Lancaster experts discuss post-pandemic outlook for small businesses

Lancaster

LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — On Memorial Day, most of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 mitigation policies will be lifted. With the CDC updating its masking guidance and Pennsylvanians continuing to get vaccinated, it seems like the end of the pandemic may be in sight. But for businesses, the pre-pandemic “normal” may remain a thing of the past.

The coronavirus pandemic initiated changes in both consumer and business behavior.

“What we saw that happened in the last 9-12 months is just an acceleration of habits that we thought would take decades or years to change,” Peter Miklos, executive vice president, and Central Pennsylvania Commercial Banking Group Manager at Univest Bank and Trust Co. said.

A transition to online shopping has been one major change for businesses that Miklos anticipates will continue in post-pandemic life, as will the use of other technological options that reduce the need for face-to-face interactions, he predicts.

Kevin St Cyr, the SCORE Lancaster-Lebanon chapter chair, notes that many people took advantage of food delivery from restaurants and grocery stores during COVID-19, and he expects that many people will continue utilizing these delivery services in the future, as well.

The transition to remote work is another coronavirus-initiated shift that Miklos and St Cyr expect to continue beyond the pandemic. They say that a hybrid model in which employees split their time between in-person work and working from home is likely to remain popular.

Developing workplace culture is more difficult when employees are not working together in person, but business productivity does not seem to have diminished due to remote work, says Miklos. And businesses that want to stay competitive in the hiring market will likely need to offer a remote option, he says.

“I think companies that want to maintain a best-employer status or something like that, they’re going to have to show flexibility to the worker who needs to work at home from time to time because COVID proved that it could be done,” St Cyr said.

“Usually you talk about a recession and then a recovery, but today we talk about ‘pre-COVID’ and ‘post-COVID,'” Miklos said. “And I think that is also indicative of how habits have really changed, that people are almost prepared to not go back to a time before COVID, but really focusing on what life is going to be like after that.”

While businesses’ recovery from COVID-19 may not mean simply going back to “normal” but instead figuring out how to adapt to changing consumer and employee behaviors, the end of the pandemic does paint an optimistic outlook for businesses that suffered through the last year.

“There’s pent-up demand for products or services now, [and] I think the small businesses are starting to feel that in a positive way,” St Cyr said. Miklos uses the popular phrase “revenge shopping,” meaning buyers making up for lost time with increased spending, to describe consumer behavior as COVID-19 restrictions are eased.

Miklos and St Cyr say that the hospitality and travel industries are likely to see an especially strong rebound in the upcoming months as Pennsylvanians are able to safely gather together with others — good news for industries that were hit hard by the pandemic. People are eager to get together with friends and family, enjoy food from restaurants at restaurants, and visit different places as it becomes safer to do so.

Restaurants, bars, hotels, and airlines are some of the businesses likely to get a boost in the upcoming months. Increased travel could meaningfully help Lancaster County, which has a significant tourism industry that was shuttered by the pandemic, notes St Cyr.

The entertainment industry will also likely have a notable rebound after being bashed by COVID-19, forecasts Miklos. This is another positive for Lancaster County businesses like the Fulton Theatre, which recently announced its September reopening for the 2021-2022 season after shutting down last year.

While the post-pandemic outlook for small businesses is promising, there are a couple of hurdles that still stand in their way: hiring people to fill open positions and supply chain disruptions.

“If you drive across the counties that we live in, I see ‘hiring’ signs almost everywhere I go, whether it be restaurants or trucking or even certain office positions,” St Cyr said.

“I was at a restaurant just this past weekend that was not limited by COVID for the seating for the people that wanted to come in, it was limited by…the waiters and waitresses that were there to service it,” Miklos said. At another long-time Lancaster restaurant, Miklos found the restaurant’s owner working as the hostess because there wasn’t anyone else to fill the role.

Miklos explains that there are two schools of thought on why businesses are having so much difficulty hiring employees. Some people argue that individuals are unwilling to return to work because they are making more money from government programs than they would at their jobs. Others say that employers are not paying enough to fairly compensate employees for their labor, and individuals are unwilling to fill low-paying positions.

Another impediment to businesses’ swift recovery is disruptions in supply chains. Shortages of products and materials like steel and lumber are leading to delays across the supply chain, explains Miklos.

This means it can take much longer for businesses and individuals to receive certain products, and it also means prices may be going up. Business owners will have to figure out how to cut costs, or, St Cyr says, they will have to raise prices to continue making a profit.

Businesses used to have favored suppliers where they would get their products, and they would have a few backup sources in mind, but supply chain disruptions during COVID-19 have shown them that they need to pay attention to all levels of supply and production leading up to the final product, Miklos explains.

Using the example of lumber, Miklos says businesses now know that they need to be aware of the supplier from which they get their lumber directly, but they also need to pay attention to the status of the trucking company transporting the lumber to the supplier, and they need to keep an eye on the lumber mills that turn the trees into the 2-by-4s that are transported by the trucks, and so on.

“A lot is being spent on that supply side, on analytics, artificial intelligence to make sure that we understand how those sub-markets and subsets are going to be able to be addressed in times like this, so I think we’ll get better as an economy from it,” Miklos said.

Although business may never return to pre-pandemic “normal,” post-pandemic operations may set the stage for new growth and adaptation to best meet the demands of buyers eager to get back to spending money and enjoying the variety of businesses Lancaster County has to offer.

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