The coronavirus pandemic means that lots of independent local businesses are struggling to identify ways of doing business that are effective whilst keeping their staff and their customers safe.

In this article I’m going to share five ideas that might help.

1. Make it easy for customers to find out about you

If customers are specifically looking for information about your business, or for a local supplier of the products that you sell, then there’s a very strong chance that they’ll search in Google for your name, or the type of business you are (for example, delicatessen), and some geographic term (e.g. York).

Try it for yourself now!

Hopefully you found your website?

If you did, then the next step is to check that the answers to questions your customers are likely to have are easy to find. For example:

  • Are you open and, if so, what are your opening hours?
  • How is the current coronavirus situation affecting the way you do business? For example, you might be limiting the number of people in the shop, or offering a click-&-collect service or a delivery service.
  • How do I find you and can I park nearby?
  • What’s your telephone number and email address?
  • Do you have a particular product in stock (and how much does it cost)?
  • Can I order, and pay, online?

If you don’t have a website then obviously you won’t have found it (which means neither will your customers). My advice would be that this is as good a time as any to get one. It’s not expensive or difficult to do.

If you found your Facebook page then I’d suggest that you try to make sure that it answers as many of the above questions as possible. I’d still recommend that you set up your own website though!

2. Build an email list

None of us know what’s round the corner so it’s important to have ways of communicating with your customers if things change.

Having a website (or even a Facebook page) for your business is important, but it relies on people finding it. If you’ve got news you want to share with potential customers (such as a new way of operating, a great new product range, a special offer, or revised opening times) then your customers aren’t going to know about it unless they happen to visit your website or Facebook page.

With an email list you can get your message directly into your customers’ inboxes.

Setting up an email list isn’t difficult, but it does take time and there are a few rules you have to follow to comply with privacy laws.

3. Allow customers to book an appointment to visit your shop

Rules about social distancing are likely to mean that you need to limit the number of customers in your shop at any time (and even if there aren’t specific rules there will be a significant number of people who aren’t willing to visit shops unless they feel safe).

Lots of shops deal with this problem by having a socially distanced queue outside the shop and a one-in one-out policy. This works fine if there is space outside your shop where customers can queue safely and if the weather is nice. It’s not so good if the shops on either side of yours are trying to operate a queuing system or if it’s lashing it down with rain and blowing a gale (as it is as I’m writing this in the first week of June)!

One way of dealing with this is to set up a simple appointment system where customers can ring you and book a time slot to visit your premises. The only technology you really need is some sort of diary.

Alternatively, you can allow your customers to book an appointment via your website. That way you’re not tied to the telephone and you offer your customers the convenience of being able to see when slots are available, 24 hours-per-day 7-days-per-week, and choose the one that best suits them.

4. Sell your products online

It seems likely that lots of customers are going to be nervous about visiting shops for quite some time. Equally, lots of customers might not be nervous about visiting shops but may have become so used to shopping online that they will naturally gravitate to retailers who allow them to do that.

If you’re not already selling your products online then the chances are that you’re spending a lot of time on the telephone explaining what you’ve got in stock and how much it costs, then writing the order details down, calculating prices and keying credit or debit card details into your card terminal.

Or you might be sorting out which emails are orders from the miscellaneous junk that finds its way into your inbox, working out what the customer wants, creating the paperwork that you need to process the order and either calling them back to process the order or trusting them to pay you by bank transfer.

With an online shop you can make your customers’ lives better. Instead of trying to contact you by telephone or email they can order online when it suits them (24 hours per day, 7 days per week), pay securely using their preferred payment method, and they’ll get an email confirming what they’ve ordered.

Your life will be simpler too. You’ll get an email in a consistent format whenever an order is placed that tells you exactly what the customer wants. You can use that email to process the order (or your can create pdf invoices and packing slips). And, perhaps best of all, payments will often be in your account earlier than they would otherwise have been.

If you’re not already thinking of selling online then I’d strongly suggest now is a good time to take a long hard look at why not. Setting up a simple online shop can be quick and inexpensive, particularly if you’ve already got a website.

5. Offer a (timed) delivery service and/or collection facility

Customers want to buy your products but they also want to get those products (at a time that suits them)!

If you look at what the big supermarkets do when it comes to online shopping they offer the opportunity to book a specific delivery slot or a specific window when you can collect your order. You can do the same.

If you are taking telephone orders you can offer the same facility with nothing more complicated than a basic diary.

If you are selling your products via your website then you can allow your customers to choose a delivery or collection slot before they start shopping or as they checkout.