Interview with the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce’s Membership Manager, Anna Wilson. Interview conducted by Sammie Musielak.
SAMMIE: Downtown DeKalb has a lot of small businesses. How have these small businesses been affected by COVID?
ANNA: COVID has been very rough on small businesses. Some of the hardest things for businesses are not being able to open. The other thing is, there’s a lot of small businesses who are just one person. They’ve had a lot of struggles. Because it’s just them that the business owner thinks: “oh I didn’t have time to do this in the past, and now I’ve got to do it and figure out how to implement things and learn systems”. That has been one of the biggest challenges for small businesses.
S: What has been done during COVID to revive downtown DeKalb?
A: The city is doing a lot of work to change the physical layouts of downtown, which is super exciting because I think those are things that are going to impact the small businesses, specifically in downtown. I know that the downtown merchants have done a good job with continuing to offer Christmas shopping and other local campaigns. The Chamber of Commerce goes into some of the stores, and helps business after hours, which has been difficult to do virtually. It’s been kind of cool to see the campaign’s that we have done. For example I dressed up as Cupid for Valentines Day and an Elf for Christmas and took pictures by local stores to remind people to shop local for the holidays. Local businesses have said that they had a better Christmas, because of the push to shop local. I think people are realizing, if we don’t shop local those businesses are going to go away, which is a scary thought, because if you don’t shop there now the business won’t be there when you need them.
S: What kind of impact do you think current revitalization efforts made in downtown DeKalb will have on small businesses and community members and the future of the city?
A: There have been some good changes. Some businesses have created online stores. Also they have started to change their buildings, changed storefronts and moved things around in the business because they have had more time to do so. It’s been challenging but good because businesses are able to step back and see what’s working and what’s not. Also revitalization efforts are coming in the future. For example the Angora Plaza that is being built will be updated in the next 6 months. Also businesses opened during the pandemic like Decal Pizza, and a few salons. There are a lot of good things coming to DeKalb and are starting to gain traction in 2021. This was because of the support and money that was invested into the community in 2020. The money has been used to help make the city a better place for community members and visitors. They are all starting to reap the benefits, and it has already had a good impact. I am excited for the future of small businesses in downtown DeKalb.
S: How has the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce adapted to meet COVID regulations?
A: The Chamber of Commerce did very well at pivoting during the pandemic. As a chamber we saw others not doing anything and we saw that as an opportunity to make a huge impact.. Some highlights are our quick transition to working online. Also we began campaigns and programs that helped businesses, especially restaurants stay afloat during these times. Delivery has made it difficult for restaurants to receive good tips as well as for waiters and waitresses to upsell customers by encouraging them to buy more than they were planning to. Also many people have been ordering from bigger chain restaurants instead of local businesses, because it is cheaper and more convenient. As a result the chamber has started shop local campaigns that have helped encourage community members to order, online or in person at local restaurants instead. Promoting these campaigns have been difficult and a lot of work on businesses but it has helped them to work hard and persevere. This keeps them open. Finally it has helped them to gain advocates who help them to run different promotions that reach a bigger audience and benefit the business.
Also the chamber has done a variety of different events. For example we did our annual Family Fun Fest event as a drive through. That way families were able to still participate in the event. Also we continued our support for our women’s groups and provided them with a variety of gifts including tumblers. We had our Community Expo. During the holidays we had a drive through with Santa. This allowed families to have the tradition of not just seeing Santa but being able to talk to him. The kids were very excited and really enjoyed their talks with Santa. It turned out to be a very fun and cute event! All of the videos from all of the events we hosted totaled to be about 10,000 views.
It was pretty cool to see all that we accomplished this year. We were able to pivot all of our events so we didn’t have to get rid of them. This is important because all of these events are important to the businesses and to the community. It took a lot of work to figure out how to do things differently and safely. Being a part of a group of people who can get creative and think outside of the box was such an amazing opportunity. They did a great job this year and I can’t wait to see what they do to help small businesses in the future!
S: Have you noticed an increase in support for small businesses in DeKalb?
A: I think a lot of people are getting better at shopping local first, because it has hit home that we might lose these businesses. As a millennial, it is so easy for me to shop online but if I want to take someone to a shop when they visit I have to support them now. “DeKalb loves locals” is a campaign everyone has seen in DeKalb. This campaign has really helped bring small businesses to the top of people’s minds, which is important because it helps to keep the charm of the city. This charm comes from the businesses that are already here like, nonprofits as well as the arts and cultures. I’m glad to see that people are realizing this and are making the switch. I just hope that shopping local increases so when things begin to open there will be an increase in jobs. Compared to other communities, we haven’t lost too many businesses, which shows the support we have gained through our campaigns. They have made a huge impact because they are able to gain the resources from the chamber and other partners that are needed to be successful. By having these resources many struggling businesses stayed open.
I’ve been very, very proud of our community, because of the mindset around small businesses. It’s crazy that other communities have had the mentality that downtown businesses are up for sale. This has caused a lot of premature closings because people begin to think “ they just can’t handle it.” That is why we have been fortunate. We haven’t really lost any downtown businesses. Knock on wood. While there are some empty storefronts., I think people are realizing that this is a good time to start something. My advice to those people would be start now, because you have the time. I think that moving forward we’re gonna see an uptick in our downtown especially with the physical structure change that’s coming with new buildings. Also they are planning a new cityscape, which is going to change the sidewalks and stuff like that. I think those things are going to be impactful, and keep people coming to downtown DeKalb.
S: Do you have any tips or suggestions for someone who wants to start
supporting small businesses?
A: I think the biggest part is to think about shopping locally first. This is a huge transition from looking online to shopping local. This is a good way to see what is available to you. It’s easy to pick up our phone and look on Amazon. But, you know if you buy it online there most likely is somewhere local that has what you are looking for. An example is a formal dress for a wedding. Instead of looking online and guessing on style size and color, you could go to Alexis Kay, which is a bridal shop here in town, and try on dresses. Whether you decide to buy a dress from there or not, You can still go in. Also you can build rapport with the people who work there.. There’s a lot of amenities that small businesses in DeKalb have so always check the local stores first because it is easy to go straight to Amazon or things that are gonna be directly shipped to you for free returns. It’s important to keep in mind that you can get an item today if you drive to a local store.
S: Do you have any tips for small businesses?
A: There are a lot that small businesses can do , including increasing social media, attending local networking events, and sharing COVID procedures. These can help to create visibility as well as business advocacy. Having visibility can help to create a presence, because it shows that businesses (like the theatre) are still here, and puts the business at the time of people’s minds.
Also it helps businesses to share their COVID procedures to make people feel safe going in and supporting the business. Another thing people can do is join their local chamber, other chambers or multiple chambers. This is because chambers bring business advocacy, and validity. They can help people find reliable businesses for all kinds of services. This also helps connect businesses to each other. In doing so they never feel alone especially when they are struggling. In doing so they know they are not the only ones who may be failing in an area and they can get help from another business. It gives different opportunities, because they feel supported and joyfully better at their business.