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Customer experience and social distancing

Like most of us, I’m sitting at home. The few times I do get out is to walk my dog or to do a quick grocery run. During my trips I’ve noticed how the businesses in my neighbourhood have been adapting to social distancing. Small businesses, in particular, have had to adapt. These businesses are such an integral part of any community, but usually don’t have the runway to ride things out like bigger brands.

I’ve grouped together some of my favourite examples of how (mostly) small businesses in my neighbourhood are adapting.

New ways to transact

Most businesses have adopted contactless payments if they weren’t already using them. And any business that had setting up a Shopify account or enabling Squarespace ecommerce on a to-do list has prioritized that task. But some businesses are taking a page from how they might normally interact in B2B relationships with suppliers or wholesale clients and applying it to consumers. Black Lab Brewing (there’s definitely an alcohol bias in this post) lets customers email their order, receive an invoice, and pay with peer-to-peer transfer or other payment gateway. After payment, the order is personally delivered. At first glance, it seems like it’s not a user-friendly approach. But in this context each step in the process is a chance to create new ties with the consumer by slowing things down.

In-store experience

Loblaws’ brand, No Frills has adapted their bright yellow branding to signage encouraging the appropriate distance between shoppers. Other businesses like the Spirit of York Distillery are taking the in-store experience outside. People looking for something strong for their bar, or something even stronger for their hands, line up behind a makeshift takeout widow with a clear plastic barrier. Signs telling us to take care of each other, employees showing the way, and personal window service are all connection points with businesses we don’t always get.

Product diversification

We’ve seen automakers adapt their assembly lines to make ventilators and fashion companies start making masks, but local businesses are adapting too. The most obvious are craft distilleries and microbreweries that have added hand sanitizer to their menu. But my favourite are businesses that have turned their products into content. Arvo, my local coffee shop, is offering masterclasses on Instagram. Down the street a surf shop does daily meditation over Zoom. Content like this offers another touchpoint to maintain awareness, but it’s also a bit surprising. Being unpredictable and unexpected is part of a great customer experience, even during social distancing.

Accelerated adaptation

For neighbourhood businesses, foot traffic is essential. Physically giving the customer your product or service is part of the point of difference. Restaurants, pubs, breweries, and more are now increasingly relying on third-parties like Uber Eats or Skip the Dishes to handle the delivery to consumers. This means restaurants have adapted their menu to dishes that travel well. Bars and pubs are taking advantage of new legislative changes in Ontario that let them sell alcohol to-go. The speed of this innovation can bring a lot of benefits, some likely to last long after these measures end. But there is risk that you can push an idea out before it’s ready for prime time. The use of third-parties can also limit your control of the customer experience. More on that here.

Small businesses are an essential part of a city and the neighbourhoods within (I’m a Jane Jacobs fan). I’m amazed by the creativity and resilience displayed by the businesses around me. Necessity fuels innovation, and I think some of the changes we see now will stick long after we’re back to normal. Until then, support your small businesses and respect what we need to do to keep us all healthy and safe.

Podcast episode

Listen to the companion Comment Card podcast episode about this post.