Online Sales Keep Small Businesses Afloat but Pandemic Losses Are Insurmountable
By Joe Connolly and Neil A. Carousso
NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — Increases in online sales are not covering losses suffered in the coronavirus pandemic for many small retailers, but it is allowing them to stay afloat during the unprecedented holidays as hospitalizations and deaths due to the virus surge.
“I’m happy to report we’re surviving,” Jennifer Bergman of West Side Kids said on the WCBS Small Business Spotlight, sponsored by BNB Bank.
Bergman’s Upper West Side toy store is in the midst of their annual busy season, but overall sales are down about 50 percent. Her busiest day of 2020 was December 9 – the day before Hanukkah.
“Our online sales have never generated enough business for me to invest in expanding that so it’s always been a real catch-22,” she explained.
Bergman is not alone. Many small businesses are struggling to develop a profitable e-commerce strategy. Those who had one in place before March were best positioned to pivot amid shutdowns, but still, it is difficult to compete with online retail giants, namely Amazon and Wal-Mart.
“It costs us a lot more to process online orders and we’re going in early and we’re staying late to get them all done,” she said.
Tom Geniesse owns Bottlerocket Wine & Spirit in the Flatiron District. He had more than a head start on his e-commerce; he owns several patents on the display of his website, which shows different pairings of wines that go well with various meals.
“The customer-centric focus is on giving people choices that map to their needs,” he told WCBS 880. “By doing that, we give people an opportunity to make better decisions when they’re making a bottle of wine.”
Geniesse is educating his customers virtually. Before opening the doors to his wine shop in 2003 with the goal of making wine more accessible to the average consumer, he owned an e-learning business company named Quisic from 1996-2001. That experience is paying dividends 19 years later.
He told Joe Connolly and Neil A. Carousso he has put Bottlerocket Wine & Spirit on numerous e-commerce platforms, including Instacart, Grubhub and other niche websites. That exposure and marketing has given him a 25 percent bump in online sales, but it does not make up for Geniesse’s overall sales losses in the pandemic. His challenge now is finding new customers who have fled Manhattan.
“People that can work remotely have continued to work remotely and residential folks in Flatiron tend to be affluent, tend to have second homes outside of the city and many of those people have moved out in March and have remained away,” said Geniesse, continuing, “We’ve really had to be entrepreneurial in finding customers that are new customers, reach to a broader audience in the city and find the people that are here and working here and living here.”
He told WCBS 880 he believes the pandemic is an inflection point on the viability of local businesses’ e-commerce sales operations.
“I do think that e-commerce has been on a 20-year trend, increasing online sales for businesses everywhere and this pandemic has hurdled us forward about 10 years in that trajectory,” said Geniesse. “We’ve always been online, we’ve always had an e-commerce platform, but I think what this has shown us is that this is critically important for us to keep our efforts focused on e-commerce and continue to grow in that way.”
Hear ideas on how to find new customers online and learn about the changing landscape of e-commerce on the WCBS Small Business Spotlight Podcast on the RADIO.COM app or on the media player above.