As the months of lockdown, restrictions and social distancing roll on, things only get tougher for so many small businesses and charities. From those that have had to close as there is no way to adapt their model, to those who may be perfectly placed to do well with their product or service but weren’t ready to act, or those who have had to adapt quickly to make any kind of business transactions possible but now aren’t necessarily doing what they know best, let alone love.
The demands on small businesses are huge and inevitably there are many stressed, worried and confused entrepreneurial owners out there who need to see some light at the end of the tunnel. With small businesses accounting for 99.3% of all UK businesses and three fifths of employment in the UK, it's easy to see how when small businesses are affected, the reduced spending power of their employees has an even wider spread. When local businesses and small businesses aren’t able to pay their staff their full wage, regardless of furlough, those staff aren’t able to buy take-aways from the local restaurant, put down a deposit for a dream holiday with their high-street travel agent or afford the best produce from the fishmonger’s. Additionally, without those people spending time in their offices, they aren’t getting their lunch on-the-go from the local deli, buying their morning breaktime coffees, getting new clothes to pep up a dull Monday morning or even making spontaneous purchases when they pop to the Post Office during a lunchbreak.
So thinking of how many people and businesses are struggling, and the wider effect this has on the local economy, I have been compiling a list of ways to help small businesses. At the start of the pandemic lockdown last Spring, I wrote a list of easy things we could all try to do that wouldn’t cost us a penny but would offer support. I posted it on my LinkedIn and Facebook and had a few more ideas suggested. A year on, I have become a start-up owner myself and realise how much some little things can make a big difference.
My business is focused on helping start-ups and small businesses. Each of these suggestions are designed to be easy actions on your part but ones that can make a tangible difference to small businesses, their owners and staff. I have included charities because it is such a tough time to raise funds and awareness during an economic downturn, without events, street collections and charity shops.
1. BUY DIRECT
Amazon may be easy but it isn’t the only option. The Amazon van visits my little street two or three times every day at the moment, and makes multiple stops. That’s a huge amount of spending power that all goes in the same direction. The other option is to buy direct from suppliers: from books to presents, supplements to gym equipment. While shopping on Amazon you can see the name of the ‘Seller’ highlighted in blue at the top of the product page and you can use this information to search for them directly on Google.
Not only will the supplier get more of the sale cost themselves but you may be surprised to discover that some things are actually cheaper too. I have bought some things 40% cheaper direct rather than through Amazon. The Amazon model is around convenience rather than having the cheapest prices but it’s easy to forget this and assume everything is an equally good deals when there are no comparisons in front of you. Google’s ‘Shopping’ function has become far more sophisticated and capable of showing you how different options compare. Added multi-purchase deals or bundles that aren’t possible on Amazon can extra value that will make you want to check everything before you click ‘Add to Basket’ on Amazon!
It’s not just Amazon; with supermarkets being one of the only retail outlets open, it is easy to get a little extra retail therapy looking at the books in Sainsbury’s or the children’s toys in Tesco. Generally speaking, these huge companies drive the hardest price from businesses so even if the same book is on sale elsewhere at the same cost, more of the money you spend will be getting back to the publisher and author if you buy from a smaller, local business instead.
A lot of the largest companies have methods of giving back set up. The problem is that not enough people utilise them. For example, when you use your Tesco Clubcard or Nectar card, you can choose to donate your points to charity. Most loyalty cards have this option and there must be millions of points just sitting there on forgotten cards for petrol, toiletries and chain store purchases that could be made useful.
Amazon has a great programme called Amazon Smile (smile.amazon.co.uk) which remains relatively unknown. It is very simple to set up and once you have, all qualifying purchases count, whether you do them on the desktop or app. Amazon Smile donates to your chosen charity with every purchase, with no extra cost to you. The amount each time is small but with that van going up and down every street, every day, that is a lot of money that could be donated from Amazon’s profits! Last month I switched mine from a large national charity to my children’s school where I know every single penny of the donation will go directly into equipment or events that benefit the children.
The biggest network groups work because members become advocates for each other's businesses, listening out for leads that might benefit their peers, even if they have no relevance to their own line of work. If you're a plumber, it makes sense that your customers might ask if you know a carpenter, but listen further to their chat and there might be an opportunity to recommend an estate agent for the house sale they are preparing for, a mechanic for their car concerns, a private tutor for their teenager they are worried about.
Whether you are in an official business network or not, passing on good recommendations helps businesses and customers. If you believe the companies you are recommending are good then it will feel natural, not pushy and you can be helpful to your clients. When they do a good job, it reflects back well on you, plus the chance that somewhere along the line your good deed will come back to you!
The way social media works, the more people and brands have interaction from users, the more their business is promoted by automatic algorithms. It might sound a bit techy and strange but by liking, saving, sharing, commenting and tagging, you are helping them to reach a wider audience.
If you have a favourite YouTube producer, watching the ads at the beginning helps them to earn money, even better if you click through! If there are ads on the page that you often get recipes from, click through those that might interest you. Advertising pays for those services you receive for free and allowing yourself to receive some marketing messages ensures the business they are paying carries on getting financial backing. For your own sake, you may decide not to allow cookies or for sites to send you notifications, there’s a limit to how many hours a day can be spent viewing ads before combusting!
It’s a classic but there are few things you can do more easily and without personal cost for a small business than to write a review on Google, TripAdvisor, Feefo etc. Have a think about the local brands you wouldn’t want to fold, or the places in the city you hope are still open when you can get back there, the service-provider you happily recommend to your friends but have never written about. Each of those will benefit massively from your kind input. Star ratings are great, positive comments are even better, positive comments that counteract negative points made by others, they are diamond-encrusted bags of gems to a small business!
If you use Google Maps on your phone, the app has a section labelled ‘contribute’ that will make it easy for you to add star ratings, comments, pictures or videos of the places you have visited.
6. FREE PR As well as interacting with the content that brands and charities make on social media, you can help by making your own posts. Obviously simply posting a picture of your coffee and tagging your favourite coffee brand will share your love for them with your own following. But added to that it gives them something to react to and increase their relevant conversations online.
A step further, when you create decent content for the brands or charities you love and they can share it, you are helping them to reach one of the golden nirvanas of small business: user-generated content! At a time when many small businesses are preoccupied with survival and adapting, social media can be one of the first things to give, just when they need the publicity most. Whether your power is words, pictures, video or blogging, your input allows small business owners to continue to share great content with customers and potential customers, even when they are really up against it.
When you're working hard to keep a business afloat, it can be hard to step back and see a missed opportunity. Support is fabulous and a five star review can be a real boost to a small business. But there is power in feedback too. If you find yourself frustrated that a local business hasn't adapted in a way that seems obvious to you, let them know. Or if everyone you speak to is moaning about the same thing regarding a local business, but no one is telling the owners themselves, no one is gaining from this scenario and eventually that little niggle can become their biggest business problem.
Your thoughts, feedback and ideas can feed a business. This will take choosing the right quiet moment and a heavy dose of tact but if your comment comes from the perspective of helping them to notice the potential for profit or to highlight a key customer insight they may be missing, it will help in the long run.