PHOTO BY SARA SHEIKH / THE SPUTNIK PHOTOGRAPHY
The stock market took one of the worst crashes since the Great Depression in March 2020.
This event, and the recession following it, led to many businesses having difficulty staying afloat–or even closing altogether.
There has been financial help from the government, many small businesses have turned to another source to help adapt to an online world: Digital Service Squads.
Launched in 2018, the Digital Main Street program is designed to help main street businesses adapt to an online landscape. It is a grant program that is administered to Business Improvement Areas (BIA) to help their main street businesses adapt to a world where more and more people are shopping online.
Marlise Nishikihama, Marketing and Project Manager for the Ontario BIA Association (OBIAA), explains that because it is very noticeable when downtown businesses close, this grant program is targeting them specifically in an attempt to create a main street in a virtual sense.
Digital Service Squads are the feet-on-the-ground aspect of Digital Main Street. These squads consist of business professionals and students, who have expertise in e-commerce, social media marketing, tech, and other aspects that could “help businesses enhance their digital technologies,” said Mae Legg, Senior Small Business Consultant for the Brantford-Brant Business Resource Enterprise Centre (BRC).
Legg adds that during COVID, the role of the BRC has not changed, but the businesses they interact with have changed in terms of how they operate and what their needs are. Before the pandemic, squads would go door-to-door, meeting with business owners and guiding them through the process of developing their online presence.
Now, much like everyone else, they have phone and zoom calls.
“Most of the businesses realize that it’s a necessity,” said Nishikihama on the necessity of an online presence.
Many small businesses have found it difficult to survive this pandemic not only because of the initial shutdown and government guidelines, but also because many customers have started relying on online shopping and getting products delivered, a service that many small businesses were previously not able to provide.
When getting assistance from the Digital Main Street Program and Digital Service Squads, a business first gets assessed to see the strength of their online presence, and where they can improve.
For example, many businesses may already have a website, but lack other elements of a strong online presence such as e-commerce, or a “Google My Business” profile. Other businesses may be just beginning to go online, and need help navigating everything from social media to developing a website.
Originally, the program had ended in March of 2020, but with the pandemic and resulting economic downfall, it was extended for another year. Although the program is supposed to end in March 2021, many members of the program hope it will get an extension so that small businesses can have every opportunity to survive through this pandemic and be better prepared for a post-pandemic future.
Whatever the future of Digital Main Street and the Digital Service Squads, the importance of being able to be prepared for and adapt quickly to changes is a goal for small businesses and those that help them such as the BRC and OBIAA. If anything, the pandemic has emphasized the importance of this even more.
“Our small businesses need us,” said Legg.
With the economic struggles this pandemic has brought, shopping local is now more important than ever.