There is no question the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on businesses. For more than a year, they had to take extra safety and cleaning precautions, contend with regulations limiting the number of customers and at times shut their doors. And they had to meet customer needs while alleviating the fears and resentment of the public.
Still, even with all the trials and hardships, many Fort Smith businesses saw success, during a year when success was not necessarily the norm. A group of University of Arkansas at Fort Smith students spent the last few months studying why. What they learned was that as many in the city are fond of saying, Fort Smithians have grit.
“This pandemic has challenged all leaders to be creative, flexible, and resilient. We came to the determination that the success of the businesses was based on the leadership’s response to the pandemic instead of what industry they were in. The businesses that saw the least decline in sales had leaders that saw opportunity in the challenges, pivoted, and turned the challenges that they faced into positive opportunities for the businesses. The business leaders that were not creative in how they adapted to the challenges of the pandemic ended up either temporarily or permanently closing or having to lay-off employees,” a report submitted by a group of students in the Collaborative Capstone Class at UAFS states.
The capstone class, facilitated by Dr. Kristin Tardif, associate professor lead faculty for organizational leadership and office management technology, and John McIntosh, Fort Smith businessman and advocate for downtown Fort Smith, brings together students from different colleges and disciplines to participate in innovative community projects that work to build the creative economy in Fort Smith and the surrounding region.
The class has been in existence for three years, in which time students have worked on design ideas and plans more for the renovation of the historic New Theater on North 10th St. in Fort Smith, helped develop toolkits for U.S. cities, worked with audits of cities and studied the Fort Smith small business community and the effect COVID had on it.
“Hats off to the university for making this available to the students to be able to interact with the businesses downtown, businesses all over the region. I think it’s a great trend for the university staff. It’s a great trend for the students to be able to see real life and real-life problems and real-life opportunities to learn from the professionals who have been in the business,” McIntosh said.
This semester’s project was titled “A Case Study: The Impact of COVID 19 on Small Business in the Fort Smith Community.” Penny Sangster and Scott David led the project. Both graduated this month from UAFS. Through their research, Sangster and David learned that adaptation was the key to success.
“The ones who were able to adapt what they were doing in order to work inside the confines of the COVID restrictions were the ones that were able to thrive or at least maintain the status quo,” Sangster said.
She cited an example of a downtown business that started an online store to replace their bricks and mortar location for a few weeks in order to keep business going. Once the store could open back up, the online store closed, she added. Another example was of a piercing business that stopped all walk-in traffic and went appointments only.
“They learned they liked that business model and are going to keep it. It just works better for them, and it lets them actually leave on time without working late in order to fit in everyone who comes in,” Sangster said.
David said because he is a data-driven person, he was looking for trends in the study, such as length of time a business had been open, the industry and the size of the business, but found the only common factor he could find in ones that were a success were those where the leaders of the business embraced change. He noted that several restaurants were able to keep their business going at least somewhat strong by incorporating curb-side pickup, using delivery services, changing their menu to better accommodate to-go orders and opening whatever patio or covered patio space they could.
“The big win was to see the students understand from these merchants when you have adversity like this and you want to win, you really have to buckle down. You really have to do the work. You have to be willing to make changes in order to survive. And it was really just an example of the true grit of our merchants,” McIntosh said.
Another key finding the students found was the compassion of the community and how willing those in Fort Smith are to help their neighbors.
“I don’t think a lot of communities have the same reaction that Fort Smith residents do. It’s kind of the perk of it. … (Fort Smith) has the big city amenities with a small town feel. … That’s where the connection came in. People liked going to those stores. They wanted to see them succeed. They wanted to see them get through it,” Sangster said.