“This has been the most stressful week I’ve ever experienced,” Itawamba County Development Council Executive Director Vaunita Martin said from her home in Eggville, some 17 miles from her office in downtown Fulton and the dozens of local businesses she works with every day. 

Every normal day, that is. But days have been far from normal since the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic began. Countless small businesses nationwide have shuttered their doors, either voluntarily or via municipal mandate, in an effort to encourage social distancing. It’s a move that will slow the spread of the virus, but could also be devastating for local economies and entrepreneurs.

For someone who spends most of her days thinking about local economies and entrepreneurs, specifically those in Itawamba County, the quarantine has been devastating for Martin as well.

“Just in a week, there was a huge impact on our small businesses,” she said. Not that that’s slowed her work any. In Fulton, businesses outside of those that offer “essential” items – groceries, gas, hardware supplies, etc. – have been mandated to close their showrooms and dining areas. Many business owners have opted to switch to primarily online sales to help keep their doors open. Figuratively, of course.

Business owners are having to reexamine their offerings, consider how they’re doing business and look at what ways they can do them better during the quarantine.

“I think they’ve really thought outside the box. Thought of some creative ways to be able to sell and draw interest [in their businesses],” she said.

Martin believes this kind of thinking is what will help local businesses adapt to and survive the pandemic. Maybe even thrive during it.

‘Out of our comfort zone’

As a part of their 2020 business plan, Emily Spradlin and Amber Bradley’s goal was to launch a sale via Facebook Live for their clothing boutique, Owl Bee in Mantachie. After seven years in business, the two felt the new feature would be an asset to their customer base.

“We try to think outside the box. It was something completely new that we wanted to offer to our customers,” Spradlin said. “We were set to start in late March, but things changed really quickly.”

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the pair to ramp up their plans ahead of schedule, but it’s something they now say has been a saving grace.

“There are a lot of boutiques and small businesses out there that are really hurting right now,” Bradley said. “The Lord has blessed us. We are exhausted, but we are blessed.”

For the two owners, doing live online sales means more hours at work and more hours away from their families. But the revenue through their new venture has allowed them to remain profitable, continue to pay their employees and keep their business afloat during uncertain times.

During the sales events, both Spradlin and Bradley present merchandise themselves. It means they must first put together a plan, then execute it with the world watching.

“We are so out of our comfort zone,” Spradlin said. “I don’t think anybody really wants to be in front of a camera, but thanks to our customers it’s working.”

Their customers, both local and beyond, “check in” to their event via Facebook Live and make purchases. Both Spradlin and Bradley describe their products, along with sizes, availability and price. They also feature specials on particular items during their presentations. After the purchases are complete, they make arrangements with the customer to pick up their purchases curbside or have it shipped.

The owners offer heartfelt greetings to each online shopper who joins their live presentations. The two say these one-on-one interactions with customers are at the heart of their business. They even take time to handwrite their receipts.

“We have always written out receipts for our customers’ purchases,” Bradley said. “It gives us a chance to talk with them personally as they wait.”

While Spradlin and Bradley agree these live events have been a great addition to their business, they haven’t forgotten about the far-reaching effects the COVID-19 crisis is having on other struggling businesses. Paying it forward is another part of their business strategy.

“Our vendors rely on us to purchase from them, so we want to do well so they do well,” Bradley said.

Spradlin added they order curbside from other local businesses and restaurants to show the same support they have seen.

“Never has our community or even our country seen anything like this,” Bradley said. “If it takes us thinking outside the box to get through it, that’s what we’ll do.”

‘We’re on top of this’

World Famous Piezons Pizza owner Stan Miller shut his dining room more than a week before Fulton officials issued an order requiring local restaurants to do so.

In a video Miller posted to his restaurant’s 3,379 Facebook followers on March 16, Miller explained his decision:

“We’re living in some serious times right now, and along with you, we’re doing our very, very best to keep our employees safe, our customers safe, and our community safe,” he said.

A week later, he posted another video announcing his restaurant would be closed four days each week to give his employees time off work. To help compensate for the financial blow, Miller also announced he’d be giving each of his employees a raise.

Miller ended that video with this:

“Please, help one another. Pray for one another. And love one another. We’re all in this together. Let’s work together.”

