It’s no secret that things are different now. The nation’s top doc may have declared we’ve moved out of the “pandemic phase,” but people’s habits were already changing. Small businesses have pivoted in response, as have support systems that serve to help owners in the sector succeed.
The way in which shoppers continue to make their purchases from the comfort of home provides an indicator of the changing landscape small businesses currently operate in. According to Vincent Vicari, regional director of the Small Business Development Center at Ramapo College, these days consumers expect a different level of satisfaction. “They want less: Less interaction, straight to a transaction, using a device of some type,” he said. “So that the way that satisfaction is delivered has to be more immediate and has to have value immediately consumed.”
That is a sentiment small businesses have picked up on. According to QuickBooks’ most recent Small Business Insights survey, 88% of respondents project online sales will be an important revenue stream this year; even more – 97% – of the analysis’s 2,000 respondents said digital technology would be essential as well. But if buyers are satisfied in different ways these days – and, as Vicari also pointed out, product information is readily available for consumers, negating competitive shopping – “So then how do you diversify or add value, or increase satisfaction at a competitive price?
“In the small business space, you do that with relationships, channel knowledge and an understanding of the outcomes that consumers want in your product or service as it benefits the consumer,” he said. But what really makes the difference here — what makes this trend new, according to Vicari, is the scale to which the importance of that personal relationship has increased in light of present-day impersonal barriers. In a world shaped by COVID-19, while consumers may indeed want the added touch, establishing relationships is harder for small businesses. The pandemic’s kibosh on cold calls makes it even more difficult to reach decision makers, even if your lead list is the most informed it’s ever been as small businesses implement, utilize and reap the benefits of technology.
“It’s hard to push the market today on a small business level,” Vicari said. Though, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So, small businesses are going for the pull, breaking through those barriers and gaining consumers that want curated relationships to complement their timely transactions, and customers that want to see them. “And now you can have the interaction to close a sale, to add your value, to show you’re the best person to buy from, to service the product,” Vicari said. “And that you have a knowledge of the industry … and of the product second to none.” It’s just the getting to them requires a bit more work these days.
Vicari – who has 27 years of experience in retail and food service, in addition to also being an adjunct professor for more than 30 years and working in sales and consulting – is familiar with the pull, because it’s how the NJSBDC at Ramapo College operates. The federal-state-education partnership, which gets its primary funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration, provides counseling, training and information to small business owners and entrepreneurs. Owners, or those looking to become owners, seek out services from the organization to help establish or grow their enterprises because the services provided by Vicari and his team offer a breadth of knowledge from the executive director and the organization he leads, which is housed within the Anisfield School of Business at the Mahwah campus.
The NJSBDC is also looking to pull when it comes to creating partnerships. This month, a public-private endeavor between the organization and Westfield Garden State Plaza was unveild. The special rent program offers small business operators short-term leases – think 3-month options as opposed to the typical 10 – 15-year deals – and exposure to foot traffic that adds up to 18 million annual shoppers. “You never get that on Main Street,” Vicari said. Other variables are more stable in the mall atmosphere, as well. Small businesses no longer need to be worried about parking options for customers, or what inclement weather may do to foot traffic. “It’s a good example of public-private collaboration,” Vicari said of the initiative, “that adds economic recovery to Bergen County.”
For the mall, the small businesses bring more than just their wares, they bring the community. “[N]ow the neighborhood activity more personally flows through the mall,” Vicari said. “[This] concerted effort to do that probably hasn’t been done before.” And it still creates value for the big stores, because after shoppers pick up their favorite local fare, they’re likely to take a walk throughout the property to see what other options are available. “Innovation is leveraging synergies to add more value. And that’s what I’ve done, is add more value, create synergy, use our resources, intellectual capital and the mall.
“They get the applause too,” he added, “because they reached out to me in this collaboration because they want to see that the mall can better mirror the economic landscape of Bergen County. … So the businesses that go in there also legitimize the retail ecosystem of the mall itself, because people that will now go from their neighborhoods into the mall are seeing their neighbors in business.” Now, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, the owner of Garden State Plaza and 25 other malls across the U.S., is considering rolling out the program nationwide.
Last fall, the NJSBDC at Ramapo College received the Governor’s Jefferson Award for public service for its Economic Recovery Task Force Initiative, which engages high-performing undergraduate and graduate students to shadow the organization’s consultants and help assist clients. But it’s not just business students who take part in the program, interns come from across the Ramapo campus, representing everything from the arts to computer science. “Every discipline represents a category of business on the street,” Vicari said. And each perspective offers something new.
The program is popular. According to Vicari, three days after the current application period opened it had already received 15 submissions for just 20 positions. Then, after it ends, Vicari said many interns stay on, like Rohan Dhote, who was honored as a Rising Star winner by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association in 2021. Ramapo as an institution is supportive, as well, and Vicari said the NJSBDC will shortly move to a new space on campus with more area to work in and a conference room. Support from the Ramapo community comes in other forms, too: if Vicari needs outside help, he’s got experts on hand. “[I]f I have a question on economics or finance, marketing, blockchain—we have people that not just teach it, they publish it, they do it.”
“[W]e are good at what we do,” he said. Something the community agrees with: Vicari said he recently found out the NJSBDC will be honored by Beta Gama Sigma this year.
“And the reason we’re good at what we do, it’s not because of me,” he continued. “It’s because of the people that follow me. … We go to the target of success for others, and then we add our piece, and if we’re not strong enough to do it, then we grab a helping hand from someone else.”
The work with Westfield Garden State Plaza is one way the NJSBDC is helping to keep up with fulfilling the satisfaction of its customers. Another is its Economic Recovery Task Force Initiative, and additional partnerships. “The economy is always changing. What people buy, what they want out of that product, how they measure satisfaction, where they get it and how they want to pay for it and have it delivered,” Vicari said, adding that, that’s nothing new. “What changes are the variables. So, in public service we have to innovate, we have to do more with [what we have], and we have to add more value than we did yesterday on the same resources.”
As a growing number of people start new businesses, the challenge to meet the needs of that community also grows. According to seasonally adjusted data from the U.S. Census Bureau, New Jersey saw 135,599 new business applications in 2020, up from 113,200 the year prior, and in 2021 that number climbed even higher to 164,040. To serve those small businesses in Bergen County, Vicari says he’s looking for partners who are also ready to innovate. Like the Meadowlands Chamber. On April 26, the NJSBDC and the Chamber teamed up for an event on financial guidance that marked Vicari’s record when it came to sponsorships. After starting that day with the historic Chamber collaboration, Vicari closed the evening teaching for three hours at the Teaneck Library, a weekly session he says is reserved for the entire year. He’s also part of the North Jersey Chamber of Commerce and collaborates with the Business Partner Network in Bergen County and the Bergen County Cooperative Library System.
The pull, as opposed to the push, brings things together. And as relationships beget relationships, you end up with a community, which hits at the heart of small business. At the Meadowlands Chamber event Vicari’s work truly came full circle. Along with support from attendees, a current client of the NJSBDC – Lobster Life Systems of Lodi – served as a supporting sponsor for the event. “That is a client paying back … for what we’ve done to help them,” Vicari said. “[T]o me, that support was the best … because now I know that the people understand, see, and want to support the value.”
“That is the goal, that’s what happened yesterday,” he added.