BENNINGTON — Some Southwestern Vermont businesses are getting a digital shot in the arm, just in time for the holiday season, thanks to a $10,000 state grant.
The grant — sought by Banner and Journal ad director Susan Plaisance with assistance from Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Matt Harrington — was awarded Oct. 13 and must be spent by Nov. 30.
Part of the Restart Vermont Regional Marketing and Stimulus Grant Program, the money will go to 75 Southwestern Vermont businesses that have been harmed financially by the coronavirus pandemic. Grants were awarded to local, regional and statewide groups to help increase consumer spending, support local businesses, and advance community recovery efforts, according to the state.
For many small Vermont businesses, the fear going into the holidays was that coronavirus cases would go up and keep foot traffic down, Harrington said, which would make an already difficult pandemic even harder.
“I don’t think it’s been lost on anybody that it’s been an extremely harsh year on many of our small businesses,” said Harrington. “A lot of businesses, a good handful, have had to dip into personal savings and retirement to stay afloat. It’s a once-in-a-century, a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that we’re trying to deal with.”
Plaisance, who for work traverses all of Bennington County and nearby New York and Massachusetts, has seen firsthand how the pandemic has struck fatal and near-fatal blows to many merchants, restaurateurs and other commercial endeavors.
“COVID-19 has created a challenge for our local businesses, and the impact has wreaked havoc on the vitality of our community, so I felt that it was our obligation to step up and help,” Plaisance said Wednesday. “The Banner and Journal are the town squares of Bennington County, and it is our responsibility not only to provide the news but to assist our neighbors with their business needs.”
What the Banner, Journal and their parent company, New England Newspapers Inc., can offer is a wide reach: With 1.7 million engaged online readers, NENI has designed an online marketplace for the holiday season specifically for Southwestern Vermont small businesses and their customers, chamber executive Harrington recently announced in a letter to participating businesses.
It’s called The Shires of Southwestern Vermont Digital Holiday Marketplace.
“We know this year has been tough for many of you, and we are looking forward to pushing more customers your way in the coming weeks,” Harrington writes to his members.
On the marketplace, the selected small businesses receive a digital marketing and promotional package worth about $3,000. The package includes a digital ad on NENI news websites, which touts a presence on some 500,000 digital screens during the duration of the holiday season.
The businesses also will be featured on a digital landing page with a directory that includes a Google map with locations, hours of operation, social media links to their business, and the ability to have the information shared with their friends and family.
Letty Acosta, a digital media and sales expert with NENI, says it always has been important for small businesses to have an online presence, but that importance grew exponentially, nearly overnight, with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If you aren’t online, you are missing a major market share; and for Google, you don’t exist,” said Acosta. “For savvy small businesses, an online presence is their ‘rainy day fund,’ a way to ensure that the virtual cash registers still ring if something were to happen to their customer base. And, that’s exactly what COVID-19 forced upon us, closing our storefronts.”
Harrington is concerned for Vermont, and the world, that we may never go back to in-person shopping with the same intensity it once had. He said “by some estimates, we have vaulted ten years ahead in consumer and business digital penetration in less than one year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for many to be online for work and personal task, like shopping.”
Acosta agrees, pointing to how e-commerce sales are rising, up to $180 billion in 2019 and expected to double that in 2020 because of the pandemic; in a few years, it will be in the trillions, she said.
“For small business, you must have an online presence to access those sales,” said Acosta.
Harrington said that his chamber serves 17 communities within Bennington County but also aids businesses in nearby Massachusetts and New York. With few shopping meccas, the region’s consumers tend to cross-pollinate from town to town, and the services offered throughout the area draw from a spread-out consumer base.
He and Plaisance chose businesses to join the Marketplace from among different business categories, including retail, arts and culture, restaurants (any food or dining), lodging, and professional services.
“It’ll be a wide swath of all those industries on the Marketplace in hopes that people can shop safely this holiday season,” Harrington said of the recipients. “The Marketplace will take place between Black Friday and New Year’s week. The holiday season is what makes being in business viable for many of our small businesses here in Southwestern Vermont. This is an important month for them.”
Harrington said the chamber’s mission is to open the bordens of the state and open the doors to more business, and a digital platform for merchants is just another way to do that during a time when in-person visits are down.
“We wanted to do anything we could to help them, and the holiday marketplace is just one way we can help,” said Harrington.
For those businesses that haven’t had much of an online presence, he hopes this is a step toward embracing a 21st century marketplace strategy.
“Highlight your Vermont product and show it to the world,” said Harrington. An easy-to-join program like the holiday marketplace is permission to many businesses who might want to stick their toe in the water of online marketing, he said.
Harrington noted that, for other interested businesses who were not among the 75 chosen for the holiday marketplace, any business can join at cost and should reach out to the Banner or Journal.
The chamber director added that more grant news is on the horizon, all of which are designed to assist and highlight Vermont small businesses and regional assets. attractions and products.