According to the longtime restaurateur, the decision to push social distancing early was the right one, despite the significant blow to his business.

“I really wanted to get in front of this stuff,” he said. “I wanted to make sure [the guys I’ve got working for me] are safe, that I was safe, that anybody who does do business with me was aware that we’re trying our best to make sure that they’re comfortable. That they don’t worry.”

Miller said business has dropped drastically since the start of the pandemic. It’s not just because people are eating out less, but the closure of Itawamba Community College because of the outbreak took away one of Miller’s single largest customer bases. It has him concerned for his livelihood, as it would any business owner. But he’s also worried about the health and safety of his workers, his longtime customers, his family and his friends.

He’s told his employees if they didn’t feel comfortable delivering food, that’s OK. Those who do deliver, wear gloves. They’re also honoring any special requests their customers make that help them feel comfortable having food delivered.

Being proactive, he said, gives him some measure of comfort. He hopes it does the same for his customers.

“We’re on top of this. We’re taking this seriously,” he said. “Everybody has been super supportive of everything we’re trying to do. Everyone’s been understanding.”

Miller and his crew have been using their downtime to spruce up the restaurant, work on some projects they normally save for the slower summer months, including sprucing up the outside of the restaurant, deep-cleaning the kitchen and painting parts of the building’s interior.

“We’re trying to make our customers aware that we’re doing every single thing we can on our end to make the food good and safe,” Miller said.

No one can see the future, Miller included. That uncertainty, about the health of his business and the people who patronize it, has him concerned. But Miller feels he’s doing what he can to regain some measure of control.

“This is obviously affecting all of us. I’ll keep doing this as long as we can,” he said. “If it comes down to me being the only one here … hey, man … I’ll make ‘em, bake ‘em and take ‘em if I’ve got to.”

‘Doing the best we can’

Davis Ford Sales has made customer service a priority since the business opened in 1964. The longtime car dealer has won the Ford Company’s prestigious President’s Award 17 times. Deemed an essential business by Fulton leaders and Gov. Tate Reeves’s executive order, the dealership has stepped up precautions in its service department to meet the threat COVID-19 head on.

“We are offering home pickup and delivery of vehicles that are in need of service,” owner Tab Bennett said. “We are taking every precaution to assure both the customer and our employees are protected.”

Prior to working on a vehicle, workers spray the driver’s seat with disinfectant and wipe down the steering wheel and door handles to ensure safety. Once the service is complete, workers place covers over the gear shifts and steering wheels before turning the vehicles back over to their owners. While servicing the vehicles, the dealership’s technicians wear gloves.

Bennett said they have set up hand sanitation stations inside the dealership, and if a customer wants to make a payment, they don’t have to come inside the building.

“If a customer prefers they can just pull up to the building and call,” Bennett said. “We’ll gladly come outside to your vehicle.”

According to Bennett, the goal is to make their customers feel as comfortable as possible during uncomfortable times.

“The customer’s health and well-being is a top priority,” he said. “We will continue to do what we can to ensure everyone’s safety.”

Although going the extra mile has been a part of Davis Ford’s business model since his grandfather, Buster Davis, started the business, Bennett said the current pandemic represents new ground for any business. These are trying times that require anyone who’s able to keep the doors of their business open to go the extra mile.

“We are all coming together while staying apart,” Bennett said. “There are no easy answers for anyone. It’s a trying time and we all are just doing the best we can.”

‘What you want to see happen’

Although working from home, Martin said she’s been doing everything she can to support Itawamba County’s businesses. She’s been promoting local businesses offering curbside delivery or online sales via the ICDC’s various social media accounts. She’s guiding local business owners through applying for the Small Business Association’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Assistance program (as of late last week, she’d received more than 20 applications), and she’s been hosting meetings among local business owners via the GroupMe app.

And while she admits she’s concerned for the future of local small businesses, especially the longer the pandemic lasts, she’s also seen signs that give her encouragement. Multiple local businesses are offering discounts to customers of other local businesses, encouraging people to spread their dollars around. Business owners have also been sharing ideas and promoting each other.

“I think the coolest thing that has come out of this is the camaraderie,” she said. “All the businesses have joined together to support each other. That’s what you want to see happen. That’s been motivating to me.”

That motivation gives her hope, and a little bit of hope goes a long way during stressful, uncertain times.

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