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WEB EXCLUSIVE Jennifer Martin is the executive director of Shop Local Raleigh, a membership-based program administered by the Greater Raleigh Merchants Association to support and advocate for locally owned businesses. We spoke with Martin about what Shop Local Raleigh is doing to help small businesses during the shutdown and how business owners are planning for reopening.
What are some ways Shop Local Raleigh is supporting local businesses during the shutdown?
We’re trying to find ways to help all sectors of our membership. A lot is behind the scenes, amping up our website as far as gift cards, online shopping, coupons, creating lists of who’s still open, who’s offering specials on shipping, what businesses are offering first responder discounts.
For retail, we set up an online shopping cart where businesses can upload all their inventory and sell it. Sales go directly to the business’s bank account and they can ship items to the customer. For retailers that don’t have their own online shopping carts, this was our way to help with online selling. We have a conglomerate collection of local products so consumers can shop on our website and get different products from different stores.
For any other business, whether it be restaurant or retail services, we created a gift card landing page, a platform where businesses can create their own gift cards and sell their own gift cards on our website where the money from the sale directly goes to them, the customer feedback, everything.
Businesses can also upload their own coupons for customers.
We are trying to source personal protective equipment (PPE) for our member businesses. If they’re going to have to wear masks, aprons, if they’re going to need sanitizing products when they reopen, maybe that is how we can make the biggest impact, by paying for that kind of stuff. We want to figure out how much is needed for all of our businesses and whether there is a way for us to purchase in quantity to help save costs.
We put a call out for an out-of-work graphic designer. A couple answered the call and one provided six designs. We picked one and created a T-shirt called “Here For Good.” Underneath it says “Helping NC Small Businesses.” For every shirt sold, the designer, Paul Friedrich, is getting a dollar from the sale. We used a local printer, Raleigh Screen Print, since they are also slow right now. We are looking at maybe using the funds from T-shirt sales as part of a recovery plan to help businesses buy PPE.
Shop Local hosted a drive through Brewgaloo event this weekend. How did that go?
Considering it was pulled together in about seven days, I think it went really well. The community definitely supported it, we sold $30,000 worth of beer and all we did for five hours was just load cars with beer. I think because people knew we weren’t profiting, 100 percent of it was us doing a project to try and help businesses stay alive, they were really receptive to it and felt good doing it. People felt good getting out of house.
(Editor’s note: Brewgaloo, Raleigh’s big annual beer festival, has been rescheduled for August)
Do you have any similar drive-through events planned?
We talked about, if we were to source PPE for our businesses, setting it up like a Brewgaloo format where businesses could drive through and pick it up.
We worked with [downtown church] Ship of Zion. They needed food for the homeless population they serve so we worked with our network to contact businesses to try and help. Donors gave the church money for a small budget to provide the meals and we served as a resource connecting with restaurants we work with to try and get them business that way.
We are looking at how to do a food truck event. So many food trucks have been shut down and a lot are heavily dependent on spring festivals so we are trying to figure out a way [to help them].
Again for beer, we are working with breweries to try to coordinate a way to do a “fire sale” on kegs, so they don’t have to dump them and instead sell them to people at home with kegerators. We are looking at doing an online portal where people can pre-order their kegs and do another drive through pickup.
How are the business owners you talk to feeling about the future?
It depends on what industry you talk to and what day it is.
Estheticians, massage therapists, hair salon stylists are very optimistic because they offer services that we need. The downside right now, though, is a lot of them have zero income and are on a lower comeback plan. Massage therapists, for example, if they used to take their towels and sheets home with them to wash, it’s really not safe for them [to do that now] so they are looking at having to hire professional cleaning services. After being shut down, those are expenses that were not anticipated when they set the budget at the beginning of the year.
Retail is really tough. For a lot of businesses there is an unknown, will they survive until the reopen happens? Rent payments are due. Some people may have deferred payment but the downside of that is payments are going to be due when they come back. So if they have been closed, how are they going to get that money to repay rent right away?
The other unknown is, if [businesses] reopen, will their customers feel safe coming out again? With restaurants, how long before people feel comfortable sitting inside a restaurant again?
Fitness studios are in the last phases of the reopening as well. A lot are doing Zoom and online classes but when they do come back, will they still have to limit class sizes and do extenuating cleaning?
There is optimism in knowing we as a community will wait for them but businesses are going to have shift the way they operate, in a sense that they’re going to have to buy extra stuff to be able to serve their clients in a manner that is safe. Some of the conversations I’m having are what will our new normal look like? None of us know.
Are you finding any silver linings to this situation?
I have been encouraged by a new awareness of the small business community. [It’s not that] there wasn’t an awareness before but there has been an “aha moment” for people, of ‘my neighbors really need me to spend my money with them.’ It’s great we’re seeing people [saying they support local businesses] on social media, but it’s going to have to be putting your money where your ‘like’ is. Make sure you are truly investing local, spending local and if there is a local service or provider that has what you need, try and seek it out as much as you can.
In the long run, if we don’t do things like this as community together, we are going to start to see a very different landscape, one with a lot of empty storefronts. That is the fear we have. We don’t want to see any more businesses lost.
Small businesses are the community supporters, the ones that give to our kids’ school auctions, sponsor teams, give gift cards, donations to first responders. It is so easy to ask them to support our community but now they are asking and they need the community to respond.
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