Despite a widespread shift to online shopping, nearly 90 percent of U.S. commerce takes place in the physical world. However, this rapidly changed when the U.S. shelter in place order was enacted to curb the spread of the pandemic in 2020, forcing small businesses to close their doors and pivot to an online business model. In fact, a study by Cisco and IDC found that over 70% of small businesses accelerated digitization efforts in 2020, and that digitized small businesses generate multiple times more sales to aid their recovery.

As the co-founder of The Only Roses, a newly digitized floral business, I wanted to share some insights with other small business owners going through a similar experience transitioning online, along with tips on how to remain successful and meet the demand for a digital future.

Less Face-to-Face Interactions Means More Online Spending For Consumers

Contactless and digital offerings are only getting increasingly more popular and small businesses need to invest in a digital presence if they want to stay afloat. While brick-and-mortar stores struggled in 2020, online retail businesses experienced a huge increase in demand. According to McKinsey’s U.S. consumer-sentiment survey, there has been a 40% net increase in consumers’ intent to spend online even after the COVID-19 crisis is behind them.

Clearly, customers have grown accustomed to this new way of life and the challenge we are facing now is how to sustain these high levels of digital and e-commerce growth over the coming years. Consumers are reallocating discretionary spending to online shopping because of the decrease in dining out, vacations, celebrations, and other in-person activities that used to be commonplace. Lack of face-to-face events can be damaging to our floral business because flowers are usually given at holidays, celebrations, and other milestones, which have now given way to a new form of celebrating at a distance. As customers gravitate toward online products and gifts in order to connect with people and celebrate virtually, it became apparent that we needed to expand our e-commerce capabilities in order to survive.

While there is still an opportunity for brick-and-mortar stores to operate at a limited capacity, transitioning online will keep businesses one step ahead. At The Only Roses, we made the decision early last year to invest in an e-commerce business model, and this accelerated us faster than we expected. When the lockdown started in March 2020, we were concerned about how this would affect some of our biggest sales days, like Mother’s Day. However, we made the decision to invest 10% of the company’s revenue so that we could launch our new website before Black Friday. We believe our decision to quickly move our business operations online is what enabled us to grow four times in the first half of 2020. It also made us recognize the convenience of working with digital partners, such as Next Insurance, an insurance provider for small businesses, and Intuit Quickbooks, an accounting software service, in order to operate smoothly even in an online environment.

We also recognized that social networks are rapidly becoming more important for product search and e-commerce, so we invested in paid social strategies, helping us to reach new customers. Once people start engaging with social posts by liking, commenting, and sharing, the content is exposed to new audiences – their friends and followers. In fact, according to Hootsuite, about half of the world’s population is using social media platforms and 60 percent of Instagram users say they discover new products on the platform.

As we implemented paid social strategies for The Only Roses, we focused on return on ad spend, a marketing metric used to measure the amount of revenue a business earns for each dollar it spends on advertising. When it comes to scaling and expanding to a digital platform, this is a critical point to ensure your business has the ability to grow. In addition, we partnered with other brands to cross-promote and extend our audience reach. For example, we participated in Next Insurance’s small business gift guide this past holiday season to promote our products along with other small business owners going through the same thing. This guide was shared on Twitter from all of the featured businesses, exposing us to a substantial amount of new potential customers. We also partnered with several jewelry companies to cross-promote each other around Valentine’s day, one of our biggest days of the year.

Customer Service Is Not Going Away, It’s Going Digital

In-person customer interactions are dwindling, yet personalized customer service has never been more important because consumers want businesses to help them navigate the pandemic safely and are seeking comfort and connection more than ever before.

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, among all customers, 73% point to customer experience as an important factor in their purchasing decisions, just behind the price and product quality, and that nearly 80% of American consumers point to speed, convenience, knowledgeable help, and friendly service as the most important elements of a positive customer experience.

It’s easy to feel like giving up on establishing meaningful connections with customers without the ease of in-person interactions, but the truth is that quality customer service is still very necessary, and achievable, with the help of a strong digital presence and high-quality customer service.

A positive customer experience requires reliable technology and a user-friendly web design. For example, we implemented an online chatbot right after Mother’s Day allowing us to offer customers 24/7 support that moves customers through the sales funnel and increases engagement. Even digitally, consumers want to feel like they are engaging with someone that can help them with any questions and understand their needs in real-time.

A customer’s journey is becoming increasingly digital in the face of the pandemic and beyond, so their virtual experience matters as much as in-person interactions and as a result, small business owners must realize the importance of digital tools in customer relationships and utilize them.

While investing in digital is critical for the long-term success of small businesses, having a network of supportive customers, employees, and partners goes a long way. The pandemic upended small businesses throughout the U.S. but it’s also shown the amount of kindness and support customers are willing to give. Now is the best time to cultivate meaningful relationships with consumers anywhere, even digitally.