabled businesses to be more flexible as to when they speak to their clients. No longer constrained by store opening hours, and no longer needing to factor in travel time, the two parties can ‘meet' at whatever time suits them best, and the location is irrelevant.
Some smaller companies have managed to continue staying in contact with their clients whilst relinquishing expensive office space in favor of working out of their own home. Video conferencing has always been on the precipice of becoming an essential business tool, but with the pandemic, it has even become preferable to some face-to-face meetings.
There have been other positives too, as we found out when we heard from Gabrielle Hartley, Esq, owner of Better Apart Divorce Coaching & Mediation:
“I've had a brick and mortar divorce law and mediation firm forever. In a short period I was able to shift my entire practice to an online platform. I have created low cost models that see more people through the process more efficiently than ever. The best part is that access to justice has vastly increased – I am able to serve parties who live both in remote locations and who otherwise might be uncomfortable in close quarters with their ex.”
We spoke to one business that found that taking its dealings online actually actually doubled its income, thanks to some smart additions that complemented the online experience. Michael Alexis, CEO of TeamBuilding, told us that the recent months had been generally positive for his business:
“We are a team building company, which until March meant going to client offices or other locations to run activities and events. As a live events business, COVID took our business to nearly zero revenue in about three days. However, we were able to pivot to a full remote model quickly. Now, we run virtual team building activities for companies like Apple, Amazon and Google.
An example activity is tiny campfire, where we ship s'mores kits to attendees, and then bring everyone on a video call for camp games and ghost stories. It's fun. And it's also been successful: expanding to virtual has meant expanding internationally, which is led to us more than doubling our previous revenue.”
Not all video conferencing services are created equal – see our choice of the best in the table, below:
Average rating given by iOS and Android users in App Store and Google Play Store reviews
The lowest starting price for a paid plan. The lowest price available for your business will depend on your needs.
Not yet rated
Overall conference calling
Google Workplace users
Users that need hardware
Using an Updated POS System
Even those retail businesses that have been able to stay open throughout the pandemic, and those that have re-opened since, have found that regaining customer confidence has been difficult, with social distancing rules reducing footfall and keeping shoppers away.
Suddenly, customers are more keenly aware of the possibility of contagion, and want to feel reassured should they venture out. Moves such as screens at sale terminals and limiting the number of customers allowed in a store at once are good moves to make the cautious feel safer.
Some businesses have taken the opportunity to introduce point of sale systems to their stores, removing the need to take case or handle customers bank cards. According to a report from Visa, contactless payments are the future, and those that don't offer them could suffer. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of the respondents to the survey stated that they would switch to a new business that installed contactless payment options.
Perhaps most alarming of all, almost half (48%) said that they would not shop at a business that only offers payment methods that require contact with a cashier.
Nearly two-thirds (63%) of consumers would switch to a new business that installed contactless payment options. – Visa survey
Contactless POS systems needn't be expensive, and the end result for your business, as the Visa report shows, could be increased business, as shoppers turn away from those businesses that don't offer the option. There are also other benefits too, including reporting tools that let you spot shopping trends and keep track of stock levels.
See our picks of the best retail POS systems in our table, below:
Tech.co rating for retail
Score out of 5 based on Tech.co's independent market research.
Tech.co's verdict to help you identify the most suitable choice for your retail business
The typical lowest starting price. The lowest price available for your business will depend on your needs.
Is there a version of the software made specifically for iPad use?
Is there a version of the software made specifically for Android tablet use?
BEST RETAIL POS
BEST FREE POS
Best Retail POS
Best free POS System
Best value POS system
Best for customer relationship management
Best for small franchises
Best for integrating ecommerce
Best for those looking to expand from online-only operations
Large or growing businesses wanting an easy set up
Businesses with large, barcoded inventories
$99 per month
Free (but transaction fees apply)
$29 per month
$29 per month
$39 per month
Works with loads of third-party periperals
Sold by Square, separately or bundled. Works with most leading brands and has a great free trial.
Available through third-party vendors
Offers a preconfigured POS terminal with an iPad and tablet stand, a router, a printer, and a cash drawer.
Works with loads of hardware options
Sold by Shopify, but also works with iPads and Android tablets
Sells everything from full cash stations to mobile card readers
Works with lots of third-party peripherals
Sold by Lightspeed. NOT compatible with weighing scales.
Taking Training Courses Online
Another victim of the pandemic was any business that ran courses for clients. This includes a wide array of companies, from cooking classes, to universities, all of which suddenly found themselves unable to share a space with their students.
It seems that online classes are to be the new normal, at least for the immediate future, with large organisations such as Harvard moving to an online program for its undergraduate courses.
Again, it's video conferencing that has come to the rescue and offered a solution that years prior would not have been viable.
One business that has been able to successfully pivot to online training is 54D, a fitness program run by former professional soccer player Rodrigo Garduño. Embracing social media and the trend for online fitness classes, Garduño attracted audiences of up to 44,ooo when streaming routines on Instagram Live. This led way to the company creating a full online program, 54D ON:
“Last month, 54D officially brought its complete human-transformation program online with the launch of its new comprehensive ONLINE program, 54D ON. The 54D ON app delivers daily training sessions and tasks. Trainings can be streamed on a mobile, tablet or smart TV. The program features guidance and follow-up with a team of experts to ensure participants remain committed to their progress, among other unique features.” – 54D spokesperson