A group of Fort Smith small business owners told participants in the Third Annual Invest Fort Smith economic summit that social media presence, online platforms and community support is the key to business survival during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The economic summit, presented Thursday (Nov. 19) by 64.6 Downtown in partnership with University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and Fort Smith Public School’s Peak Innovation Center during Global Entrepreneurship Week.
This year’s summit is designed with technology in mind to reach a broader audience with the theme of Awakening the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem, said Talicia Richardson, 64.6 Downtown executive director. All sessions were held via Zoom and Facebook live to allow more people to attend during the pandemic. Sessions also were recorded and will be available on Youtube.
Fort Smith entrepreneurs Beth Price, Aaron Price, Chris Chaney and Quentin Willard were the panelists for the first session — optimizing online presence to stay relevant amid a global pandemic. Each of the panelists saw their business change greatly when the pandemic led the state to close various businesses in March as a safety precaution.
Beth Price took her business, Belle Starr Antiques and Vintage Market, online for two months during the pandemic, something that was a little daunting for an antique market.
“You don’t usually think about vintage and antiques and innovative technology together,” Price said, admitting she had not utilized an online sales platform prior to March.
But she pivoted when the pandemic struck Arkansas, set up her website, opened a Shopify online store and offered curbside pick-up for customers in order to keep her market running. She also had to find a way for her vendors to keep new merchandise in the shop in order to reach customers.
“We tried a lot of online platforms and kept trying until we found something that worked for us,” said Aaron Price, who helps his wife, Beth, with the antique market and is also the owner and founder of Craftsman James Woodworking.
Chaney, owner of Valley Cuts Barbershop in Fort Smith, and Willard, owner of Fort Smith Brewing Co., faced different challenges but also found the answer via online platforms. Chaney started Shopify online shops for Valley Cuts Clothing and Cisterna Clothing. He also wrote a book, “The Business of Hair, an Entrepreneurs’ Perspective,” now available on Amazon. Rather than another book on how to cut hair, Chaney’s offering is “designed to be a blueprint for success in the ‘Business of Hair,’” his Facebook page states.
“Going into March, we were on an upward projection. Things were looking good. Then we had to shut down. For a guy with ADD (attention deficit disorder), not being busy isn’t a good thing. So I started writing a book,” Chaney said.
Along with writing a book and opening online clothing stores, Chaney worked to find a way to make sure the barbers in his shop survived the pandemic as well.
“The pandemic showed how flawed the system is for self-employed businesses. I worked with my people so that in the future, if this happens again, they can go through regular unemployment instead of the pandemic unemployment process,” Chaney said.
Because bars were closed in March for a couple of months, Willard also had to find another way to reach people. He did this through home delivery and finding a way to utilize Fort Smith Brewing Co.’s outdoor space.
“We put in a (drive-in) cinema because that is something we noticed all the way through October is that is one thing they are not going to get rid of, outdoor space. Arkansas is going to allow us to do outdoors. Also delivery. We are really banking on those two legislative acts that allows us to reach customers at their home and also to reach them in big open outdoor spaces, ” Willard said. “Our whole business use to be to get them inside at our location has now shifted to reaching them where they are at.”
Willard said most of their business now is online. Customers can order online with free delivery to their home or business and they can take their drinks to the parking lot, thanks in part to the historic district at Chaffee Crossing being designated an entertainment district in Fort Smith.
“Everything is outside our doors right now, and that is really the direction we are pushing things, at least through the duration of this COVID … because we don’t want this to happen again,” Willard said.
All the panelists agreed the key to their success during these trying times is a strong social media presence.
“The future is social media,” Chaney said.
He said businesses all compete for “real estate” in the mind of people everywhere. They key to getting a space in those minds comes from a strong social media presence. Another key to survival before, during and after the pandemic, is working together, Willard said.
“Our community is only as strong as each other,” he said, noting that business owners need to be better about asking questions of each other, asking for help, helping others and working together.
“Collaboration is our most important asset,” he said.
He added that the community needs to focus on local businesses. Doing so will allow them to grow and be able to afford the kinds of salaries that will keep Fort Smith graduates in Fort Smith.