March 2020. A month we will never forget. More than a year later, businesses are still managing their way out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whatever business you are in, you learned a lot, and fast.
Directwest saw it all firsthand as they and their customers dealt with everything that the pandemic threw at them. One of the biggest changes the company saw was the immediate need for SMBs to go digital wherever possible. “Many Saskatchewan businesses needed to reach their customers in new ways when the pandemic took hold,” says Keith Jeannot, Directwest’s President and CEO. “Whether it was offering delivery or curbside pickup, or creating online ordering, the need to be accessible was apparent.” While the change was often necessary, businesses also needed to determine whether they could afford the shift and whether it would stick long-term. “We saw that our customers needed to make careful decisions and not race toward digital just because everyone else was.”
For consumers, many wanted to support local businesses while also being tempted by the ease of online shopping with multinational corporations. Directwest saw the desire of consumers to do their part, but also the struggle to get it done. “People had trouble deciphering who was ‘local’ and how to do business with them,” says Jeannot. “Consumers couldn’t walk into their local retailer or restaurant like they used to. They needed a way to connect and make those purchases from home and know that the business they were supporting was local.”
Over a year later, ecommerce is no longer just for massive companies anymore—it is becoming table stakes for many sectors, especially retail. Online stores not only helped Saskatchewan businesses reach their customers, but it also opened doors to new markets. “We have seen local retailers now doing business outside their city and outside Saskatchewan because of their online presence,” says Jeannot.
Product offerings have also changed to accommodate our new lives at home. “This is particularly true for restaurants and the food and beverage industry,” says Jeannot, pointing to the growth of ‘ghost kitchens’ where chefs prepare meals for takeout, delivery and retail instead of table service.
Jeannot says the changes are also being seen in areas like professional services, a sector that has not had as much attention paid to it during the pandemic. “While Amazon and other big retailers have dominated our thoughts about how we shop to protect local, professionals like insurance brokerages, optometrists and dentists are also seeing corporations coming in to compete,” says Jeannot. “Many small businesses and practices are being bought up by much larger companies with big marketing budgets. It’s something to keep an eye on.”
Other companies have managed to retrench into what worked before, and some are taking a tentative approach, seeing what changes to our habits will stay for good and which will disappear once we can go back to something close to “normal.”
How to Compete
Whatever industry you are in, Jeannot has advice on how to navigate the rapid changes brought on by not just the pandemic but the behemoth businesses looking to grow even more. “Play to your strengths and know what makes you different. You must give customers a reason to bypass the ‘big guys’ and come to you,” he says. “Tell your story and promote your unique value proposition. Consumers want to support local businesses, so show them why they should choose you.”
Jeannot also points to the benefits of going digital that businesses may not have recognized. “Having a professional, up-to-date website with excellent SEO makes your company look ‘bigger’ than you are. Plus, you can convey your local story that will attract people to you, too.”
The Big Picture
Jeannot notes that there are larger forces at work, beyond simply going digital. “Saskatchewan is a province of small businesses.” says Jeannot. “Globalization is a real threat to our local business ecosystem. While it is great to see businesses grow from an idea to a major player, we also have to remember what can be lost along the way. Doing business locally as much as you can benefits us all.” It is up to businesses to make their mark so that consumers—ready to do their part—can open their wallets and do business in the place they call home.