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The Small Business Recovery

Flowers, food and wine: How the push to sell online has permanently changed businesses

Small businesses embraced Shopify to stay alive, and some might never go back.

Flowers, food and wine: How the push to sell online has permanently changed businesses

Subscription wine from London restaurant Top Cuvèe.

Top Cuvèe

It's almost a cliché at this point to say that COVID has accelerated digital transformation. But it's certainly true when it comes to commerce, where not only have things accelerated in some cases, but they've fundamentally changed.

Between March 13, when much of the U.S. went into lockdown, and April 24, "new stores on the Shopify platform grew 62% … compared to the prior six weeks," the company told investors. As one of the best established and most comprehensive ecommerce platforms, Shopify allows retailers to quickly spin up online stores without any technical knowledge — along with providing a range of marketing and fulfilment services. That made it an obvious choice for retailers who saw their in-person income evaporate.

"When the lockdown started, I was a wedding florist," Rosemary Nyhoff told Protocol over email. Nyhoff owns Time 4 Flowers, a florist in London, Ontario. She tried selling online before the pandemic, but "didn't push it. It was a way to show myself: OK, I tried it, didn't work, I am meant to do weddings only." But when COVID started, weddings stopped. "There went 90% of my work out the door," Nyhoff said.

It ended up being a Canadian government scheme that encouraged Nyhoff to take the leap online. In a Facebook group, "someone mentioned a program where we could get an online shop for three months, paid by the government," Nyhoff said. She decided to give it a go, saying she realized "this was the moment to face my fears and change from a wedding florist to an all-around florist."

The upshot? "It has been a great move," Nyhoff said. Shopify provided support to help her build the website, and she relies on its marketing tools, too. There are struggles, for sure: Most orders are still from former clients and friends, Nyhoff said, adding that she's had to learn new floristry techniques ("I never had a flower cooler, now I do … I am hoping to learn how much [product] to have on hand."). But for the most part, Nyhoff sees it as a positive. "Shopify has lit a new fire, and I think that is what I needed during this time." She plans to continue the site even once the pandemic subsides.

The pandemic is also reshaping the way restaurants deliver their services, and Shopify is helping fill the void when patrons can't visit in person. A few days before restaurants were forced to close in the U.K., Top Cuvèe, a restaurant and wine bar in north London, launched "Shop Cuvèe," an online deli and meal kit store. While the restaurant started its shop with Squarespace, the team "quickly realized Shopify was better suited," co-founder Brodie Meah said, adding that Shopify "seems more purpose-built" for ecommerce. The company also decided to avoid traditional food delivery platforms. "I feel Deliveroo [is] trying to take over our industry, much in the same way Amazon has dominated," Meah said. "We really want to maintain our independence."

Providing its own delivery makes Shop Cuvèe's service "way better," Meah said he believes, because "our own couriers really care about the product." Those couriers include a mix of existing restaurant staff, new people and "bicycle couriers that normally would be working in the city, but work has dried up there," Meah said.

The response was so strong, Meah said, that it's led the business to rethink its future even after the pandemic subsides. "People were so happy to receive packages of joy during such a grim period," he said, noting that its natural wine subscription service also proved popular. In fact, Shop Cuvèe has been such a success that the company is actually launching an offline version. "We've just got the keys to our permanent shop location near the restaurant," Meah said. Pivots to ecommerce occasionally pivot back, it seems.

But for now ecommerce's importance isn't going away. COVID cases are back on the rise in the U.K., which recently implemented new restrictions on restaurants. A second lockdown could have devastating effects on in-person retail, too. Come winter, businesses that have already adapted to selling online could find themselves in a good position: As the pandemic draws on, Shopify may be their only window to the world.

The Small Business Recovery Manual:

  1. How small businesses are using tech to get through COVID
  2. How Etsy stopped showing beauty products to mask buyers
  3. Delivery apps say they're trying to boost Black-owned businesses. Is it working?
  4. Flowers, food and wine: How the push to sell online has permanently changed businesses
  5. Why large businesses should think like small businesses
  6. Yelp's pivot to helping small businesses during the pandemic
  7. How businesses can use tech to punch above their weight — even in the middle of a pandemic
  8. This startup is steering money to Black and women-owned businesses
  9. Braintrust: The next step SMBs need to take after going digital
  10. 'Netflix for apps': Setapp's quest to build a better app store
  11. The technology that'll help small businesses in the next pandemic
  12. Dark kitchens are a light for COVID-struck restaurants
The Small Business Recovery

Dark kitchens are a light for COVID-struck restaurants

The delivery-only restaurant concept has been accelerated by the pandemic.

A little Chow Mein from restaurant China Live, prepared out of a dark kitchen by Virtual Kitchen Co.

