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For many businesses, the last few months of each year is a busy time – a time when they do most of their sales from holiday shopping. This year, things are obviously different. Even with government support, many businesses are struggling to stay afloat. As a consumer, you can help.

During the pandemic, small retailers have had a disadvantage compared compared to big box stores – with fewer resources, smaller budgets and less buying power, it’s been harder for them to sustain their businesses through the new rules, restrictions and closures that have been implemented across the country. By choosing to shop at small, local businesses, you can help them weather the current situation.

But shopping local is just one of the many ways you can help keep small businesses running. Here are seven other ways you can show your support – whether or not you have money to spend right now.

1. Write referrals and reviews

Word of mouth is one of the best ways to bring in new customers. In fact, 85 per cent of business owners say that the majority of their business comes from referrals. Positive reviews show potential customers that a business is endorsed by real people who have benefited from a product or service.

Toronto illustrator and muralist Ella Mazur says, “The number one biggest way you can support a business is to share, share, share!” She believes that referrals are “a much more powerful way to spread the word than any advertising you could buy.” Mazur also says, “It means the world to a small business owner when someone has had a good experience working with you or loves something that you made, so saying that in a review or a comment on social media can not only help with audience reach, it can also just make their day, and give them the motivation to keep going when there’s a low period.”

Tips for business owners! How to encourage referrals

Just ask: Don’t be afraid to reach out to past customers and ask them to write a sentence or two about their experience. If you left a positive impression, they should be more than willing to help out.

Offer a discount: After someone makes a purchase, consider following up with a special discount towards their next purchase if they write a review or send a referral.

2. Engage with businesses online

If you really want to help your favourite businesses connect with new customers, do more than just like their social media posts. Algorithms on platforms such as Instagram rank posts higher based on the number of saves, shares, and comments they receive.

Meagan Bowden, owner of Phancy Food Catering and Phancy’s Bodega in Toronto, says, “The power of referrals through social media and word of mouth is extremely helpful now more than ever.” Don’t underestimate the power of sharing a post: one of your followers on social media could very well be the business’ next customer.

Tips for business owners: How to boost your social engagement

Post consistently: Use your Instagram business profile’s insights to determine what days and times your audience is most active. Then, create a schedule that you can commit to so that you’re maintaining a consistent presence online.

Use high-quality images: You don’t have to be a professional photographer to have a successful social media profile, but you do need to be able to take or find good pictures. You want to create content that will make viewers stop scrolling and want to find out more.

3. Choose curbside or in-store pickup instead of shipping

Shipping during the holidays can be hit-and-miss in the best of times. Add in the pandemic and it can become a nightmare for small businesses trying to meet your shopping deadlines on top of everything else. If you can do it, opting for curbside or in-store pickup also means that you won’t have to pay shipping fees or worry about delays in receiving your order.

Tips for business owners: How to simplify shipping

Not all of your customers will be able to pick up their order from your location, so here are some shipping tips for small businesses to help you navigate this logistical headache.

Double-check your measurements: To avoid paying for unexpected shipping costs out-of-pocket, make sure that you’ve measured and weighed your packages accurately when determining the cost of shipping.

Pack your shipments carefully: Using professional packaging materials can help avoid the stress (and expense) of having your products damaged during shipment.

4. Think outside the gift box

As small businesses have struggled to keep revenue coming in during the pandemic, many have shifted their services to offer gift cards and virtual experiences online. When you’re planning your holiday shopping this year, look up your favourite local businesses to see how they might have switched gears.

Tips for business owners: How to successfully pivot

Gift cards for future purchases: Service-based businesses that rely on in-person interactions can offer gift cards for return customers who know that they will be booking another appointment once restrictions are loosened.

Virtual shopping: Many stores are offering virtual shopping appointments over video calls so that shoppers can browse as before, but from the comfort and safety of home.

5. Skip the big box store when buying essentials

While you may usually do most of your shopping for groceries or other necessities at big box stores, many restaurants and cafes are now offering groceries and supplies for pickup or delivery.

Bowden says, “When the pandemic began in March, catering became non-existent, so I decided to take a leap and open [Phancy’s Bodega]—an online grocery shop focusing on local products that are Toronto and Canadian-made.”

Tips for business owners: How to expand your product line

Wine and liquor: If your restaurant is only able to do takeout orders, you may be allowed to add liquor purchases to food sales, as some areas have shifted liquor laws. You can even create pairings to suit your menu.

DIY recipe boxes: Get inspired by local businesses like Phancy’s Bodega, who have recently launched holiday gift baskets, plated spreads, and a dinner menu online.

6. Make your support personal

In addition to dwindling sales, small business owners may be feeling the effects of the pandemic personally as well. If you have a favourite store or café, consider sending them a handwritten note or a quick email to let them know that you’re thinking about them and supporting them from afar – and that you’re looking forward to visiting them again when it’s safe to do so.

7. Offer your skills to help small businesses

With many brick and mortar stores having to quickly shift to selling online, businesses need help with online marketing, setting up online stores, delivery, logistics, and other areas. If you have some time and energy to spare, you could consider offering your skills free of charge, at a discount, or on a trade that suits you both.

The holiday season is a special time of year – but it can also be difficult for those who are struggling. This year, supporting the people and businesses in your community could go a long way toward bringing joy and comfort – as well as hope for a better year ahead.

Support your local businesses this holiday season.