Helping US small businesses survive the COVID-driven shift online
Small businesses have always been the backbone of the American economy — scrappy, resilient and hard working. Rarely in our country’s history have small businesses been forced to adapt more quickly in order to survive than during the past year. Yet by refocusing their approach and turning online for sales, deliveries and services, millions of small businesses across the country have weathered this storm. Now, our country is at an inflection point. We must take the bold steps needed to help small businesses transition to the new and quickly evolving online commerce environment — and support major infrastructure investments being considered by Congress.
The data quantifies the outsized role small businesses share in weaving together the fabric of our country. There are currently almost 32 million small businesses in the U.S. and of that number, over 80 percent are self-employed. For those that do have employees, almost 90 percent have fewer than 20 workers. These are mom-and-pop stores, individuals with big dreams and main street shops that anchor local communities. Indeed, over 65 percent of net new job creation since 2000 can be directly attributed to small businesses. When we support small businesses, it creates ripple effects — communities thrive with local job creation, which spurs economic growth, benefitting us all. The picture here is one of strength and resilience.
Though 2020 presented a host of challenges to small businesses, it also created opportunities. As the pandemic forced shoppers to stay home and consumer spending habits shifted online, many small businesses adapted to this changing ecommerce environment by pivoting online in record numbers — with over half of U.S. sellers seeing an increase in online sales in 2020. The fact is, in the modern consumer age, ecommerce and brick-and-mortar retailers are no longer bifurcated but have become interconnected, as the ways in which we do business have been permanently redefined.
As small businesses continue to recover, we need to be careful of burdening them with harmful regulations and mandates. Increasing operating costs, ongoing shipping challenges and other complexities disproportionately affect online small businesses — particularly microbusinesses. In this environment, we need to avoid onerous legislation imposing unreasonable marketplace verification and disclosure requirements that disadvantage small businesses selling online and benefit big-box retailers.
Proposals and legislation that make it harder to sell on online marketplaces will stifle the economic opportunity that platforms like ours offer entrepreneurs across the country. For passionate collectors like Alec Featherstone from Denton, Texas, who has successfully sold comics online at Freaks and Geeks, but was forced to close his brick and mortar store during the pandemic. Or for sustainable powerhouses like Angie Nelson of Livermore, Calif., who runs a business diverting electronic waste from landfills by recycling and selling refurbished products on Angie’s GreenGo Surplus.
Government investments in infrastructure aren’t simply numbers on a page in Washington, D.C. These investments will help secure the necessary tools for entrepreneurs like Featherstone and Nelson to compete on a global scale. Broadband investment will allow more rural small businesses to reach customers around the world. Reforming our nation’s postal system to ensure affordable, reliable package delivery services will increase efficiencies for all sellers, whether in rural or urban areas. As a result, these dollars will fuel the future success of individuals and livelihoods across our country.
The private sector also has a role to play in empowering small businesses. We need to join together to offer technical assistance, training and tools so that small businesses new to online can get up and running, while continuing to support existing online small businesses with tools to grow. We also need to create growth in untapped communities and support nonprofits who partner with budding entrepreneurs.
Small businesses are counting on us. We must make the necessary investments in infrastructure so that small businesses can emerge from this pandemic more prepared for a digital future than before. It’s time to work together.
Jamie Iannone is the president and CEO of eBay.