For some businesses in Mass., the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed changes for the better

In 2020, the store had its best year yet. And 2021 was even better.

“COVID has changed everything in our store,” Titcomb said. “It made us a better company by far.”

The pandemic has crushed many small businesses, as health issues, supply chain issues and labor shortages converge. But some have been able to adapt and thrive. They have upgraded technologies and expanded online offerings. They sought out new customers and launched new lines of business. Others, like Titcomb, saw an opportunity and ran with it.

The pandemic didn’t kill them, it made them stronger.

For nearly two years, there has been a “global scramble” as companies try to stay afloat, said Sridhar Tayur, professor of operations management at Carnegie Mellon University. And that crisis mindset has sparked changes that could have a lasting impact. Companies are tracking online customer orders like they never have for in-person sales, he said. Operations are automated and simplified.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve had this much need at least in the last 20 or 30 years.”

Lightyear Strategies, a Boston marketing firm, has witnessed the change in its clients. At first, the mindset seemed like “the end of the world…let’s get rid of the marketing,” said chief executive Nima Olumi. But a few months later, customers realized they needed help adjusting to a changed and largely virtual world.

A New York property management company asked Lightyear to figure out how to email thousands of residents about the new disinfection measures. Boston hospitals wanted videos educating patients on safety protocols.

At the same time, Olumi realized he needed to focus rather than try to be a jack-of-all-trades “yes”. Today, his monthly recurring income is more than 10 times what it was in 2019.

“If you’re making hot dogs,” he said, “stay making hot dogs.”

For other business owners, however, the pandemic was a good time to diversify. Runamok Maple in Fairfax, Vermont, has seen its online syrup sales soar, while restaurant and hotel sales have plummeted. The company therefore decided to launch Sparkling Syrup, infused with edible pearlescent mica, to “bring some joy,” says co-owner Eric Sorkin. And it was a huge success. “All the working dads were home now, and what does a working dad know how to do?” he said. “They cook breakfast.”

Ellen Speers, manager of the Titcomb Bookstore in Sandwich on Cape Cod, moves some books from the store’s upper level downstairs.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

At Copper Dog Books in Beverly, mastering online ordering when no one wanted to shop in person opened the door to shipping gift sets, including a monthly subscription with two sci-fi novels, a snack and a small item like a newspaper or a key chain. . Scenic Roots Garden Center in Sandwich started a virtual landscape design business and began selling produce from a nearby farm. Both companies have recorded record sales over the past two years.

The adoption of new technologies has been a game-changer for many businesses. In response to COVID restrictions, the owner of a nautical jewelry company in washington state set scannable QR codes next to each necklace and bracelet in its storefront, directing shoppers who couldn’t enter to the items on its website. A business consultancy in Utah began digitizing its operations when the world went online, including the use of artificial intelligence to help predict staff turnover, a major challenge during the pandemic. Financial services firms have turned to facial recognition technology from Bedford’s biometric software provider Aware to offer mobile customers a more secure way to verify their accounts.

Many companies have embarked on “digital transformation” during the pandemic, said Mark Tina, vice president of sales for Verizon Business in the eastern United States. New high-speed internet services not only have more capabilities than older technologies, they are also cheaper, he said, which is critical for businesses struggling to survive.

When workers stopped entering their offices, Quincy-based Dependable Cleaners has seen business drop to a fraction of what it was, prompting the dry cleaner to look for ways to become more efficient, operations manager Carlyn Parker said. It’s moved to a Verizon service that assigns a corporate number to ring multiple mobile devices and desk phones, and it’s added a texting feature to its bi-weekly pickup and delivery service.

Now, instead of visiting each door-to-door delivery customer twice a week, drivers only visit when requested, allowing the company to add more customers without more drivers. Before Omicron pushed companies to push back office reopening dates, Dependable Cleaners was back up to 80% of pre-pandemic levels.

“We’re in the fourth generation,” said Parker, whose grandparents founded the company. “We are here to stay.”

Finding new customers has also been a lifeline. When travel stopped in March 2020, revenues fell to “almost zero” for Without pod, a Boston company that ships luggage for travelers. But he soon began to stress that using his services meant less human contact, chief executive Aaron Kirley said. No more queuing at the airport to check baggage, no more congregating with the masses at the baggage carousel. The company also has partnered with moving companies to reach the wave of digital nomads who could suddenly work wherever they wanted – and probably didn’t have room in their car for all their stuff. And when people complained that they couldn’t print shipping labels anymore because they weren’t at work, LugLess developed digital labels.

By fall 2020, activity had tripled from its pre-pandemic peak, then tripled again last year.

“It kind of forced us to open our eyes and consider new opportunities,” Kirley said.

Some of the new opportunities revealed during the pandemic don’t just increase revenue. They also save lives.

A shelf of sold books with customers’ names has been set up at the main entrance to Titcomb’s bookstore for easy pick-up. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Groups Recover Together, a Burlington-based addiction treatment provider, has nearly doubled the number of people it serves across the country since it began offering virtual sessions. Before COVID, people battling opioid abuse had to attend in-person group therapy because of the medications provided, executive director Colleen Nicewicz said.

But when that requirement was waived during the shutdown, Groups Recover Together began hosting sessions on Zoom, then through a new app. The organization now reaches more than 10,000 people a week, nearly a third of whom live in counties without a physical site. Opioid addiction is rampant in rural areas, Nicewicz said; in an Indiana county with a population of just 10,000, Groups Recover serves one in every 200 residents, even without a clinic.

Crucially, the data shows that virtual group therapy is just as effective at stopping people from using drugs. in the form of in-person sessions, she said. At a time when the opioid epidemic is worse than ever – overdose deaths pink almost 29 percent in the 12 months ending in April 2021 compared to the previous year — reaching more people is key, said Nicewicz, who hopes virtual therapy will become a permanent offer.

“We really filled an unmet need,” she said.


Katie Johnston can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.

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