Mona Zaharia never thought she’d need to move her local business from a brick-and-mortar store to the internet to remain viable.
"That was until the word coronavirus entered my vocabulary," the Wolseley Wool shop owner told the Free Press Thursday. "Suddenly, everything changed drastically."
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zaharia’s Winnipeg yarn shop was one of several stores that defaulted to a roster of regular customers as a beloved business within the community. But amid evolving lockdowns and restrictions in Manitoba, Zaharia and her business partner Odessa Reichel have had to quickly adapt to make ends meet.
"It was completely nerve-racking — online commerce wasn’t something we ever did or even thought we’d have to do," she said. "Now, it’s all we can do to survive."
Zaharia’s not the only one who has had to make that kind of transition.
That’s why the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce focused its annual small business marketing forum Thursday entirely on how to navigate online commerce and other shifting consumer trends created by the novel coronavirus, inviting industry experts to deliver live webinars to entrepreneurs in the city.
"No matter what anyone tells you, you have to believe that COVID can actually be a good thing for your business," keynote speaker Obby Khan told dozens of virtual attendees. "It all depends on how you look at it and how you adapt during this time."
A prominent member of Manitoba’s business community, Khan launched a website called goodlocal.ca during the pandemic that’s been successful in matching customers with local businesses by placing online orders.
He said entrepreneurs must learn to innovate their businesses and accept that they might have to pivot entirely in order to survive the pandemic.
"Having been injured so many times during my (athletic) career, I’ve definitely learned a thing or two about survival and recovery," said Khan, a former Winnipeg Blue Bomber. "And I can say that whenever you’re backed against the wall, you have to break the thing down to make it work."
Bryan Borzykowski, founder of ALLCAPS Content, focused his presentation on how businesses can appropriately use social media to create connections with customers.
"It’s all about creating good content," he said. "People aren’t the same as they were five years ago — they actually want content that engages with them in a way that’s relevant to them, and that’s also authentic... As a small business owner, you can tap in to that."
Borzykowski, who is a well-known business writer based in Toronto, said local stores must be open to the idea of investing in "producing striking photos, videos or even podcasts and news-type articles" to engage with their customers.
"Ask yourself — am I telling a good story here? And if you aren’t, you might not be doing it right with the customers of today’s market who are only shopping online," he said.
Telling stories on social media is not just about engagement, said Darryl Stewart, a partner-owner at Winnipeg-based Chaeban Ice Cream. "Now, banks actually look at how many followers you have before helping you out," he said.
"It’s an important piece of the puzzle in navigating your business — using social media well and effectively so that your store can be something people have knowledge about before even walking in."
That’s why Chamber president Loren Remillard told the Free Press he’s pleased to have focused the event on how to "handle all these unprecedented changes and pivots to online commerce."
The latest updates on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.
In addition to keynote presentations, attendees also had a chance to connect and network with other business owners in the city through interactive virtual booths set up by the Chamber.
"But this year, more than networking," said Remillard, "we also wanted our members to have the knowledge to try to push themselves to do as much as they can during the holiday season.
"So many of them are struggling and continue to be in flux."
Temur Durrani Reporter
Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for this Free Press reporting position comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
The province is providing $1.5 million to the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce to help struggling small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s funding that will help the evolving needs of businesses, and accelerate and amplify the efforts made by the business community during this unprecedented time,” said Economic Development and Training Minister Ralph Eichler, announcing the funding at a forum held by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce Thursday.
“Manitoba’s local businesses are finding many creative and innovative ways to provide their services and keep Manitobans safe,” said Eichler, adding the funding is aimed to help retailers generate revenue during this year’s holiday shopping season.
Chamber president Chuck Davidson said he’s “thrilled” at the idea that the funding can be used in some way for businesses to make up for their pandemic losses.
“These funds are truly going to have a direct impact on all our members, supporting a variety of our local campaigns and initiatives, so that they can immediately be helped right now when they need it most,” he said.
The funding is the first project rolled out of the $50 million that the province promised on Nov. 10 to help support long-term business growth and recovery across Manitoba
Davidson told the Free Press “at least one-third” of the funding will also go towards goodlocal.ca, a Winnipeg-based website that has been successful in matching customers with local businesses by placing online orders.
“I couldn’t be more grateful to the government,” said Obby Khan, a prominent member of the local business community who created the website. “It’s the most special thing to me to know that I can continue supporting this project with this help and scale us up to do more important work.”
The funding will allow GoodLocal to support more vendors, makers and farmers while improving their customer interface to enhance sales, said Khan.
“Now Manitobans can stay home, stay safe and grow the local economy all while supporting their own neighbours,” said Khan.