How Canada’s small businesses have changed a year into lockdown

6 min read
Amanda Schewaga

It’s been a year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic. While the pandemic has disrupted daily life for everyone, small business owners faced some of the most difficult circumstances they have ever experienced in their lifetimes.

In March of 2020, we all hoped the pandemic was temporary and that life would return to normal quickly.

Many thought it might dwindle down within a matter of weeks or months, with small business owners being no exception. However, necessary changes became apparent on a daily basis as new information unfolded and mandatory public health regulations were instated.

Two women with masks bumping elbows

One year later, these changes have gone from short-term solutions to part of the “new normal.” Societies around the world have become accustomed to safety measures like social distancing, wearing a mask and sanitizing.

But how are small businesses coping? What changes will they need to make moving forward?

And what is the outlook for the future?

These are the questions entrepreneurs are asking themselves and, fortunately, there are some answers to be found.

How Canada’s SMBs have changed a year into lockdown

Before we suggest a few strategies small business owners can use to protect the viability of their enterprises, let’s take a closer look at the impacts of COVID-19 on these businesses.

1. Drastic declines in revenue

Small businesses were the most likely to report revenue losses of 40% or more in 2020. In fact, 23% of businesses with fewer than five employees reported a decline of 40% or more.

With less money rolling in, smaller enterprises were left with no choice but to scale back and seek out alternative ways to stay afloat. This, of course, included taking on more debt or closing up shop.

The key here is how immediate the impacts to revenue were.

Many countries went into mandatory lockdown by the end of March 2020 or, at the very least, implemented strict public health regulations. These requirements impacted businesses almost instantaneously, as more people chose to remain at home and transition to virtual shopping, working from home, etc. Many businesses weren’t set up for such an abrupt change.

2. A reduced labour force

According to a report by Cision, 60% of Canadian small businesses were forced to make rapid changes to their workforce in early 2020. This included reducing headcount and reducing hours or compensation.

These changes had immediate implications in terms of service delivery, individual workloads, and project timelines -- among other operational concerns.

3. Shifting to online sales and service

Most businesses knew, even before the pandemic, that moving their business online was necessary for success in today’s tech-driven world. But they couldn’t have known just how urgent it would be to make this shift after the emergence of COVID-19.

This was particularly worrisome for the 74% of Canadian small business owners who stated in May of 2020 that their businesses were not ready or equipped to be fully internet-based.

Close-up of someone making an online purchase with a card

Despite this daunting hurdle, Canadian businesses proved to be resilient. The number of Canadian small businesses selling online spiked nearly 400% in the last five years with the global pandemic being a major catalyst. It also accounted for a significant portion of those who made the leap.

How can businesses continue to adapt in 2021?

Small businesses that were adaptable were the most resilient in 2020 and the same will be true for the days ahead. Here are some forward-thinking ways to remain competitive:

1. Brand repositioning

Many small business owners find it difficult to accept the idea of altering their brand, but it's a small sacrifice to make when the future of your business may be at stake.

Repositioning doesn’t have to mean completely starting over from scratch.

It may simply mean looking at ways to expand your target market, adding a new product or service, or revamping your visual identity to make your brand more memorable.

Woman sitting in Chipotle looking at her phone
Photo: Justin Snyder Photo on Unsplash

Take Chipotle, for example. The popular Mexican restaurant chain was forced to switch to delivery-only during the pandemic. Knowing that safety was a top concern for their customers, the chain decided to switch to tamper-evident packaging seals to guarantee that food had not been touched during delivery. They then began hosting virtual events online to position themselves as a brand that was embracing necessary changes rather than resisting them.

The point? They didn’t change their entire brand. They simply shifted their focus and added a new service element to meet the needs of their customers.

2. Leveraging social media

Now is the ideal time for small businesses to be active and engage online. Since many customers are no longer venturing out in public (unless it's absolutely necessary) more conversations are taking place virtually.

You can build brand loyalty and gain an edge over brands that aren’t properly utilizing these platforms by:

  • Consistently sharing updates on social media
  • Monitoring online communities your customers are engaging in
  • Regularly replying to comments and messages

As a general rule of thumb, brands should aim to post:

  • Once per day on Instagram
  • Three to five times per day on Twitter
  • Once per weekday on LinkedIn
  • Once per week on YouTube
  • Three times per day on Pinterest

Additionally, 79% of customers expect businesses to reply to their social media inquiry within 24 hours. It’s important to monitor your account activity on a daily basis.

Of course, you don’t have to be present on every single social media platform, but you do want to have a winning strategy for the platforms you decide to use.

3. Accepting digital payments

The seismic shift to internet-based shopping means that small businesses must be able to accommodate the virtual shopping experience. Offering digital payment options is one of the simplest ways to do this.

Platforms like PayPal, Stripe, and Square make it easy (and affordable) for small businesses to accept and process payments. Plus, many of them offer additional convenient features like:

  • Online appointment booking
  • Virtual gift cards
  • Customer loyalty programs and more

This is a trend that most small businesses capitalized on due to the pandemic. Of all the small businesses selling online, one third (34%) turned to digital payments only after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic.

If you haven’t already embraced digital payments, now is the time to do so.

One easy way to do this is to build a web store with Online Store from GoDaddy. It includes everything you need to promote, sell and ship your products globally.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

These are just a few of the ways small business owners can protect their ventures as they move forward. The ideal strategy for your business, however, will depend on a number of factors. If you need assistance with developing a marketing strategy for 2021 and beyond, it’s always best to consult with a professional.

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