What local businesses learned from 2020 — and what it means moving forward

July 5, 2021

Through a partnership with Dearborn’s Downtown Development Authorities and the City of Dearborn, UM-Dearborn’s iLabs conducted research exploring how local businesses pivoted to weather the pandemic. Read the takeaways.

Customers eat seated on a Downtown Dearborn restaurant's patio seating.
Customers eat seated on a Downtown Dearborn restaurant's patio seating.
Photo courtesy Downtown Dearborn Authorities

When thinking about Downtown Dearborn, words that come to mind include vibrant, diverse and historic. Now, thanks to a College of Business iLabs Center for Innovation Research project, there’s another word to add: optimistic. 

“Businesses, big and small, learned a lot about resiliency in 2020. And most are optimistic when looking at 2021 and beyond,” said iLabs Project Manager Kari Kowalski. 

Through a partnership with Dearborn’s Downtown Development Authorities (DDA) and the City of Dearborn, UM-Dearborn’s iLabs staff developed and completed a research project that looked into how local businesses pivoted their offerings and services to weather the pandemic and what effect that had on their outlook. iLabs research is dedicated to advancing the understanding of corporate, entrepreneurial, and institutional innovation and its impact on economic development.

The survey was sent in early 2021 to 600-plus businesses in East and West Downtown Dearborn. It asked about adaptation strategies, sales in 2019 vs. 2020, collaborative business partnerships and more.

“We wanted to really understand what happened in 2020 and how businesses viewed 2021 and onward. Working closely with the DDA, the City of Dearborn and other community partners, we gathered data to learn more about how they pivoted to stay in business.”

Kowalski said hopefully there won’t be another pandemic-level crisis anytime soon, but challenges are ever-present. “Gathering information about areas of strengths and weaknesses during this time will give us lessons learned, which can help businesses overcome difficulties that may come their way in the future.”

Here are a few takeaways from the iLabs research study.

Change was good — most businesses will keep the adaptations they made during the pandemic.

Nearly 90% changed the way they did business in some way. Survey data shows that doctor’s offices and fitness studios began offering virtual consultations and appointments, restaurants added patio seating, stores offered curbside pickup, boutique shops packaged together items (like gift baskets or multi-service offerings for a combination price) based on customer profiles.“

And most — 75% — are going to keep those changes long term, Kowalski said.

Reasons the businesses gave on why they planned to maintain the pandemic-related changes? Customer satisfaction, increased business footprint and, in many cases, the changes were considered pre-pandemic, but never implemented. “The pandemic forced businesses to innovate. Some of the changes — like creating an online store or an outdoor eating space — were on the minds of business owners prior to the pandemic. But there wasn’t an urgency to act on those ideas until the pandemic hit. The situation businesses were in was far from ideal, but most liked how they evolved and the changes they made.”

Kowalski said there was a lot of quick thinking and the biggest takeaway was that those who pivoted quickly did much better than those who did not. “That’s not entirely a surprise, especially in retrospect. But it’s important to have this information to remind ourselves how important it is for businesses, no matter how established they are, to stay flexible and creative.”

There were dips in employment levels, but staffing remained relatively stable.

Staff levels saw a slight fall during the pandemic, but stayed approximately the same during the overall pandemic time period included in the survey (March 2020-January 2021). Kowalski said the majority of businesses expect to maintain full-time employee levels and hire more part-time staff during the 2021 year. 

She said the DDA and the city of Dearborn want to support downtown Dearborn and those upcoming job openings are a way the city groups can help business owners. “All businesses indicated they are using some kind of social media and advertise on that. The DDA and the City of Dearborn can expand the talent base by sharing the open positions on their social media platforms to get added eyes on the opportunities.”

Resources are out there, but businesses need more help connecting to them.

Flourishing business downtown is beneficial for the community as a whole. To make sure the local economy stays healthy, areas of improvement need to be identified. An area noted in the survey was the disconnect between the businesses and support services available. “There were a lot of funding opportunities applied for, but not many were received. We don’t know where that disconnect happened: Was it in the application process? Was a follow-up step missed? Did the funding run out? That was one takeaway for city leadership to investigate,” she said.

She said the survey data also showed that some businesses didn’t know how to utilize COVID-related support services or weren’t aware of them. She said the city, the DDA, and the local chambers of commerce publicized many of the resources and support opportunities, but the news didn’t always make it in front of a business owner. “Business owners, who were focused on day-to-day operations, may have not been looking. Or it could be that new communication strategies are needed. We don’t know. But we do know that Dearborn organizations want to connect businesses with help, and the businesses want to be connected to help. This is an area that needs follow up to understand the root cause.”

Downtown businesses view 2021 positively and are optimistic about the future. 

Businesses that had a decrease in sales during 2020 are seeing gains in 2021. Pandemic restrictions eased with vaccine distribution. And owners are mostly happy with the changes implemented during the pandemic. These are all reasons why business leaders are feeling good when looking toward the future. 

“They’ve been tested during one of the most challenging times in business history and have made it to this point because they successfully pivoted and adapted. We also noticed a correlation between optimism and businesses that regularly engaged with other local enterprises, showing the importance of partnership and connection,” Kowalski said. “The survey showed that downtown businesses, both established and new, are optimistic.”

Now that there is a baseline of data, Kowalski said there’s an opportunity to revisit the topic in coming years for additional survey research.

“We are certainly interested in partnering with the DDA and the City of Dearborn in the future to gather additional information to see longer-term impacts,” she said. “A community research project like this gives businesses an outlet to share their experiences, helps us keep our students aware of what’s happening in the local community, and provides data to the city and various resource avenues so they can provide the best support possible  — it’s a win-win-win.”

Interview by Sarah Tuxbury. If you’d like to speak with iLabs Program Manager Kari Kowalski about the center or its research projects, please let us know.

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