The COVID-19 pandemic sent consumers into lockdown and shuttered brick-and-mortar stores for a relatively brief period. Many jurisdictions maintained stay-at-home orders for just a few months over the spring and summer of 2020. But the pandemic’s impact on the retail sector may have been permanent.
Retail was already swinging decisively toward e-commerce, and the pandemic helped accelerate that trend, possibly forever. Most directly, consumers were forced to spend more time shopping remotely in early 2020, and brick-and-mortar operations found it difficult to pay the bills. The pandemic also had indirect consequences for retail. With more people working from home, for example, fewer people ran errands during their commutes. This trend persisted even when stay-at-home orders were lifted, and retail operations that depended on foot traffic or off-highway access continued to suffer, to the benefit of e-retail.
One segment of the retail sector has resisted the trend toward e-commerce, and is thriving in many regions. Smaller, local businesses have rebounded more quickly than large brick-and-mortar operations. In some cases, this comes down to simple economics: a large chain retailer might close a dozen locations as a cost-saving measure, but a small business must find a way through difficult times or shut down altogether.
But local businesses have at least one significant advantage over larger retailers: their roots in the local community. In the wake of the pandemic, consumers took heart in re-establishing their mutual ties by shopping locally. Local businesses who made the best use of this sentiment did so not because they offered by-the-books customer service. They thrived because they created a compelling customer experience that no online retailer could match. In doing so, they offered a model of retail success that companies of any size can learn from.