In many companies, changes from COVID-19 are now permanent

NEW YORK — A vending machine dispensing packets of herbs and seasonings outside Pinch Spice Market isn’t a sales gimmick — it helped cater to customers as the company battled the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meghan Thomas, co-owner of the Louisville, Kentucky, firm and its partner Thomas McGee, never expected a stream of shoppers at their small factory during the pandemic. But people were cooking more at home and wanted to support local businesses. They would appear when the owner, the sole employee, was trying to fill an online order. There was also little or no time at all to take care of in-person customers.

“Vending machines gave them a contactless way to shop, and it also attracted new customers who were walking through our factory,” Thomas says.

It is now a permanent addition.

“We are definitely keeping it. In fact, we are looking at making more machines to put in more places,” says Thomas.

The pandemic has changed the way many small businesses operate. Working from home and hybrid scheduling is common in many industries. And online ordering and curbside pickup is now standard for restaurants and retailers.

Many owners also make very personal customizations that not only make sense, but can also permanently change the way they do business and make money. Some owners who have made dramatic changes find that they are now happier running their companies.

When Ashley Greer started her flower design business four years ago, she didn’t want a retail shop. Therefore, Atelier Ashley Flowers arranged only for weddings and other events.

Greer’s Alexandria, Virginia, business had a full calendar when COVID-19 struck — and every event at that was canceled. Greer consoles herself by designing the arrangements and posting them on Instagram, where she has 4,000 local followers.

“Slowly, my neighbors around me said, ‘Hey, do you think you can let me arrange flowers, and make it weekly? Greer says. He believes they wanted to support her and brighten up their days.

This arrangement brought money to Greer, who was living off savings. Then she received a surprising number of orders for Mother’s Day. His retail business took off and, Greer found, was more profitable. Her new clients were a joy to work with compared to the sometimes demanding and often unappreciated wedding clients.

“People are very happy when they get a flower arrangement. Brides will send one out of 10 thank you notes — it feels like too much of a transaction when I’m putting my heart and soul into them,” she says.

Greer has rebooked canceled weddings and may do more in the future. But she is thriving on personal arrangements and says, “I have no plans to go back to programs only.”

Business owners expect to make adjustments to their companies and how they operate. And when an extraordinary event occurs, such as the Great Recession, many companies have to seek new markets, reducing and changing their mix of products or services. But the pandemic was a situation no one had ever experienced. This forced a change in the businesses and industries that had adopted their way of working.

Before COVID-19, psychiatrist and business coach Jonathan Alpert did almost all of his work in his Manhattan office. The pandemic limited him to phone and video. But despite the fact that therapy has traditionally been done in person, many clients are not interested in returning to their office for in-person sessions.

“What started out as a real necessity is now a highly desirable option for people,” Alpert says. “It’s convenient, they don’t have to commute 10, 20, 30 minutes each way.”

Remote sessions also give Alpert more flexibility. He finds that the dynamism of remote sessions makes them less intense than face-to-face sessions in his office, and he becomes less tired by the end of the day.

“It allows me to see more people,” he says. Due to which their income has increased.

Eighty percent of Greenbar Distillery’s revenue came from bar and restaurant sales pre-pandemic, with the rest coming from liquor stores. When state and local governments banned or shut down indoor dining, “it was like someone turned off the light switch,” says co-founder Melkon Khosrovian.

Three months into the pandemic and the prospect of returning to normalcy, Dim, Khosrovian and business partner and wife Litti Matthews decided to sell their products directly to consumers, going back to an idea they tried unsuccessfully in 2019: Grocery stores selling cocktails in cans. With Americans drinking more alcohol at home, the couple decided to gamble on making their idea more appealing as COVID-19 radically changed lifestyles.

It would take months to build a manufacturing operation. The Los Angeles business received a $2 million Small Business Administration loan to finance the equipment in September, and as of February was producing canned cocktails that are sold in grocery stores including Whole Foods — companies that mass-produce. But are pandemic-proof.

“Supermarkets have the most latitude to serve the public and remain open,” Khosrovian says.

The company’s restaurant and bar business has picked up pace again in the last two months. But Khosrovian believes that in the long run, the canned cocktail business will grow to the point where it accounts for 80% of Greenbar’s revenue.

The pandemic forced owner Mel Stutzman to close the showroom at Countryside Amish Furniture—as it turns out, for the benefit of the Arthur, Illinois, manufacturer.

Stutzmann realized the showroom, which attracted many visiting tourists but some buyers, took the staff away from working online and over the phone with serious buyers. It took more time to close in and see what customers with questions about Stutzman’s custom-made products did.

“We had to decide, who are we, where do we want to go?” Stutzman says. They closed the showroom forever.

This decision, which came as Americans invested more in their homes, paid off. Stutzman’s 2020 sales were up 65% compared to 2019, and he was able to hire two people, bringing his workforce to eight. They now have someone to help customers with questions about wood finishes, fabrics and leather in the evenings and weekends.

And if someone wants to visit the showroom?

“We have to take the position that we don’t go to the door,” Stutzman says.


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