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Small Businesses E-Commerce Usage Continues to Increase as Holiday Revenues Were Mixed: Results from Our January 2021 Survey of Small Business Owners

March 11, 2021 | Small Businesses’ E-Commerce Usage Continues to Increase as Holiday Revenues Were Mixed: Results from Our January 2021 Survey of Small Business Owners | By: Michael Powe, Ph.D., Director of Research, NMSC | 
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In late January, we launched a new text message-based survey to assess the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on small businesses. Our questions focused on holiday revenues, usage and impact of e-commerce, and the renewed PPP program. We heard from 289 business owners in 35 states plus the District of Columbia. Because our survey is tracking hundreds of business owners over time, we were also able to link data from 223 business owner respondents to our December survey, allowing us to conduct analysis with a broader set of data for a subset of respondents.

Here are six takeaways from the January survey:

1. Small business owners reported widely varying holiday revenues and sales, with about two-thirds of small businesses reported reduced revenues compared to the 2019 holiday season. More than nine months into the pandemic, consumer spending was muted for many businesses. One-third of respondents who were also open during the 2019 holiday season reported that their 2020 holiday revenues were down more than 50 percent compared to the previous year. 20 percent of respondents, meanwhile, reported better 2020 holiday revenues than the previous year.

2. Very small businesses tended to have better holiday sales in 2020, and retailers did considerably better than restaurants and bars. 34 percent of businesses with five or fewer employees had the same or better holiday revenues in 2020 than 2019, compared to 27 percent of larger businesses. Meanwhile, of retail and food service businesses that were open through the 2019 and 2020 holiday seasons, 32 percent of retailers brought in more revenue in the 2020 holidays than in 2019, compared to 12 percent of restaurant and bar owner respondents. Reduced patronage as a result of public health restrictions on food service businesses left a clear mark.

3. Most small business respondents did not use e-commerce for the 2020 holiday season. Given the challenges that COVID-19 has brought with face-to-face business operations, it is somewhat surprising that 53 percent of small business owners said their businesses did not use e-commerce during the 2020 holidays. Among respondents according to business type or industry, retailers had the highest rates of e-commerce usage during the holiday season, but 35 percent of retailers also did not have an e-commerce platform.

4. Looking across Main Street surveys, however, there is clear indication that e-commerce usage is trending upward. In our March/April 2020 survey at the start of the pandemic, 37 percent of small businesses reported that they were using e-commerce, compared to 47 percent of small businesses in the January 2021 survey. Isolating retailer respondents, we see an increase in e-commerce usage from 53 percent of retailers in April 2020 to 65 percent of retailers in January 2021. This reflects a fairly staggering degree of uptick in the world of bricks-and-clicks.

5. The upside of using e-commerce is growing clearer. In our April 2020 survey, only 7 percent of small business owners said they earned more than a quarter of their total revenue through online transactions. In January 2021, 18 percent of small businesses reported that at least a quarter of their revenue came through online sales. As consumer behaviors developed during the pandemic remain “sticky,” e-commerce will likely continue to be an important component of business operations.

6. Response to the renewed Paycheck Protection Program program appears more conservative and mixed compared to the rush of applicants in the original PPP program earlier in the pandemic. The 2021 Paycheck Protection Program was still going through a phased rollout as we launched our survey, but only 43 percent of small business owners said they had already applied or planned to apply for the renewed program. 31 percent of small business owners said they would not apply, and 26 percent said they weren’t sure. In our survey from last April/May, 75 percent had already applied for relief funding from either the PPP, Emergency Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program, or Small Business Administration Express Bridge Loan or Debt Relief programs.

There are likely several factors that explain the differing reactions:
  • Some of the required qualifying factors associated with the program had been modified and some documentation requirements for applications became more onerous,
  • Some struggling businesses may have already closed,
  • Debt-averse business owners may be less interested in further government support, and
  • Business owners may be more optimistic that the pandemic is nearing their conclusion.
Attitudes and feelings about the pandemic among small business owners and Americans as a whole are also undoubtedly very different in January 2021 than they were in April 2020, when the crisis was quickly worsening and information was in short supply. Further research can make clearer the impacts and implications of the new PPP program, especially as it receives additional funding through the American Rescue Plan, passed by the House of Representatives on March 10th.

How do these findings strike you? Are you seeing similar trends in your communities or your small businesses, join the conversation on The Point!