For as much hardship as small businesses have endured during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was at least one positive outcome: the drive to support local.
According to a June 2020 survey by e-commerce platform Shopify, 46% of participating consumers in the U.S. and Canada had shopped at local, independently-owned businesses since the pandemic hit. Of that group, 34% reported making local purchases more often than they had prior to the pandemic, and 57% said they specifically seek out local, independently-owned businesses to support. The trend has been forecasted by Deloitte and Forbes to continue throughout this year and beyond the pandemic as consumers become more conscious of where their dollars are going.
“The silver lining of part of this (pandemic) was this consciousness and awareness-building of the importance of these small, beautiful, locally-owned businesses in our neighborhoods, in our city, in our state,” said Wendy Baumann, president and chief visionary officer at Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp. “That’s going to be part of the saving grace as we slowly reopen and rebound, that people are really going to think about it.”
The Milwaukee-based economic development corporation, with a primary focus on women, people of color, veterans, and low-income individuals, has never been busier, said Baumann. In 2020 alone, WWBIC served more than 5,500 unduplicated clients and closed $6,380,117 in small business loans.
In the early days of COVID lockdown, WWBIC fielded phone calls from individuals and foundations asking how else they could lend a hand, beyond purchasing gift cards and ordering takeout. While pass-through grants and forgivable loans provided emergency relief, Baumann said, the long-term survival of small, local business ultimately rests in the hands of the consumer.
As consumer behavior and expectations continue to shift – and the threat of industry giants like Amazon loom – how can businesses leverage their local identity to stay competitive and bring customers through the door?
Viewing industry peers as “collaborators, not competitors,” is one place to start, said Dan Nowak, board president of Local First Milwaukee, which is a business alliance that has grown since 2006 to more than 200 independently owned local businesses and nonprofits. Nowak also owns West Allis-based Tall Guy and a Grill Catering.
Whether it is to advocate for an industry at large – like the Milwaukee Independent Restaurant Coalition has during the pandemic – or to cross-promote the sale of a product, teaming up with similar businesses amplifies your reach, said Nowak.
The owners of Milwaukee-based Purple Door Ice Cream have built an iconic Wisconsin brand on a foundation of partnerships with other local food producers. Owners Lauren and Steve Schultz started the business 10 years ago with the belief that “the more dollars we can put back in our local community, the better for our community,” said Lauren Schultz.
Of 20 core flavors, more than half feature key ingredients from local vendors, such as Anodyne Coffee Roasting Co.’s cold brew (Mountaintop Cold Brew Blackberry Chip), Bittercube’s bitters (Brandy Old Fashioned), and Sugar & Flour Bakery’s chocolate chip cookies (Milk and Cookies). Purple Door’s full 200-flavor rotation bears the names of an additional 20 to 30 local vendors and restaurants.
From a logistics standpoint, sourcing directly from that many vendors requires extra time and effort, but it fits the mission and resonates deeply with a customer base that is loyal not only to the Purple Door brand, but to the place they call home, said Schultz.
“(Customers) seek out the fact that Purple Door is using Great Lakes Distillery for its alcohol or that we’re working with Lakefront Brewery,” she said. “They recognize that, and then guess what? They’re going to Lakefront Brewery and it’s serving our ice cream too.”[caption id="attachment_526211" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Purple Door Ice Cream owners Steve and Lauren Schultz.[/caption]
Purple Door operates three area retail locations, in Walker’s Point, at the Mequon Public Market and Sherman Phoenix, and sells pints of ice cream at more than 50 grocery stores across the region. Grocery store sales saw a boost amid the pandemic, but the business still had to come up with new ways to generate revenue and serve customers. The Schultzes used their background in education to design a pack of activities that families could do with the dry ice that came in their Purple Door shipments.
“That totally shifted our online sales,” said Lauren Schultz. “It was, again, a lot of loyalty – someone would get the ice cream shipped to them and then they, in turn, would ship it to their friends.”
For small businesses in the startup stage or looking to cut costs, social media can be another effective tool – the “biggest bang for your buck when you’re trying to get the word out in a sea of big paid ads from Amazon, Target or Walmart,” said Nowak.
Up until the recent opening of its King Drive storefront, Maranta Plant Shop didn’t spend a single dollar on advertising – via social media or elsewhere. Still, the business has amassed tens of thousands of followers on Instagram over the past six months and continues to drive traffic organically through storytelling, educating and weekly plant giveaways.
Co-founders Michelle Alfaro and Mag Rodriguez launched the business last fall as an online pop-up, initially selling a couple hundred house plants. Maranta has since expanded to a brick-and-mortar store on King Drive in Bronzeville, now selling more than 5,000 plants a week.
Maranta sources a curated selection of house plants – from low-maintenance types to rare collectibles – directly from nurseries in and around Florida and sells them at higher quality and lower prices compared to big-box garden centers. The shop draws thrifty plant enthusiasts who drive from Green Bay, Madison and Chicago, as well as local first-time plant owners.
“But then we also have people who are just curious about the store, or they read something about how we started this business and they’re like, ‘We really want to support you because I can connect to this,’” said Rodriguez, who also works as managing director at gener8tor Music.
That level of interest has been one of the most surprising outcomes of opening the business, he said. The owners were well aware of their competition and knew they needed to differentiate themselves by providing something that betters the community. As Milwaukee’s first Black- and brown-owned plant shop, Maranta Plant Shop is well on its way.
“We want to be vessels in our community and bridges for more people that look like us to take the leap into following their passion and doing the things that they like to do,” he said. “For Michelle and I, we love plants, but we can’t buy plants from someone that looks like us. We saw that as a problem, especially as we started looking at the history of plants.”
He said the majority of house plants sold at retail stores originate from their native countries – Rodriguez is from Mexico and Alfaro is from Honduras and Jamaica – and as far away as Asia and Africa. Many consumers may not be aware of that, but Maranta has the opportunity to spread the word.
An undercurrent of the shop local trend of the past year was a strong push to support businesses owned by women and people of color. Black-owned businesses were hit especially hard by the pandemic’s health and economic crisis. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer shed light on the disparities affecting Black communities and business owners.
According to a report recently published by Yelp, the search rate for women-, Black-, Asian- and Latinx-owned businesses, as a share of all U.S. searches, jumped 2,930% from February 2020 to February 2021.
Of the millions of local businesses listed on Yelp, those marked as “women-owned” tripled in the past year to nearly 240,000. Last June, the platform added a Black-owned identity attribute, which had been adopted by nearly 25,000 businesses as of February.