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How These 4 Startups Pivoted to Secure Customer Loyalty During the Pandemic (and How You Can, Too)

Angela Fernandez

Angela Fernandez

Vice President, Community Engagement at GS1 US
Angela Fernandez is the vice president of community engagement at  GS1 US, where she oversees programs designed to support growth for companies of all sizes. With more than 20 years of retail supply chain experience, she is an expert in helping companies understand retailer requirements and achieve source to store supply chain visibility. 
Angela Fernandez

Never has there been a more unpredictable year than 2020. Despite the best planning and preparation, no one could have predicted a global pandemic altering the way we work and live for potentially years to come. Yet, there are a number of small businesses and startups that have thrived despite the chaos of 2020. Amazon recently reported that small businesses and third-party sellers have seen record sales through their platform during the coronavirus, with more than 3.4 billion products sold in the last year.

Other retailers are offering new opportunities to small businesses and entrepreneurs this year, too. Walmart partnered with Shopify to expand its product assortment to include more small businesses, and Google has stopped charging merchants a fee to list products on its search pages. Additionally, many businesses have acquired new UPC barcodes from GS1 US in an effort to launch new products related to the pandemic.


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While these are challenging and unpredictable times, here’s how approaching the pandemic with a “glass half full” mindset has paid off for many startups and entrepreneurs:

Seize a new market opportunity

Recognizing the spotlight on diabetics and their vulnerability to COVID-19, Glucose Revival, a small business based in Spokane, Washington that makes wearable emergency glucose gel, saw an opportunity to get its products into the hands of those who need it most.

“With COVID-19 affecting everyone’s lives, stress levels are high,” Kris Maynard, Glucose Revival founder, said. “Stress is one of the conditions that causes low blood sugar in diabetics. We wanted to do our part to help those affected by COVID-19, so we donated $80,000 worth of product to anyone who could help others in the fight against COVID-19—whether it be EMTs, police officers, frontline workers, and now teachers.”

A diabetic himself, Maynard launched the product in June 2019 after his own experience with hypoglycemia and the life-saving capabilities of glucose gel. During the pandemic, Maynard says his company’s sales have increased because the product they provide is a cost-effective solution that is an easy way for diabetics to avoid emergency room visits.

Selling through distributors, wholesalers, online marketplaces and its own website, Glucose Revival is supporting diabetics’ healthy active lifestyles by making emergency treatment more mobile and readily available than ever before. Through an active social media campaign and strong word-of-mouth in the healthcare community, the company hopes it can continue to make a positive impact on diabetics’ lives beyond the pandemic.



Use the materials you have to find a new niche

In March, a new reality began for all of us, including DCI Management, a small firm based in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania that makes tradeshow exhibits.

“We were about to go to our next tradeshow, and then all of a sudden, everything just stopped and many events were getting cancelled,” Lori Stewart, DCI Management founder, said. “An idea came to us to assemble sneeze guards with the same materials we use to build exhibits, so we took the leap, knowing that otherwise, we may have to claim bankruptcy.”

Stewart pulled together her eight-person team to start a new product line including sneeze guards, partitions and social distancing signs. They gradually educated themselves on how to get products ready for sale online, including creating UPCs for each product they sell.

Within just a few weeks, the company began selling these products through online marketplaces and its own website, and found sales growth stemming from the restaurant, hotel, and gym industries.

While initially a pivot just to survive the pandemic, DCI Management is finding that this new niche has the potential to become a longer-term addition to their business, too.

“We will continue to sell sneeze guards, hygiene barriers and social distancing signs online. We believe they will be in demand for many more months. We also have plans to create new products for trade shows such as exhibits and social distancing tools, for when business professionals begin to travel again,” Stewart said.

Stacy Avilla, owner and founder of V-Blissful, is also steering her business in a different direction these days. An all-natural feminine care products company based in Oakdale, California, Avilla started making and selling hand sanitizer at the beginning of the nationwide shut down.

“My brother works in a hospital pharmacy, and he called me one day and encouraged me to start selling sanitizer because they were out and their supplier did not know when they would be able to have any in stock,” Avilla said.

With the help of a friend who is a chemist, Avilla developed her own hand sanitizer formula and started selling it on Etsy, as well as on her company website:

“I started selling the hand sanitizer online and it sold like hotcakes,” she said.

Avilla believes the high demand for hand sanitizer also drew customers to check out her primary product line. She has already seen her 2020 sales more than double from 2019 due to the business opportunities COVID-19 presented. 


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Take the opportunity to reset

Bite Me Inc., a Lakewood, Washington-based wholesale cookie manufacturer, works with high-end grocers to supply cookies in bulk. But in March, the company’s founder, Deborah Tuggle, realized the impact that a shift in consumer behavior would have on company sales.

“Getting cookies by the pound was like buffet-style food—consumers just did not want to pick their own cookies in a store after the pandemic hit,” Tuggle said.

This shift caused Tuggle and her team to think of alternative ways to promote and package their products for grocery stores. In addition to shifting the business from bulk to prepackaged cookies, they got creative in other ways.

“We launched a delivery program where customers can buy frozen cookie dough balls (to bake) at home, and we revamped our website to focus on mail order cookies for direct delivery,” Tuggle said.

Additionally, Tuggle and her team used the pandemic to bolster their brand, letting their pride in being a Black-owned and women-owned small business shine through. While they were so reliant on their private label business, promoting themselves had not been a focus for the team.

“With the increased community support and by focusing on our own brand, we reduce the risk of being replaced in the market,” Tuggle said. “We create amazingly delicious cookies, using only high-quality ingredients. This makes us special, and now are looking to a future where we are known for what we do so well.”

Key takeaways

Ultimately, while consumers continue to adapt to the reality of COVID-19’s impact, many are exploring products sold by small businesses and startups that they may not have otherwise considered.

Entrepreneurs and small business owners that seize this moment with optimism and shift their business strategies could be forging a new path to secure more long-term customer loyalty and brand recognition beyond the crisis.

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