Thoughts from the COVID-19 Frontlines

By Cynthia Feldman, MBA

I write this in the midst of the COVID-19 chaos; we don’t know if we’re at the beginning, the middle, or nearing the end. But we do know we’ve never experienced anything like this.

Like many of you, I’m a small business owner. But… my business wasn’t shut down, by the government or market forces. In fact, I’ve had the opposite challenge; remaining open as an essential service, when everything around us has gotten more challenging.

I’m not complaining! Our team is grateful for every day we can go to work. As an entrepreneur, I can’t imagine the pain my peers are experiencing, as they powerlessly watch their cash reserves, staffs and dreams dwindle.

But remaining open, and optimistic, is challenging in its own right. So here are some of the lessons we’ve learned during COVID-19. I hope they inspire you – and us – through the next downturn.

  1. Nurture your supply chain when things are good, and it will nurture you when they’re bad. This may seem obvious, but I have been so grateful to partner businesses that continue to serve us even as they encounter daily struggles. I’d like to think we earned their trust every time we paid an invoice on time, handled grievances with grace, or went out of our way to help them grow. Tomorrow’s a new day, but so far we have been able to source products and ingredients others can’t find. And that means we continue to care for the patients who need us more than ever.
  2. Be willing to pivot. In business school, they teach you about “survival pricing.” But living it is different. As a pharmacy, we rely on prescriptions from doctors. Most medical offices are closed now to non-emergency visits. That means we assign our staff to new tasks: sourcing products our patients need, mixing FDA-compliant hand sanitizer, helping medically fragile people create medication packets that their families typically provide (but no longer can as they are banned from elder-care facilities). We adjust by the day – sometimes by the hour.
  3. Take great care of your employees, before, during and after the crisis. For example, when you’re an essential worker, you have to find a way to get your kids home schooled. Many of our employees are working 10-hour days while their partners hold down the fort at home. They deal all day with stressed patients and others. And we are trying to help them as best we can, offering more scheduling flexibility and even saying “thank you” with regularity (it’s free!). We also have surprised our team on a few occasions, bringing in dinner for their entire family from a local restaurant. Buying local while caring for our people is a win-win. And I hope when things open up again, my employees will want to stay right here.
  4. Be transparent. When the crisis hit, we started making hand sanitizer. Raw ingredient costs soared about 400% overnight. But rather than a: elect not to make it or b: risk our business by maintaining loss-leader pricing, we went with c: made the product, explained why the price were higher than normal, and trusted our customers to understand that our goals were the same: to keep everybody healthy.
  5. Keep fighting. As noted before, closed medical offices impact our business significantly. But we’ve decided to invest now in the business we want when the dust settles. That means we’ve amped up social media communication, updated our website, printed old-fashioned yard signs, launched a new text-to-order system and even tried some super low-cost advertising. We didn’t just put our heads down, we grabbed a megaphone.

And that’s our list of COVID-19 survival tips, from one “essential” business to another. Are we where we want to be as a business? No. But we’re still here, and that makes us grateful every day.

Here’s wishing you continued success, or a speedy recovery.

 

Cynthia Feldman owns Sweetgrass Pharmacy in Mount Pleasant, SC.