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Just Like Businesses, Shoppers Need To 'Pivot' Too In Order To Keep Local Favorites Afloat

Findlay Market was near-empty in early April.
Bill Rinehart
Findlay Market was near-empty in early April.

Holiday traditions like visiting the Fountain Square Christmas tree and sipping hot coco while doing holiday shopping are different during the pandemic. The tree lighting was televised and online with no live spectators. Face masks have to be put on between sips. And people are opting to shop online instead of in-person, meaning some small retailers are taking a financial hit. 

Local businesses do more than add flair to communities. They're essential to creating thriving economies.

Tom Dalziel is an associate professor and former executive director at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Commercialization at the University of Cincinnati.

He says 90-95% of businesses in the U.S. economy are small- or medium-sized. Even through recessionary periods, those businesses create 67% of new jobs. During normal economic periods, he says, they create 70-75% of new jobs.

"So really, the backbone of our economy and of job creation in our country are these small businesses," he says. "And therefore, as we look at our retail purchasing patterns, we need to be thinking about the impact this has on our neighbors and our community and the positive difference we can make by buying small and buying local."

Buying local, though, can be tough to do safely amid COVID-19 restrictions that include six-feet of distance between people in public.

Retailers Pivot During Pandemic

"It has been an adjustment all the way around from that small business owner to the shopper," says Wanda Walker-Smith, Hamilton County director of the Small Business Development Center. "Everyone has been impacted by this." 

The center offers free or low-cost services to owners who are looking for help running or growing their local business.

"We see business owners who are calling us asking, 'How can I save my business? What can you provide to help me stay afloat?' " she says.

Walker-Smith says the center also hooks companies up with grants and federal and state loans being offered to small businesses. But the number-one go-to the center is offering right now is help with growing an online presence.

"And even though you may be a small business, you can still gain traction from that," she says. "Where you may be losing foot traffic, you can gain in internet traffic." 

But even online companies are having to adapt.

Doug Browning is the CEO of a Cincinnati-based company that sells non-slip headbands and accessories. Donna Browning, his wife, founded the company.

Doug Browning said the headbands were the first in the marketplace to work really well for runners and athletes doing intense workouts. When COVID-19 restrictions went into place and gyms closed throughout the country, he said the company pivoted to also making face masks early on in March.

"What we did during COVID is we had a bunch of raw material available from an older product that we made and no longer made. ... And then we said, 'What a better time to put it to use,' and we started making masks out of that material," he says.

Sweaty Bands is mostly an e-commerce business and also sells products at running events, like the  - which was canceled this year - to and in some stores.

"COVID really shut down all types of marathon events," Browning says. "So we've lost all that revenue from the event business, but we've gained it with these mask sales." He says that was necessary for the company to be able to keep its employees working.

He expects the business will have to make changes again as the demand for masks slows down.

"We're just going to figure out the next phase of the business," he says.

Across the river in Bellevue, Ky., Paula Gallo-Knight has made changes to Mrs. Teapots Tea Room,which she's owned for about 15 years.

Pre-pandemic, the business relied on foot traffic for people to get into the business, enjoy a cup of tea and baked goods. Tea parties with multi-course meals can also be booked.

Gallo-Knight says dine-in restrictions in Kentucky have seriously hurt her business. Last year, the weekend after Thanksgiving was one of her busiest weekends.

She says a woman who stopped by this year told her, " 'Oh my gosh, last year I came down here, I couldn't even get in.' 

"Because, usually on those days, we're just packed from the time we get here until the time we close and this year we hardly did anything," Gallo-Knight says.

In addition to selling tea, she's selling her niece's Christmas wreaths displayed in the windows and had her baked goods spread out on tables that used to be packed with diners.

Throughout the country, other retailers have had to find ways to stay afloat.

For instance, the Clifton Business Association launched a gift card bundling deal to help small businesses around Ludlow Avenue. And a new month-long campaign called FOUND is meant to bring people to downtown Cincinnati to give local shops a sales boost.

But the biggest thing that can help small businesses are people's shopping habits.

Customers May Need To Pivot

Walker-Smith says 80-85% of people's purchases are made online right now and the biggest player in online sales is Amazon.

However, shopping local and shopping online are not mutually exclusive, Dalziel says. The same way retailers have adjusted their habits, customers can also adjust how they shop.

For instance, Dalziel said roughly half of Amazon sales are through third-party retailers.

"And the question is, who are those third-party retailers? Are they small local businesses that we want to support to keep our economy here in Cincinnati growing?" he asked.

Buying directly from a retailer's website helps cut out the middle business and gives smaller shops a bigger financial boost.

But he said websites, like Etsy, can also be used to support local makers.

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