Impossible to predict future in these times

  • Penny C. McBride
    Penny C. McBride

As a kid, I remember playing with my Magic 8 Ball. I now know it was originally my mother’s Magic 8 Ball because I still have the red box that slides over a black base that a Google search revealed to be the brand’s 1950 package.

The most unsatisfying response the Magic 8 Ball would yield to a question posed was, “Ask again later.” Of course, as a kid, “ask again later” meant immediately shaking the ball again for a different reply.

In our present pandemic-tainted world, the Magic 8 Ball seems to be stuck in “ask again later” mode, no matter how hard or how frequently shaken. How long can businesses hold on in a COVIDrestricted world? Are flattening the curve and stopping the spread the same thing? And how long will each take? When we open our doors, will the customer have the confidence to return? What will the customer now expect?

In an attempt to salvage revenues and serve customers, many businesses that were still firmly planted in the bricks and mortar experience had to quickly adapt, setting up e-commerce sites and mobile apps and reengineering their physical space nearly overnight. If there is a silver-lining of COVID-19, it is likely innovation.

But what have we trained our customer to now expect? Is it fair to believe they will return entirely to our old way of doing things with some of the amenities and conveniences they have experienced in the last two months? Will they once again expect us to pivot by making a real-time visit feel safer?

As if adding insult to injury, I believe the mom and pop shops will have to be more agile than ever because there are easier ways for most customers to get the things they need. In no way did the coronavirus invent the Amazon effect, but it has definitely amplified it.

Like many others, my daily commute to work these days is a trip up the stairs to my home study on the second floor of my house. The phone number for the Chamber is forwarded to my personal cell phone and I am encouraged by the volume of calls I answer each day from people who want to return to visiting Fredericksburg.

How do we safely serve this pent-up demand without creating an uptick in COVID-19 cases that could once again shutter our fragile economy? It’s like trying to stand with one foot each in two row boats, constantly adjusting balance to stay above water.

This sounds complex. But in this case, the Magic 8 Ball may be calling us to action instead of stalling.

I have to think our secret weapon is engagement. Engagement in the old-fashioned way of knowing our customers and providing a human-connection-type experience that cannot be shipped in a cardboard box. But also, engagement that bends to the sensitivities of the current environment.

A few days ago, I noticed West End Pizza had installed little flags at each booth that the customer could raise when something was needed from the server. Otherwise, the diner could enjoy their own little pocket of the restaurant. “Raising the flag” is all about the safe human connection we all crave.

As local businesses continue to navigate their way, we must all give them the positive responses they need. If we want to return to some version of the way things were, we must spend every dollar we can LOCALLY!

We want them and they need us. “Ask again later” is not an option.