How Americans Have Kept Small Businesses Afloat

COVID-19 has made buying local and supporting local businesses much more important

“Buy Local” has never carried so much weight as it did this past holiday season. COVID-19 restrictions posed a real threat to the survival of many small businesses and restaurants in communities nationwide.

Small businesses typically rely on the holiday season to make up lost revenue from slow months and prepare for the shopping lull that follows New Year’s. With resources becoming increasingly limited, city officials did everything they could to support their businesses, but what really makes a difference is people themselves.

The nationwide lockdown hit hard; indeed, initial surveys predicted the struggles small businesses are now facing. The National Main Street Center conducted a survey from March 25 to April 6, 2020, and it found that “of the nation’s approximately 30 million small businesses, nearly 7.5 million small businesses may be at risk of closing permanently over the coming five months, and 3.5 million are at risk of closure in the next two months.” Fast forward to September, a survey of the Chula Vista area, the second-largest city in the San Diego metropolitan area, reported that 60% of businesses anticipated shutting down permanently. 

In those early months, businesses transitioned to online sales and digital marketing, while restaurants attempted to find creative solutions to make up for lost revenue from dine-in and on-site alcohol sales. New York City, famous for its restaurant scene, was reduced to delivery and takeout, per The New Yorker. Hallmark pizzerias like Roberta’s started selling D.I.Y. meal kits with “balls of oiled pizza dough with tomato sauce and mozzarella.” Over the summer restaurant sales continued to plummet, and in a survey by the New York State Restaurant Association, “90% of restaurants say they won’t be able to make any profit in the next six months without government aid.”

In the midst of the uncertainties, communities stepped up to help their fellow neighbors as much as they could. In New York, major publications encouraged readers to order from mom-and-pop restaurants. The New York Times even wrote a guide on supporting independent eateries. Forbes published a guide on supporting local businesses in March highlighting the “why” as well as the “how.”

Cities across the country launched campaigns to support local businesses during the holiday season. Tallahassee, FL, relaunched their “Love your Local” campaign with extra gusto this year. “For every dollar that you spend at a local store such as Loli and The Bean, $0.67 stays right here in our community and helps support…your neighbors and your friends,” said Leon County Office of Economic Vitality Director Cristina Paredes in the article. In Seattle, the city and community partners launched a “Shop Your Block” holiday campaign that is complete with an interactive map of small businesses in the community.

Small businesses relied on community support this year to make up lost revenue from the year and from the sharp dip in tourism. In Ashland, OR, where tourism is a pillar of the local economy, locally-owned shops are banking on local community support. Nancy and Bob Bestore of Travel Essentials said in an interview with NPR, “We are mom and pop. I’m mom, Bob is pop,” she says. “And we’re here trying to make it and we’re just treading water, really, and we are not alone.”

And it may be working! Some small business owners are seeing an increase in sales following Small Business Saturday in November 2020. Despite record sales for giants like Amazon and Target, community members made an intentional effort to shop local for holiday gifts. Many are seeing this as an opportunity to give back and strengthen the threads of the community. How fitting for the holiday season.

Pooja Bachani Di Giovanna is the assistant director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement & Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University