Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Leslie Collins met face-to-face with Scranton business owners.
Once the businesses shut down following the governor’s order to close non-essential businesses, Collins, executive director of Scranton Tomorrow, wanted ways to stay in touch and help merchants find new strategies for maintaining at least part of their business and also help them when they reopen.
“The entire business community was really in a state of flux,” said Collins, who heads the economic and community development organization, a 501©(3) nonprofit. “We needed a way to continue the camaraderie.”
Sitting at her kitchen counter — her office during the shutdown — Collins came up with the Counter Conversations, a series of Zoom meetings she started in early April. The online meetings, which drew more than 30 participants to the first two sessions, provided business owners opportunity to talk about new strategies for maintaining and surviving during the crippling shutdown.
“It came up that some business-to-business relationships have been growing,” Collins said.
The meetings have helped some merchants employ technology and conduct business online — even those who previously did no business online — and gave them the tools to expand their businesses for when they could fully reopen.
“Eateries are doing curbside pickup and delivery, retailers utilizing e-commerce, utilizing and also working on some e-gift card programs,” Collins said last month. “Yoga studios and health-related businesses are offering Facebook sessions free to customers, operating out of their homes instead of in studios. We’re seeing a lot of creating.”
Collins also brought funding and marketing experts to the table to provide pro bono advice on moving ahead.
Beyond brick and mortar
Kara Schermerhorn and Lynn Farrell, co-owners of the Pink Pedal clothing boutique in the Ritz Building on Wyoming Avenue, had no online presence.
“We’re a relatively new business,” Schermerhorn said. “We’re going on our second year.”
She said they never planned to go online because they considered themselves a brick-and-mortar business. Besides, they were not technologically savvy.
Schermerhorn said Aaron and Sarah McNany of Veloce bike shop on Franklin Avenue set up Pink Pedal’s initial website.
“It was only natural that when we wanted to develop our website (more), we went back to them,” Schermerhorn said.
They took photos of their seasonal clothing lines and put them on the website.
“It’s the best thing to come out of COVID-19,” she said. “As a small business online, we are going to grow into a full website. It’s good because a lot of our clientele are college students.”
Aaron McNany said his business also benefited from the Counter Conversations.
“It was definitely helpful to have the conversation,” he said. “We discussed how gift cards are a good strategy to maintain cash flow, even though people aren’t coming out to shop.”
He said his business adapted its bicycle services to online.
“We have delivered some bikes,”McNany said. “Primarily, people are needing their bikes to be serviced and we take it back to them.”
Without customers coming to the shop, though, it has been difficult to sell his products, he said.
“We usually start doing group rides this time of year,” he added. “That won’t be happening this year.”
The good part about the Counter Conversations is that it is helping businesses adapt to a difficult situation, he said.
“Businesses are trying to find ways to adapt that it could use when things get back to normal,” McNany said.
Michael Melcher, owner of the Black Box Café, and his wife, Sheri, who owns the Creative and Performing Arts Academy of NEPA (CaPAA), both in the Ritz Building, are grateful for Scranton Tomorrow for keeping the businesses connected, Michael Melcher said.
“The beauty of this is they do this all the time,” he said. “Leslie and her crew, they do it every day. We’re able to share our frustrations.”
He said it was helpful to find out what everyone was having success with while keeping an eye out for when they can reopen.
While the cafe was in the middle of a restoration when the shutdown occurred, the theater company stayed ahead of the curve by conducting online voice and acting classes for its children’s theater group.
“We’ve been at this heading into two months now,” he said. “With our business model, we’re making sure we can transition everything.”
He said the theater group recently finished its production of “Matilda,” voted “NEPA’s Best Theater Production of 2019 by AccessNEPA.com.
“We were preparing for our new production,” Melcher said.
While they are moving ahead preparing for new productions, CaPAA has suspended payments for a lot of its programming because families are going through a difficult economic time.
CaPAA also was doing a family game night online during the shutdown.
“The kids are really struggling through this,” Melcher said. “They had a great social life here. They are more than just customers, they’re family.”
“The biggest part that was most helpful is the variety of businesses that are affected and how they can work together,” said Tony Bartocci, president of Posture Interactive, a web/graphic design and marketing company on Lackawanna Avenue. “I have a web development company. I’m differently impacted than a salon or restaurant that can’t operate.”
His company has been fortunate because he and employees can do what they do from anywhere, but he is helping some of the other businesses to build an online presence.
Bartocci said certain retailers relied solely on customers visiting their stores and touching the shirts and hats for sale. They are now learning to exist online.
“We’re helping people capitalize on how a lot of eyes are focused on social media,” he said.
He said Scranton Tomorrow is offering a lot of resources, including information on government loans and paycheck protection.
“They’re also creating a community spirit,” Bartocci said.
Businesses that may have been competitors are now working together.
Bartocci said he has met some other business owners during the conversations that he potentially could work with in the future.
Through this crisis, Collins said Scranton Tomorrow has become more inclusive. While the organization’s focus is on downtown Scranton, the Counter Conversations are open to all businesses that want to participate. Some participates are not only from outside the downtown, but outside of Scranton, as well.
“The meeting really is a time for businesses to share their struggle,” Collins said. “We’re doing our best to provide funding opportunities.”
Her husband, Chris Collins, a principal of Kilter Tiffany Benefits, a OneDigital Health and Benefits company, presented information during the first meeting on the CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). This program authorizes up to $349 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses to pay their employees during the COVID-19 crisis, according to a release from Scranton Tomorrow.
The group also was working toward a comprehensive plan for when the shutdown ended, Leslie Collins said.
“The business community is very tight-knit,” she said. “We’re not seeing any competitiveness.”