Digital Marketing

Local-Virtual Commerce and How It’s Changing the Small Business Landscape

Steve Wolgemuth | Apr 14, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting social distancing have hastened the rise of local-virtual commerce. What does that mean for local businesses?

Living in a COVID-19 World

Almost overnight, life as we once knew it changed. We’re at home. Except for that surreal run to the partially-stocked grocery store, we aren’t going out to restaurants, theaters, or shopping. This quarantine has us all acting differently and quickly adapting to some new behaviors. My team is working remotely, holding meetings online, conducting webinars, and meeting by phone. That walk down the office aisle is now an online chat. We’re discovering just how virtual we can be. I’m working in sweatpants (and a business shirt), which is one of the few perks of this quarantine.

Like everyone, I didn’t expect this, or the love-hate relationship I’ve experienced with my quarantined lifestyle. While I miss real-human interaction, I’ve gotten used to grocery delivery, something I had never tried before. I’ve started using take-out services from different restaurants I used to visit, and I like it. I really, really like it. I’ve discovered how more than half of those in-person work meetings weren’t necessary after all. I’m loving each morning’s realization that I don’t have that miserable commute ahead of me. Most of all, I love my autonomy and how I can leverage technology in new and practical ways.

Earlier this week, I heard a similar story from a co-worker. Trapped at home, she was staring at her empty flower boxes every day. She didn’t want to venture out to a big box hardware store during the quarantine so she looked for a local nursery, but most were closed. But then she discovered a local business called Perfect Pots whose website said, “Call, text, or email for our NEW curbside services.” After chatting online for a few minutes, she learned about their amazing virtual service, took pictures of her pots and texted them and their dimensions to the store. In a very short time, she got a response with proposed arrangements, approved them, and within a few hours, received them on her front doorstep. Next Spring, quarantine or not, she’ll be shopping this way again.

This quarantine has changed us. It’s taught us better ways to engage with local businesses. It’s given savvy businesses the opportunity to quickly pivot, deepen loyalty, and gain new customers. And even though we’ll soon be going back to work and socializing again, we as consumers will never be the same. And that is why local businesses need to change. Now.

The Rise of Local Virtual Businesses

When business as usual is disrupted, it never comes as a surprise. Blockbuster video had plenty of signs that online video streaming would be the next thing. Cab companies didn’t hear about Uber and lost market share in one day. Disruption usually begins slowly, gives warnings, then happens all at once. Such is the case of local-virtual commerce. It was brewing for a few years, but the pandemic ushered in the “all-at-once” timing.

Don’t get me wrong, I was already using some take-out services from restaurants, and my office ordered supplies from our local office supply store online. But I hadn’t really taken full advantage of these types of opportunities. Then, suddenly, COVID-19 made Local-Virtual Commerce my best option.

Suddenly, Perfect Pots is organizing flower pots for customers who aren’t in their store. Now, I’m chatting with businesses I used to visit. I’m managing an order with Facebook Messenger. I ordered groceries from Whole Foods on Amazon and had them in 2 hours. I’ve discovered that overnight, many local establishments are in the delivery business. History will remember March 2020 as the time when local businesses fully embraced local-virtual commerce.

What is Local Virtual Commerce?

In years past, local business took place face-to-face. With the era of Amazon, buyers enjoyed the convenience of ordering online and receiving packages at their door. In many instances, they had to choose between convenience or supporting their local economies.

But under quarantine and sudden necessity, many local businesses are finding ways to use the web to deliver what used to be face-to-face interaction; meeting new customers through chat on their websites, providing purchasing guidance and product awareness in real-time online, and addressing customer service issues that used to take place toe-to-toe at a brick and mortar location.

Then suddenly, local businesses are in the curbside or even home delivery business. Yesterday, I was parked outside a local UPS store when a woman tapped on my car window asking if I was picking up a Panera Bread order. She was now the parking lot concierge, which appeared to be her new full-time position.

Examples of Local Virtual Commerce

Here are a few examples of how local businesses are quickly adapted their business model to cater to these new buying habits:

  • Car dealerships chatting online with customers, showing them virtual inventory, then delivering a car to your driveway for a test drive.
  • Clothing retailers consulting over Zoom about an outfit, playing the role of an online buying concierge.
  • Furniture retailers meeting customers online, then hosting individual video chats to walk through the showroom.
  • Restaurants promoting take-out services, deliveries, curbside pickup, or prepare-at-home meals shipped to your door.

Relevant Advice for Local Businesses

Sadly, many local businesses are cowering instead of adapting during this quarantine. They are waiting for the world to go back to the way they remembered it. For many local businesses, that may not happen. Customers have changed. It’s easy to live in denial when the world suddenly changes. That can be even more true for long-standing established local businesses.

As with every new business shift, it will have its winners and its losers. In this case, the winners will be those local businesses that adapt quickly and effectively to new customer demands of local-virtual commerce. Businesses that:

  • Figure out what would absolutely delight their customers,
  • Do it immediately,
  • Make a big deal about it, and
  • Do it before and do it better than the competition.

Businesses that go all out, reinvent their business models to incorporate local-virtual commerce, and do it soonest and best will have a profound advantage over the slower adapters. A major disruption has just occurred in how local businesses can deliver value. Owners who recognize that and make smart and aggressive changes to delight their audiences will have a tremendous advantage over those that don’t, both during this quarantine and post-COVID-19.