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Survey: Small biz goes digital, web seen integral to surviving COVID-19

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Small businesses have adopted technology at a rapid pace, according to a new survey, with cash-strapped Main Street adjusting to pandemic era demands as a means of survival.

According to Salesforce annual “Small and Business Trends” report released last week, 71% of growing small and medium businesses (SMB) survived the pandemic by going digital, and 66% say their businesses could not have survived the pandemic using technology from a decade ago.

“They prioritized their customer needs and their wants, and whether they realized that customers want the option, they want the flexibility to interact with businesses and services, either online or in person,” Enrique Ortegon, Salesforce’s SMB senior vice president, told Yahoo Finance Live in a recent interview.

Mom-and-pop retail shops to local services struggled mightily to stay afloat during the pandemic. Many didn’t make it or will have to close in 2021 as they weather the storm in the rise of COVID cases.

In fact, according to the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), roughly one-in-five small-business owners said they’ll have to close their doors if economic conditions don’t improve in the next six months.

Still, not all small business trends have been all gloom and doom. The pandemic fed a global spike in e-commerce sales and online businesses, as worldwide lockdowns and the spreading virus forced consumers to turn to the internet for buying everyday goods.

Through technology and creative strategies, small and medium size businesses were able to evolve and lean into different types of technology tools to help improve customer engagements.

As a result, 83% of SMBs have at least some of their operations online; of those, nearly all (95%) moved a portion of their operations online in the past year, Salesforce found.

Online buying ‘like never before’

Christina Gibbs, left, of Saginaw, Michigan, holds up the brand of coffee she was using to make espresso, as Paul Songer, one of the judges, sniffs the beans, during the Torani 5th Annual Barista Cup, Saturday, May 1, 1999, in Philadelphia. Gibbs was named second runner up in the competition, Monday, May 3, 1999. (Photo by William Thomas Cain)
Christina Gibbs, left, of Saginaw, Michigan, holds up the brand of coffee she was using to make espresso, as Paul Songer, one of the judges, sniffs the beans, during the Torani 5th Annual Barista Cup, Saturday, May 1, 1999, in Philadelphia. Gibbs was named second runner up in the competition, Monday, May 3, 1999. (Photo by William Thomas Cain)

Flavored coffee syrup maker Torani is one example of an old-line business reliant on personal relationships that’s had to adapt to COVID-19 era realities.

“We're never going to be fully a technology company. We're a product that people bring into their houses,” Stacy Cooper Dent, Torani’s general manager of international business, said in an interview.

Building out digital “has been a huge shift for us. It's not been the way we've always worked,” Dent added.

Prior to March 2020, many businesses had little to no online presence, primarily because they depended on foot traffic and walk-ins to stay competitive. That changed dramatically during the pandemic, as lockdowns and quarantines forced storefronts to close, and led consumers to shop more online.

Torani is a fixture in coffee houses everywhere, but during COVID-19, consumers “started bringing Torani into their houses, like never before, over a million more households than a couple of years ago,” Dent added.

“Technology has played a great way to let us connect and engage with all these new consumers in a new way,” she said. According to Dent, Torani would not have “thrived” during the pandemic without going digital.

Even as businesses continue to recover, it's become clearer that consumer behavior has shifted toward e-commerce, making it an essential channel for SMB success.

Especially in the restaurant industry, savvy businesses also took advantage of new technology integrations to help setup. Remote orders, curbside pick, buy online, pickup in store, expand social media marketing on digital platforms all became COVID-era fixtures.

“We really have grown our social team. We've launched things like TikTok and we're using more digital, we're working with influencers because we can no longer do our own photo shoots because it wasn't safe, like in a COVID environment,” Dent said.

While America’s labor market goes through some growing pains, many businesses continue to allow variable hours — as well as hybrid work-from-home options — to attract employees in a tight labor market. But as adoption grows, a significant share are making it work.

“They look at their employees, who now want more flexible work arrangements. They want to work from home,” said Salesforce’ Ortegon.

According to Salesforce data, more than two in five SMBs plan to have employees work remotely at least half of the time, but a similar proportion will have most employees work in-person.

Meanwhile, as working arrangements differ by industry, SMBs are more likely to embrace remote work: some 43% of SMBs have long-term work-from-anywhere plans, the report said.

“They're investing in collaborating and productivity tools for their own employees. So that their employees can be productive and can get engaged with their peers and their customers. They want to be successful from anywhere,” Ortegon added.

Meanwhile, small businesses across the country have increasingly struggled to weather the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, with many warning that they could have collapsed without the financial support from the federal government.

“We made that commitment to not lay off a single person, we did take a [Paycheck Protection Program] loan and that was able to help us figure out how to retain all of our team members and keep them safe,” Dent added.

In fact, 67% of participants say community support has been important to their company’s survival during the pandemic, and 69% report government support has been instrumental.

“One in ten told us that they would not be around if it hadn’t been by a combination of government support and community assistance,” Ortegon said.

Dani Romero is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @daniromerotv

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