Virtually every organisation, regardless of its size or sector, has faced significant challenges as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown.
In the UK, we are now a month into the lockdown, which started on 23 March. And most people would accept that the end is still some way off – late May or early June seems to be the most realistic time for when Westminster will relax the current social distancing restrictions.
With many weeks of lockdown to come, it is important that we consider the fate of the UK’s small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). After all, these businesses are the lifeblood of the country’s economy; they account for 99.9% of all private sector companies.
In total, there are 5.9 million SMEs across the country – they employ 16.6 million people and have a combined turnover of approximately £2.2 trillion. Their survival ought to be of paramount importance to both the public and private sector.
To that end, it was positive to see the Government unveil its new startup support measures at the beginning of this week. The £1 billion package ought to offer some much-needed breathing room to small businesses – many of whom had been overlooked by the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) as they are loss-making, which so many early stage firms are.
So, what can small businesses do to best ensure they survive the pandemic? And what can we, both as individuals and businesses, do to support them?
- Pivot as often and as much as needed
The media is awash with stories about businesses that have pivoted their product or service to better suit the very unique circumstances we are all living in.
Most notably, this has often involved firms with a B2B2C model shifting and finding ways of reaching consumers directly. Breweries are now selling to people’s homes instead of pubs; grocery businesses that usually supply cafés and restaurants with their ingredients are now making this produce available to the general public.
The underlying point is that if a business has a product or service that it can sell – that is to say, it has stock or resource to deliver – then it must find ways to do so. It might require an online store, payment systems, delivery tracking and a logistics network, but this can be accomplished if the desire is there.
- Cast your net wide
Further to the above, small businesses must think big right now. An SME should not settle for selling only to its usual region or marketplace – the business must cast its net wide and give itself the best possible chance of reaching new customers.
Let’s take an example of how this might work. A dressmaker might have a small high street store full of their hand-crafted garments – they need to find ways to sell these online and keep cash coming in. Yes, the dressmaker could try sell to people in their local area, but with a bigger geographical reach they have a better chance of getting more orders.
Using an online store, or going through channels such as Etsy or eBay, would provide the dressmaker with the right platform(s) to sell their clothes successfully. And, if they can find the logistical support to do so, they could ship the dresses to anywhere in the world without needing to charge a prohibitively high delivery fee.
This is a very specific and simplified case. But it is also extremely common – small, local businesses should think be thinking bigger and consider building a more geographically diverse customer base, thereby giving them an even better chance of boosting sales.
For those who think cross-border ecommerce is beyond them, it’s not. To help prove that, at One World Express we are waiving all of our consulting fees for the next three months (April, May and June 2020). This means we will be providing free advice to businesses who need help understanding how they can get their stock to different markets around the globe.
- Embrace tech
Most organisations have had to embrace tech over the past two months, whether they have wanted to or not. The fact people are now working remotely has made this completely necessary, with communications platforms and file sharing systems put in place to ensure minimal disruption.
For small businesses, now is the time to really consider how they could use readily available (and affordable) digital solutions to improve efficiency or provide a better product.
We speak from experience: after the global financial crash in 2007/8, One World Express invested heavily in its technology. We put software and data at the heart of our service proposition. Rather than relying on the more traditional logistics services that simply help merchants get their goods from A to B, we created technology-led systems to help manage the entire process from sale to delivery.
This change came in the heart of a crisis, but it has improved our business for the better. Small businesses ought to think of what changes they can make now that will not only help in the short-term but also bolster their offering in the long-term.
- Support small businesses
Finally, each of us has a responsibility to support SMEs. From a business perspective, this means paying invoices promptly and, if we can, continuing to use their services as much as possible.
As consumers, we can also rally behind small businesses. When choosing ecommerce businesses to buy from, why not look to smaller, independent names rather than the larger enterprises who likely have the cash reserves to weather the storm.
Dressmakers, breweries, restaurants – all manner of small businesses need our loyalty and support, so it is now down to us to offer it when we can.