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Program helps small businesses move online

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Online shopping is now a well-established option, but the coronavirus crisis has accelerated the shift, and pushed many formerly reluctant small businesses to find digital outlets.

In this version of the new normal, an online presence is seen as almost a necessity.

Due to the provincial government’s easing of restrictions, most retail stores were able to reopen their doors just over a week ago – and many are still in the process of getting themselves ready to serve customers under the auspices of new working conditions. In that light, business life is going to look different for everyone moving forward, especially for smaller retail businesses that don’t have a digital presence.

The future of shopping will change now with social distancing in our lives for the foreseeable future, with rules that restrict the number of customers allowed in a store, for instance. Under such circumstances, some experts maintain that having an online presence is key to ensure a business can maintain their customers as they move to work through these current times, but also for the future as the post-pandemic world becomes more unpredictable.

To help businesses that need to make the jump and create or expand their online presence, the Waterloo Region Small Business Centre and local Business Improvement Area (BIA) groups have been working with the Digital Main Street platform. Their goal is to give businesses the tools and assistance they need to get their digital presence up and make the shift to the online world.

The program had been in place for some time until late last year when the funding ran out. However, because of the current pandemic situation, the program was seen as necessary to help businesses continue on.

“With this whole COVID thing, we see a huge need for small businesses to get online, whether that’s a website or an ecommerce site. We made a decision to reopen Digital Main Street for Waterloo Region and we put in place a small team of experts in developing websites and ecommerce sites or helping with a social media strategy,” said Chris Farrell, manager with the Waterloo Region Small Business Centre.

She says any business in the area is able to fill out a form on their website and gain access to assistance in making the transition to give their business the online tools they need to succeed. The program will put business in touch with experts who are able to help them with the problems they face and get them online quicker.

Before the program funding ended last year, Farrell says there were many businesses in St. Jacobs, for example, that participated in the program, but not many from Elmira. She attributes this to businesses simply being wary of taking the next step towards adapting digitally. Now with the pandemic forcing a lockdown, she sees digital as a necessity that businesses will need to use to survive.

“Now we’ve moved into post-COVID and I think digital marketing is seen as more of a necessity rather… than a luxury or something that would be nice to do somewhere down the road. A lot of companies didn’t feel like they wanted to go in that direction, but now we’re seeing COVID and saying like ‘we really need to do this.’I think it’s really necessary in these times to have an online presence and that no matter whether you’re a retail store or a personal service,” said Farrell.

In St. Jacobs, the BIA has worked with local businesses to bring themselves into the digital age through Digital Main Street and their own site. Michael Palmer, a member of the BIA’s board of management, says businesses worked directly with the project to get their online presence up, but they have pushed for their own site to get businesses on the digital map.

He says they are always looking for ways to promote the village and during this time it’s important to get that online destination for customers who come to the tourist area.

There are a number of shops in town that don’t have a website, or they don’t even have social media, added Palmer. This is where a BIA would come in and help them out.

Click here for more information on Digital Main Street .

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