Online pivot: Pandemic hastened upgrades

·7 min read

Jun. 28—MANKATO — One benefit of the pandemic is that it compelled businesses to pay more attention to their online presence, whether they were starting with virtually none or already had a full-bodied website.

"It showed us the value of having a good website and keeping up with it," said Jenna Odegard, owner of Bumbelou baby and child boutique in Old Town Mankato and New Ulm.

"It's a huge undertaking for a small business to keep a website strong."

Cory Wendt, lead web developer at Lime Valley Advertising in Mankato, saw a rush of clients seeking help during the pandemic.

"It definitely made people think of their websites more than they did in the past. We've had some clients who create a website and then kind of forget about it."

Gina Moorhead had recently taken ownership of Union Market boutique in downtown Mankato when COVID-19 hit. The sudden shutdown led her to quickly focus more on her digital presence and e-commerce, an effort she is still working on.

"Doing e-commerce is really a big project to undertake, and I wasn't sure how I was going to figure out my inventory and shipping. I'm still working on the e-commerce end of it. It's a different point of contact with customers."

Multi-prong approach

Odegard said Bumbelou was in a strong position going into the pandemic because they had a robust website and were accustomed to shipping worldwide. The biggest challenge was the increased demand that came online during the pandemic.

"We added curbside pickup to our website so all our local customers could still shop with us and pick things up.

"We had to build new, larger shipping stations, have more shipping supplies, train staff on software to streamline things. We were already doing it but we got really good at it," Odegard said.

"It was a hard year for everyone but I focus on the positive. It got a lot of people to get used to buying on our website who maybe didn't shop online before. Now that we're open again, I think those people who were using online to shop for the first time are comfortable with it."

Bumbelou also relies heavily on social media. They host a sale on Facebook Live at 1 p.m every Tuesday and Thursday. "We show new things we have and discount some of the last items we have left. It's been a great tool to show people what we're getting in and talk about the product, talk about the fabrics and what each brand brings."

While the live sales generate some income, there have been more important benefits to the live sales.

"We have customers coming in and saying, 'I saw that new thing you showed on Facebook.'"

They've also long used Instagram, including video. "It's a behind-the-scenes tool — things happening with our coworkers, new things coming in. We place as much marketing value on Instagram as we do on Facebook. They are similar but Instagram feels a little more personalized and closer to our customers. We have more one-on-one discussions."

Odegard believes TikTok will grow in importance for business. "It's a powerful tool. It's very entertainment based, but I think there's a lot of marketing power there as well."

Bumbelou has used online tools to build their online presence and e-commerce. "It's easy to teach yourself, and so many of the platforms now are very user friendly."

She remembers owning a different business in 2005 and having to build a website. "I hired a firm to build a website and it cost $15,000 and took four months to build. Now I can build a website of equal quality in four hours at no cost."

A new approach

Wendt said more people flocking to online shopping — be it for shopping, buying groceries or ordering takeout — made businesses face a new landscape.

"It's changing the way they do business. It's not just an online presence but also sales."

She said clients who were already doing e-commerce had a head start, but still had work to do as online sales ramped up.

"A lot of it was making sure their content online was up to date. That was really big. Making sure it was accurate and up to date."

Wendt said that with a host of online options available now, setting up e-commerce is considerably easier and less expensive than it was even a few years ago.

"It's more deciding what you're going to sell online, (calculating) shipping costs, getting a payment system set up. Especially if they haven't done online shopping before, there's a big learning curve."

As a full-service agency, Lime Valley has a range of clients large and small, primarily in agriculture, manufacturing, education, retail, the service industry and nonprofits. While many of them sell products online, some clients had other challenges when in-person events were shut down.

"A big thing we experienced was clients who had in-person conventions each year, either going to them or hosting them. We had one client who suddenly had to figure out how to have their convention online," Wendt said. "It went really well for them and they got great feedback and it really grew them as an organization. It was one of those turning lemons into lemonade things."

Lime Valley also focuses on helping clients optimize the speed of their websites. "If a site takes too long to load, the number of people who will stick around really drops."

Beyond setting up e-commerce, businesses needed to boost their online marketing and search engine optimization to attract and keep customers.

"We have a person who is a Google Partner who's done a lot of training with Google. She helps work with the initial targeting campaign. It can cost (a business) a couple of dollars a day up to whatever you want to go up to," Wendt said.

"You can hyper-focus on who you want to target in those campaigns. If you want people in Mankato or New Ulm or the Twin Cities, you can target on an age range and a lot of other specific niches."

While websites and Google are a mainstay of marketing and selling, the ever-growing number of social media platforms all play a role.

"All social media has been important for quite a while, but during the pandemic, that ramped up a lot. Facebook advertising is a big one to get people engaged," Wendt said.

"For our non-retail customers, it can be harder to get their customers engaged. Social media works good for that. If people are into horse riding, we can advertise horse feed supplements on sites they visit. It's difficult to target people like that otherwise."

A host of details

Moorhead uses a variety of tools, including Shopify and Square, for her ecommerce and payment platform and has relied on friends with shops in the Twin Cities who've helped her navigate the many details of selling online.

"You need to let your customers know you're online. You need to have your shipping all set up. You have to look at your online orders first thing when you come in in the morning and pull that inventory before you open your doors."

She's also learned more about taking better photos of her inventory. "You have to take professional pictures and have everything match (the online description). You need to have the same lighting (for each photo) or it looks off on your site."

Moorhead has beefed up their "About Us" page, adding more bio information and more background on who they are and their ethics, such as ensuring their products are from local producers or that outside wholesalers have a strong giveback ethos.

Union Market also has started more "story sales" on Instagram and Facebook.

While her online presence is still developing, Moorhead said she will continue to improve on it. "We'll focus on building e-commerce. I'm going to beef up our events section so people can come in an learn how to crochet, or illustrate or garden, or take great photos for their website."

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