Sigrist: Forced innovation helps small businesses survive & thrive

Vermont businesses are always worth celebrating, but even more so this year. Make a point to support your local businesses

by Erin Sigrist This week is National Small Business Week! Even though we are fortunate in Vermont to hold small businesses in high esteem most every day, I believe this year it’s even more important to shine a light on these businesses and celebrate their hard work to sustain Vermonters throughout this pandemic. After all, some were shut down for 14 to 18 months. As a result, some have been forced to alter their operations and sadly we have lost some to permanent shut down. Those that remain today continue to find great challenge in hiring staff to operate the business to meet customer expectations, and yet other businesses have grown and expanded. How? Creativity. Grit. Forced Innovation.

For many businesses that have survived, it required creativity, innovation, doubling down on their work ethic, and moving out of their comfort zone. Due to the government ordered shutdown, social distancing and the wearing of face masks, many small businesses have had to invest their time and energy into social media like never before. This investment provided them a channel of communication to maintain a relationship with their existing customers, while trying to reach new ones.

The Vermont Retail Grocers Association (VRGA) has many members who attain superstar status in how they have negotiated the transition from brick-and-mortar storefronts to a new online presence effectively. Witnessing firsthand how our members are adapting their business models and turning to digital tools has been incredibly impressive. Many have leaned into the use of social media to communicate with customers, brighten our days, and communicate pertinent information to community members.

Take for example the many country stores around the state that took to Facebook to provide daily updates of the availability of products in stock. Lisai’s Chester Market, now Smitty’s Chester Market, made sure to share daily what food products and other necessities were in stock and out of stock. They also gave shout-outs to hard working staff responsible for keeping the store open through this incredibly trying year. Their posts at first were mostly out of necessity, but they also created a sense of community when we couldn’t bring folks together face to face.

Take a look at how Bailey Road in Montpelier utilized Facebook Live and Instagram. Owner Sarah DeFelice quickly learned she had to enhance her social media presence to ensure her women’s clothing inventory didn’t lay stagnant and her boutique would survive. Bailey Road did qualify for a small amount of funds ($9,000) through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), but because of Sarah's hustle and drive, Bailey Road’s sales only declined by 43%, which certainly is significant, however she says without her use of social media her loss in sales would have been much greater.

In order to qualify for CARES Act assistance Bailey Road would have had to have a loss of at least 50%,Because of Sarah's tenacity, the business, consequently or not, did not qualify for nearly $40,000 in additional financial assistance.

I enjoy celebrating small businesses, but I’m especially excited to celebrate Small Businesses Week this week; because it helps me highlight the challenges and victories my members experienced. Pandemic or no pandemic, the small businesses across Vermont are quick to think outside the box when facing a hurdle head on.

I hope you’ll get out and celebrate your local small businesses this week and, in the weeks, and months ahead. They’ve worked so hard in these challenging times to fulfill your needs. Please stop into your local businesses and tell them how much you appreciate them and how happy you are that they are still here. It’s going to take a long time to get through this economic recovery, who knows when we will be able to claim victory.

Erin Sigrist and Vermont Retail Grocers Association

Erin Sigrist serves as the president of the Vermont Retail Grocers Association (VRGA), the leading resource for retailers and grocers in Vermont. Erin is a seasoned policy advocate who has successfully testified before the Vermont Legislature to affect critical policy issues and has worked closely with State Agency leaders to impact regulatory protocols. She is responsible for executing the vision of the VRGA board of Directors through membership outreach and development.