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Changing with the times

Many small businesses are adjusting their digital strategies to compete in a rapidly changing world. 

Small businesses have long been the backbone of the Canadian economy. They create jobs, encourage innovation, generate investment and drive economic expansion and growth. They’ve also faced significant challenges throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Whether you run a bricks-and-mortar or an internet-based small business, one of the keys to success is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Change can be especially tricky for small businesses that have fewer resources or alternative plans in place to respond to new situations, let alone a global crisis. However, sometimes hitting bumps in the road is the most effective way of learning that something needs to change.

Online surge

When the Canadian economy was sideswiped by the pandemic, it demonstrated how quickly a single event can jeopardize the normal course of business. In the retail sector alone, for example, Statistics Canada reported that retail sales fell 17.9 per cent across the country from February to May 2020, while retail e-commerce sales nearly doubled, increasing 99.3 per cent.[1]

Though much of the online shopping surge was driven by the initial lockdowns in response to the pandemic, the statistics show that significant consumer activity moved online in a short period. This change in behaviour signaled that more people are becoming comfortable with digital processes and may well continue to shop in this way. 

Planning for a digital future

Many business owners see that strengthening their digital capabilities could help meet future demand, especially if confronted with unexpected events. If you’re thinking about a move in that direction, these five considerations could help you plan. 

1. Assess your situation

Take stock of what your business looks like today and where you would like to see it go. Will you have the budget to achieve what you envision? Will your staff, partners, suppliers and customers support your goals? In which areas are you likely to meet the most resistance or have the least experience? Developing a plan with as much detail as possible can help draw the straightest line to achieving your goals. Bolster the plan with a detailed budget and action items that you can tackle within sensible timelines.

2. Determine your digital needs

Enhancing your digital capabilities can boost sales, support closer connections with industry, customers and communities, and lead to new product discoveries and potential opportunities, but this doesn’t mean that you need to have all the digital bells and whistles right away in order to be successful. 

Prioritize your immediate and future needs through developing a comprehensive plan that considers a variety of digital tools. Working with an experienced digital services provider can also pinpoint which tools can help you achieve your goals and save you valuable time in the process. 

3. Plan on being flexible 

Everyone is looking forward to moving past the pandemic and getting life back to normal. But after everything that’s happened, what can we expect the economy and the business world to look like at that point? Will going back to business as usual still be enough to compete? Or, is this a time to transform your business for the future? 

Key considerations such as online trends, customer demographics, supply chains, shipping and transportation, and the overall health of the economy are factors in where you see your business fitting in. Being flexible and planning for more than one scenario can help you stay positive during a period of constant change and could unveil some new and interesting opportunities.                        

4. Measure the risk of digital growth

Online shopping had grown continuously for years before the pandemic kicked it into overdrive, but that doesn’t mean every business needs to become an online entity. Bricks-and-mortar businesses might simply consider a hybrid model that includes the convenience of online service while retaining the benefits of a location-based business. Physical stores are likely to see a resurgence when the public health situation improves and more people venture into businesses to reconnect with in-person service. Again, thinking about long-term scenarios may sway your plans. 

5. Transitions can affect workplace culture

Everyone has changed their personal and work-related routines to some degree over the past year. Working from home and communicating online have become standard practice for many – and an eventual return to business locations is likely to come with a refashioned form of workplace culture. As businesses seek to re-establish familiar routines and expectations, employees will need to commit to readjusting their own. 

 A digital transition can also offer a unique opportunity to reassess and revise company mission statements, values, goals and processes to reflect the changes you plan to make to your business. Finding ways to recognize the value of your employees throughout the transformation could make it more enjoyable and achievable. 

You don’t have to do it alone

Living through the pandemic has shown us how critical – and comforting – it is to rely on the expertise of others, in all facets of life. If you’re thinking of changing your business to any degree, be sure to speak to your advisor about your plans. They may be aware of budget, financing and insurance options that you may not have considered. There is value in having a trusted resource at your side, one who could give you some added insight on your future plans and possibly connect you with experts who can walk you through the next steps and focus on the areas that most need your attention. 

Digital tools that can boost your business

If the future of your small business will involve a deeper commitment to using online technology, consider this list of digital support tools that could help steer it in a new direction. 

  • Digital marketing: data-based targeted internet advertising to promote your business online.
  • Social Media: participating on influential social platforms to generate interest in your business. Every post should link people back to your website or customer contact interface.
  • Search Engine Optimization: to enhance visibility across popular search engines, such as Google.
  • Digital payments and e-commerce software to provide customers a safe and secure way to perform business transactions.
  • Cybersecurity and the protection of critical business and client information.
  • Analytics: access to behavioural user data that relates valuable customer insights.
  • Employee communications and the secure, seamless transference of information (from email and messaging) to the ability to work remotely.
  • Direct messaging, including automated email distribution and alert functions to connect regularly with customers, suppliers and partners with tailored, timely information.


[1] Jason Aston et al., “Retail e-commerce and COVID-19: How online shopping opened doors while many were closing,” July 24, 2020, 

Statistics Canada,: www.150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/45-28-0001/2020001/article/00064-eng.htm (accessed October 2020)

© 2020 Manulife. The persons and situations depicted are fictional and their resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental. This media is for information purposes only and is not intended to provide specific financial, tax, legal, accounting or other advice and should not be relied upon in that regard. Many of the issues discussed will vary by province. Individuals should seek the advice of professionals to ensure that any action taken with respect to this information is appropriate to their specific situation. www.manulife.ca/accessibility 


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