As businesses reopen physical locations, we look at how to handle the online systems put in place during the crisis.

If your small business has (or had) a brick-and-mortar location, social distancing likely pushed you to expand your online presence. Perhaps you built a website for a first time. Now, you may be back to doing business in your physical location and wondering how to think about your new (or revamped) online presence.

Successfully balancing your digital and in-person business may help you rebuild and grow, and some businesses may even want to shift more permanently to digital. We pulled together some insights to help you decide how to balance your online business with in-person sales.

The case for focusing on digital

Graphic: Electric wallet icon; Text: E-commerce to grow 18% in 2021, per eMarketer.

COVID-19 caused a big increase in online sales: Shoppers spent 43% more online in September 2020 than September 2019, according to Adobe Analytics.

In 2021, ecommerce numbers are still growing. Research firm eMarketer expected online sales to grow roughly 18% in 2021.

While shoppers may have been forced to shop online due to social distancing during COVID-19, continued growth in online sales indicates consumers may have gotten used to shopping online; the habit may be here to stay.

This might be good news for small-business owners who added digital services during the pandemic — and many did. A McKinsey study of small businesses showed some 60% of restaurants added curbside pickup. Many customers who tried these services did so for the first time due to necessity, and the trend is likely to continue. This approach looks to have long-term potential.

If you run a business that discovered untapped potential online, you may want to continue to foster digital sales and marketing. Keep an eye on how your online sales change as in-person shopping ramps back up.

If your digital offerings outperform, you might reevaluate whether you even need a physical space still. If you don’t, you could reduce your overhead and potentially improve margins.

Just be sure to consider what a more permanent shift to digital might entail. For instance, if you sell furniture, you might win big by selling online with no storefront. But you may need to introduce new digital features to account for the fact that customers can no longer test furniture in a showroom. Could you replace that experience by offering new software that lets customers “view” the furniture in their homes?


Action tip: Analyze whether your online business is sustainable in the long term. If the answer is yes, consider how you may need to update your overall business strategy to accommodate a more permanent online component.


The case for refocusing on in-person sales

Graphic: Icon of 2 people; Text: 84% of sales took place in person, even during the 2020 lockdown.

Even during the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns, in-person transactions still dominated sales: 84% of transactions took place in person during the second quarter of 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Some businesses simply don’t translate well to a long-term online-only business model, and that’s OK.

If you fall into this category, you may want to spend some time focusing on how to enhance your in-person experience to drive sales. (Though you should still have or maintain a digital presence, which we’ll discuss in the next section.)

To drive your in-person business, put yourself in your customers’ shoes. Think about what they may have missed during periods of social distancing during the pandemic. For instance, if you own a clothing boutique, consider revamping your dressing room as a central feature of your store, since shoppers may have missed the experience of trying on clothes during the pandemic.

Many consumers are figuring out what works best for them in the new normal; strategic improvements can help you add value and may help you become part of customers’ new routines.


Action tip: Keep safety in mind. Even as we work to put the pandemic behind us, customers likely have lingering questions about safety precautions (like how often you sanitize surfaces). Consider keeping that information easily accessible.


Finding a balance

One of the biggest takeaways from the COVID-19 crisis may be that small businesses need to be prepared for the unexpected. Consider the uneven pace of recovery across the country and even the globe. Business owners may find more peace of mind knowing they’re positioned to withstand unexpected surprises.

So how can you prepare for the unexpected? Creating, or maintaining, a permanent and robust digital strategy that complements any in-person operations is a great way to start.

If you’re new to doing business online — perhaps you just launched your website or began using online banking more consistently — think about how you can incorporate these systems into your business more permanently. This way, you have systems in place in case it becomes difficult to do business in-person again.

On the other hand, if you heavily rely on online features, think about how you would run your business if you suddenly lost internet access — perhaps in a power outage.

Take a few minutes to think through various “what if” scenarios and make sure you have the right systems in place to tackle them. It’s likely this will include a mix of in-person and digital solutions.


Action tip: Build the costs to maintain a website into your annual budget and keep posting on social media, even if you phase out any structured advertising campaigns.


Online systems can make running a small business easier. Plus, creating your own digital footprint can help you engage and attract customers, even if those customers ultimately shop in person. Consider leveraging the systems you created during COVID-19 into long-term improvements for your business.

Sources: Digital Commerce 360, The Economist, eMarketer, Digital Commerce 360, McKinsey & Company, U.S. Census Bureau, Reuters, Harvard Business Review, National Federation of Independent Businesses

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