The Business Plan with Bill Reagan: Post pandemic consumer trends

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The Business Plan with Bill Reagan: Post pandemic consumer trends
Bill Reagan, who has served as executive director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center for the last 25 years, is set to retire on Jan. 31.
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Hope springs eternal. All the indicators seem to be headed in the right direction and social distancing restrictions are scaling back.

Many of us have begun taking small steps toward the lifestyle we experienced – and perhaps took for granted – 15 long months ago. We’re now confronting personal decisions about our own comfort zones in public settings. While we’re eager for our lives to return to normal, we rationally acknowledge things will not be exactly the same.

As mentioned in a previous column, Alexandria SBDC has begun a series of webinars on the “Fundamentals of Post Pandemic Success.” The first session last week, “The Future of Customers and Consumer Behavior,” described consumer habits acquired during the pandemic and highlighted some of the adjustments business owners must consider. Presenters shared both academic research and practical hands-on experience.

George Mason University Professor Gautham Vadakkepatt illustrated how digital is the new normal. Not only is it now integral to our daily business interactions and home entertainment, but even Ganny and Pop-pop are comfortable digitally connecting with the grandkids. Pandemic-imposed digital fluency is here to stay, and it necessitates businesses stepping up to that reality to interface with customers of all ages and types.

During the pandemic, convenience became the crucial deciding factor in our search for goods and services. Businesses have gone beyond online ordering and curbside pickup to compete on who’s providing convenience, value and superior attention to a broad range of customer preferences. Vadakkepatt pointed out that the post-pandemic economy has raised the customer experience bar, and that businesses must substantially up their game.

He also described customer expectations around health, safety, work/ life balance, employer treatment of their employees and connections to nature. Post-pandemic customers also prefer more transparency so they know who they’re buying from and how that business approaches sustainability, social change and service to the community.

Victoria Vergason, owner of The Hour, an Alexandria store celebrating the art of the cocktail, presented her experiences and successes concentrating her efforts on expanding her store’s website and social media presence. In addition to her Old Town store, Vergason years ago started a partnership with Neiman Marcus and opened boutiques in several of their stores. She also launched TheHourShop.com.

While Vergason had already begun greater emphasis on online sales, the pandemic prompted her to beef up the website as the way of the future. Her presentation described approaches to the challenges of shipping, photographing products and posting them on her website and onto Pinterest Boards.

She also shared tips on working with Shopify, Instagram and Facebook, and talked about engaging experts for areas not in her comfort zone. Vergason detailed how she’s settled into the routine of online sales, and has seen an astounding increase in online customers and sales vs. in store.

The next session of the series will be “Digital Tools and Technology for the Future” at the end of May. Recordings of past sessions and registration links for upcoming programs can be found under Workshops at https://alexandriasbdc.org/

The writer is executive director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

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