Pontiac’s small business community reinvents its way through 2020

It’s not out of the norm for shoppers to brave the elements to get the best deals and/or support local retailers around the same time each year at the end of November. During the past few years, the City of Pontiac's Small Business Saturday has become a highly anticipated occasion.


This year, however, Tameka Ramsey says she found herself wondering how to avoid a cancellation, while also keeping the safety of vendors and patrons in mind.


“Normally, a lot of our small businesses in Pontiac are not brick-and-mortar, and they have events they can go to throughout the year,” says the owner of Downtown Pontiac-based consulting firm T. Ramsey and Associates. “Small Business Saturday is usually the last opportunity for businesses to come together and get the promotion they need from the community.”


Following an executive order from the governor that called for a partial shutdown of many businesses, Ramsey says the uncertainty of the coming months, specifically the lack of indoor shopping, made it even more important to create a space for those businesses to generate revenue.

Photo by Melvin Grigsby


In a matter of weeks, through the collaborative efforts of local small business owners and city and county officials, the city’s first-ever Small Business Saturday Winter Market, sponsored by the Black Women’s Roundtable, drew more than 100 shoppers to a Downtown Pontiac alley (not all at once -- because social distancing) to patronize 20-plus local small businesses from handmade jewelry and skincare to men and women’s apparel and specialty items for little ones.


That's just one example of how Pontiac has banded around its small business community to get through the hard times.


New directions for Main Street


Main Street Pontiac, a 501c3 that focuses on supporting the downtown area, has shifted to a virtual format for many of some of the annual events that have become a community staple in the city, according to president Chris Jackson.


“We were event-heavy the first couple of years of our existence; and then, obviously, COVID took most of those events away,” said Jackson. “We did the events we could in a way that was safe for the community but would still bring a sense of excitement around our four focus areas,” Those include Business Sustainability, Downtown Image, Arts & Culture, and Technology.


Jackson says funding provided by local sponsors, typically used for events, reprogrammed for two initiatives to help downtown businesses this year.


The first initiative was the Restaurant Brigade; which supported local downtown eateries businesses to make meals for essential workers and for individuals that needed any type of food. The second was a small business relief fund granting up to $1,000 to small businesses in the city.


Supporting small businesses


COVID-19 redefined Ramsey's consulting business.


“Initially T. Ramsey was supposed to be a consulting firm that assisted small businesses in growing and building capacity,” said Ramsey. “However, there was a gap in services and resources in the City of Pontiac; and so T. Ramsey had started to work to fill in those gaps.”


From training and workshops to one-on-one coaching and helping to set up local vendor events, Ramsey says she and her associates have pivoted from being a support service to serving as a “backbone organization for small businesses in the city.”


“If businesses aren’t making money, then they don’t have money to pay consultants; and so we have been doing a lot of the work for free through COVID just to help sustain some of those businesses,” said Ramsey.

Photo by Melvin Grigsby.


She credits her ability to provide services like one-on-one coaching to small business owners, in part, to the Pontiac Funders Collaborative. Ramsey says thanks to the funders, she and her associates have been able to assist small business owners with capacity building, including how to pivot amid a pandemic.


When asked about the impact of COVID-19 on her small business, Destinee Allen says in some ways the pandemic has been both helpful and inconvenient to her Etsy-based store Rosebud Market, which sells handmade jewelry and accessories.


“In some ways, I feel like it’s been positive because more people were just able to spend more time online because there was nothing else to do or go, and I actually benefited from it. Our audience was higher because people had nothing to do,” said Allen. “But in some ways, it’s been negative because we use vendor events to put our brand out there more, and that has gotten cut completely short.”


Allen admits the pandemic forced her to go back to the basics when marketing her product; and has caused her to refocus her efforts on promoting her online store, not only increase brand awareness and sales but also to find new ways to provide the “Rosebud Market Experience”.


“We usually take vendor events and get our name out more, but we couldn't do that … so it was like how can we bring the experience to our Instagram account, so it would make people be like, ‘I like this brand and I wanna shop here; and I feel a part of what they’re doing and what they’re selling.’ ”


Yaktown don't back down!


Even during a pandemic, YakTown Don’t Back Down! Just ask Sean Preston, owner of the clothing brand by the same name; which is the unofficial motto for the City of Pontiac.


Like Allen, Preston says the lack of vendor opportunities pushed him to be digital-first in his marketing efforts, which has included increasing the budget to ramp up spending on social media ad campaigns.


“We do a lot of pop-up shops, so when [COVID-19] first happened, we had to pretty much cancel our entire calendar,” said Preston. “But I really feel like that helped us in a sense because … our website really wasn’t the thing that we were promoting the most, so when COVID happened, we started putting a lot of our marketing dollars toward Facebook advertisements to generate revenue through our website.”

Photo by Melvin Grigsby.


Taking note from big brands, Preston says he made the brand’s new and improved website a top priority to drive traffic; and, ultimately, increase his return on investment through sales.


“If you look at Nike, you look at Adidas, all the major retailers in America, they’re all going digital,” said Preston. “You can spend X amount of dollars on Facebook to increase your sales, so it’s a challenge, but it’s helped me out as an entrepreneur because it’s allowed me to be more creative.”


That creativity and ad dollars paid off for the Small Business Saturday Winter Market collaborator and vendor, whose Facebook promotions caught the eye of many shoppers ahead of the event, allowing Preston to sell out of his signature merchandise.


“I put some of my own personal money into advertising for the Small Business Saturday Winter Market; and to see people actually come and say, ‘Hey! I saw your ad on Facebook!’ I think that was just so dope.”


Small Business Saturday Winter Market was presented by Black Women’s Roundtable, the City of Pontiac, consult chris llc, Divine 26, Main Street Pontiac, Oakland County, T. Ramsey and Associates and YakTown Don’t Back Down.

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