Local businesses were among the first casualties of the novel coronavirus. Now, with help from local supporters, the Downtown Frederick Partnership hopes to give struggling business owners a path to a new normal.

Pulling support from sponsors including the Delaplaine Foundation and the Helen J. Serini Foundation, among others, the partnership organized a series of webinars for 32 local businesses called the Small Business Resiliency Series.

Touching on everything from new health code standards and insurance regulations to strategies to change business models, the series also hosts regular, socially-distanced meetings among smaller groups or “cohorts” of participating businesses to discuss lessons learned and share ideas, said Leeann Crews, the marketing and promotion manager for the partnership.

“Each cohort also has a coach that they can ask questions of after each webinar and relate key points back to their own businesses. There is also a professional support network of about 20 local professionals offering services where the partnership is covering the cost of professionals/consultants to give the businesses the ability to get the professionals in for free consultations,” Crews said.

The network of professionals include experts on the sanitation of work spaces, bookkeeping experts and advisers who can help businesses choose an e-commerce platform for online sales appropriate for the businesses’ needs.

Many participating businesses found particular value in the lessons focused on engaging in e-commerce. In a survey of 46 Frederick businesses, about 55 percent told the partnership they offered some sort of option for online sales. But of those businesses that offered the option, 62 percent said online sales accounted for zero percent of their overall sales before the onset of the virus, according to partnership data.

A followup survey determined that, following the advent of COVID-19, only 22 percent of businesses with online sales capabilities weren’t seeing any sales on the platform, versus 39 percent of businesses that said online sales made up 76 to 100 percent of their sales, the data states.

Gillian Berluti, the manager of Firestone’s Market on Market, said she has found great benefit from the cohort meetings set up by the series, saying she and other small business owners didn’t often sit down together to talk shop before the pandemic.

“A lot of our local businesses are responding in interesting and unique ways. We in the Market, for example, have gotten into online ordering, which is something new to us, so we’re looking for new ideas and adjustments that we can make,” Berluti said.

Firestone’s was already setting up an online sales platform when COVID-19 hit, but the series arrived just in time to help with some of the more complicated specifics of implementing such a platform.

“By the time we got it up [and] running in early June, we had a brand-new system that incorporated an online platform … but now there are things that we want to expand on and improve on that I would need a professional’s help with,” Berluti said, adding the resiliency series’ access to professional consultants would be an immense help in solidifying the new business model.

Yet another service provided by the resiliency series was designed to provide more “hands-on” assistance to series participants. The “small business lending library,” as the partnership has dubbed it, is a collection of packages that program participants can “rent” for three days each, with each package being full of tools aimed at addressing a specific goal.

A simple toolkit was available for sprucing up window displays, while another package was full of textbooks to improve a business’s bookkeeping and financial accounting. There was even a package with a full photo studio, complete with a digital camera, backdrop and tripod, to help businesses create a photo library of their products or inventory for when their online sales platform is operational.

Taken together, the webinars, regular cohort meetings, professional adviser network and the small business lending library were the Downtown Frederick Partnership’s best effort to help businesses adjust to the altered economy and state of sales, said Kara Norman, the partnership’s executive director.

“The idea was to provide the whole support system that you would need to get your business up to speed … it’s not unlimited, but it should be enough to get you going in the direction you want to go,” Norman said.

Given the nature of the series, the partnership was at no loss for supporters. Samantha Price, public relations and corporate partnerships manager for the Sandy Spring Bank, said the bank was more than happy to join the larger group of backers, calling small businesses “the lifeblood of our economy.”

For her part, Berluti said she was thankful to the partnership, its local supporters and the professionals taking part in the series for helping to give her and her fellow local business leaders a leg up during a time of great upheaval.

”The number one lesson that I’ve gotten out of this is that there’s no going back to the way we were doing business before COVID,” Berluti said. “So now it’s just a matter of adjusting our expectations and moving forward in this new business climate.”

Follow Jeremy Arias on Twitter: @Jarias_Prime.

Jeremy Arias is the Frederick city and government reporter for The Frederick News-Post.

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