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Aaron Labarre’s franchise, Popeye’s Supplements, was strictly bricks and mortar when the pandemic forced businesses to close in mid-March. And even after convincing government to designate his 22 stores across Canada as an essential service, given they sell nutritional supplements, sales plummeted.

“We weren’t expecting that at all. We were scheduled for getting busier because we thought more people would probably want to look after themselves and take on a healthier lifestyle,” Mr. Labarre said during the Globe and Mail’s Small Business Summit webinar on Oct. 7, presented by e-commerce processor PayPal Holdings Inc.

Instead of sitting back and accepting COVID-19′s impact on his company’s sales, Mr. Labarre and his wife decided to move the business online, immediately. They watched YouTube videos on how to launch an e-commerce site and within hours had set up on online commerce platform Shopify Inc. The online store went live soon after and the next several weeks were spent building up the website.

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Mr. Labarre is among a growing number of small business owners being quickly forced online by the pandemic, driven by a surge in online shopping with consumers sticking close to home.

Mike Monty, head of enterprise sales at PayPal Canada, said his company has seen “an incredible increase in online shopping” from both consumer and business accounts it tracks.

“Before, it was seen as maybe a luxury to be selling online, but now it’s becoming a necessity,” Mr. Monty said. “We have seen a three-fold increase in businesses signing up to accept digital payments. There is no going back to the way things were before the pandemic. The expectation from consumers now is that they aren’t only supported from a brick and mortar perspective but also online.”

Mr. Monty believes physical stores will not go away anytime soon but digital will be a “no regrets” strategy. Whether you believe people will come back to stores or whether they’re going to remain in the safety of their home, going digital will improve the customer’s experience — even when the customer goes in store.

Franchise owner Aaron Labarre is among a growing number of small business owners being quickly forced online by the pandemic.

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“The consumer expectation is being reset as to how they’re being dealt with,” Mr. Monty said, adding the challenge for many businesses now is how to grow their operations online.

It’s also an opportunity to broaden market share, Mr. Monty said. “With online, mobile and social channels, you are able to address a much wider market and customer base.”

About 80 per cent of jewelry retailer Sapling & Flint’s sales were already online when the pandemic forced business closures in the spring, which co-founder Dakota Brant said helped the company prepare for the e-commerce sales rush.

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“COVID was a test of our brand and our preparation because we saw instant growth in online shopping,” said Ms. Brant, also chief executive officer of the company based in the Six Nations village of Ohsweken, Ont. near Brantford. “We understood it, but we also tried to make it as seamless as possible [for consumers] as the growth was happening.”

Ms. Brant said a benefit of the transition to more business being done online is her ability to source talent from a greater geographic area, especially as her company expands and requires more specialized skills that can’t necessarily be found in her region.

“Suddenly, when you have access to the online industry, I don’t require [people on my team] to necessarily to be within my community or within driving distance,” she said. “That’s something major for small businesses like mine… to have that access creates more opportunity to have the talent you need.”

To be successful online, Ms. Brant recommends small businesses develop a strong understanding of their brand and their customers and bring that experience to them virtually.

“E-commerce has to feel like a person is not coming to a brick and mortar store but they’re still coming to your store. You want them to have a seamless experience that reflects on the brand,” Ms. Brant said.

Some brick-and-mortar retailers are intimidated about taking their business online, Mr. Labarre said, and shouldn’t be.

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For him, the easy part was setting up the e-commerce site using a “plug and play” platform such as Shopify and accepting payments with PayPal. The hard part, he said, was figuring out how consumers shop online versus in a physical store and providing specialized services digitally, such as product recommendations.

“We tried to take what we’ve done in brick and mortar stores for the last 17 years and … do it online when we aren’t able to interact. We’re still going through that journey,” he said, adding the company has added content, including videos and a blog, to try to help consumers decide which products to buy on the company’s online store.

Steve Beauchesne, co-founder of Beau’s Brewing Co, based in Vankleek Hill, Ont. about 100 km east of Ottawa, advises entrepreneurs not to sit idle until the next crisis, whether it’s to go online or make other significant changes in the business.

“Don’t wait until your business is disrupted to venture into new territory,” said Mr. Beauchesne, whose company started selling its craft beer online during the pandemic. Previously, it had only used its website to share information on the brand and to sell tickets and merchandise related to an annual Octoberfest event.

“If you’re in a stable situation right now, take advantage of pretending you’ve got a crisis as opposed to having to deal with a real one,” Mr. Beauchesne said. “Get yourself to a point where you’re pivoting because it’s a good thing to do, as opposed to saving revenue that’s disappearing quickly. I think that’s something pretty much every business should be doing every year.”


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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