Photo: China Live

It's a dark time to be in the restaurant industry. By the end of July, almost 16,000 restaurants had permanently closed across the U.S., a number almost certain to increase as the pandemic keeps restaurants shut through the winter. But for some, COVID has also been an opportunity to experiment with a new business model: dark kitchens.

Alternately known as dark kitchens, cloud kitchens, ghost kitchens and virtual kitchens, the concept is the same: Delivery-only food operations with no space for in-person dining or, in some cases, collection. The idea has been percolating for a while now, pioneered by the U.K.'s Amazon-backed Deliveroo in 2017, while Uber founder Travis Kalanick famously has his own venture, CloudKitchens, which he started after his ouster from the ride-hailing company in 2017. And with an increased desire for social distancing and staying at home as much as possible, COVID seems to have only accelerated the trend.

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Shakeel Hashim

Shakeel Hashim ( @shakeelhashim) is a growth manager at Protocol, based in London. He was previously an analyst at Finimize covering business and economics, and a digital journalist at News UK. His writing has appeared in The Economist and its book, Uncommon Knowledge.

The Small Business Recovery

The technology that’ll help small businesses in the next pandemic

COVID-19 has accelerated all sorts of business transformations, but some just weren't quite ready yet.

Robotic deliveries are coming — but not in time for this pandemic.

Photo: Nuro

The weather is turning cooler and you realize you really need a new coat and a warmer face mask. You open your favorite shopping app with retailers from around your neighborhood, and see a coat and mask you like. You stand in front of the mirror, wearing your AR glasses, and try both items on. You like them and decide to buy them. The app triggers a drone to have the items delivered to you from a local fulfillment center a couple towns over. They'll be there in about 15 minutes. While you wait, you order some groceries, and the robot that's sent to deliver them tells you a friend also purchased you an arrangement from the florist down the road that will be in the order with your groceries. She says the flowers are to celebrate your birthday at home, seeing as parties are forbidden right now.

As much as the prospect of another life-altering pandemic is likely the last thing anyone wants to think about as the current one still rages on, experts say it's entirely possible that another one could breach our shores in the near future.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

The Small Business Recovery

This startup is steering money to Black and women-owned businesses

Roshawnna Novellus wants people to put "their money where their heart is" — and her lending platform can help facilitate it.

EnrichHER's Roshawnna Novellus.

Photo: EnrichHER

Roshawnna Novellus knows what it's like to have your business upended by the pandemic. She struggled over the past two years to move her lending startup, EnrichHER, through the regulatory compliance process, only to watch the economy tank amid widespread lockdowns, disrupting her business model built on lending money to small, women-owned businesses. She says she was tempted to throw away her plans and go back to working a 9-to-5.

Instead, in August, she launched All Rise Factory, a program that aims to fund more than 100 women-owned businesses over the next year. The new model allows funders to join with only $97 — and to decide whether they want to lend or donate.

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

The Small Business Recovery

'Netflix for apps': Setapp's quest to build a better app store

A subscription to the app store could be a great business — and a crucially stable one, in these uncertain times. But it hasn't always been easy to build.

Setapp founder Oleksandr Kosovan.

Photo: Setapp

Oleksandr Kosovan has been frustrated with app stores since way before it was cool to be frustrated with app stores.

Kosovan is the founder and CEO of MacPaw, a Ukraine-based app development company that originally started in 2008 with a tool called CleanMyMac. When CleanMyMac was new, there was no Mac App Store. Even when Apple launched the store, in 2011, "it was very limited in functionality," Kosovan said. The MacPaw team decided to promote a better way, to help developers sell their apps themselves. They built systems for testing early builds of apps and distributing finished ones, and tried to make it easy for developers to keep selling their wares outside of the App Store.

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

The Small Business Recovery

How businesses can use tech to punch above their weight — even in the middle of a pandemic

With no choice but to move online, Square's Alyssa Henry talks about how tech stepped in to support small businesses.

Though Square is often known for its square-shaped card readers and digital cash registers at stores, it had actually been laying the groundwork for shifts to online and omnichannel retail for years.

Photo: Square

When the pandemic hit, how consumers shopped and how businesses operated changed overnight. With in-person selling no longer an option, stores and small businesses had to figure out how they were going to make things work.

At Square, a lot of that problem-solving fell to Alyssa Henry, the head of the company's seller ecosystem. Henry oversees everything from marketing to engineering for Square's seller products, including its point-of-sale software and online stores. "Everything was shut down initially and so all of a sudden, these sellers had had no revenue coming in, so they had no cash flow," Henry said.

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Biz Carson

Biz Carson ( @bizcarson) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol, covering Silicon Valley with a focus on startups and venture capital. Previously, she reported for Forbes and was co-editor of Forbes Next Billion-Dollar Startups list. Before that, she worked for Business Insider, Gigaom, and Wired and started her career as a newspaper designer for Gannett.

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