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For some Mass. businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed changes for the better

Owner Vicky Titcomb, Rae Titcomb (Vicky's niece), and Nancy Titcomb (Vicky's mother) outside the bookshop.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

When disaster strikes, sometimes, innovation follows.

At Titcomb’s Bookshop in East Sandwich, it all started with the PPP loan. The store, attached to the Titcomb family’s 17th-century home, had been operating on the Cape for five decades when the pandemic swept in.

Demand for books soared as residents rallied around local businesses, but the shop’s mostly part-time staff — working from home during lockdown — was overwhelmed. So owner Vicky Titcomb took a chance, using some of the store’s federal Payroll Protection Program funds to bring on more full-time employees when the store reopened. Titcomb promoted a part-timer to take over from her as manager, and she has been a dynamo, coordinating virtual events and reaching out to local artisans to expand the store’s gift selection. She also oversaw new hires, one focused on expanding the toy selection, another on rare and antique books, and a third on social media.

In 2020, the shop had its best year ever. And 2021 was even better.

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“COVID changed everything at our store,” Titcomb said. “It made us a better business by far.”

The pandemic crushed many small companies, as health concerns, supply chain issues, and labor shortages converged. But some were able to adapt — and thrive. They upgraded technologies and expanded online offerings. They sought out new customers and jump-started new lines of business. Others, like Titcomb, saw an opportunity and ran with it.

The pandemic didn’t kill them, it made them stronger.

For nearly two years, there has been a “global scrambling” as companies try to stay afloat, said Sridhar Tayur, professor of operations management at Carnegie Mellon University. And this crisis mindset has sparked changes that could have a lasting impact. Businesses are tracking customers’ online orders in ways they never did for in-person sales, he said. Operations are being automated and simplified.

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“Necessity is the mother of invention,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve had this amount of necessity at least in the last 20 or 30 years.”

Lightyear Strategies, a marketing firm in Boston, witnessed the shift in its clients. At first, the mindset seemed to be, “the world’s ending ... let’s get rid of the marketing,” said chief executive Nima Olumi. But a few months later, clients realized they needed help adapting to a changed and largely virtual world.

A New York property management firm asked Lightyear to figure out how to e-mail thousands of residents about new sanitization measures. Boston hospitals wanted videos educating patients about safety protocols.

At the same time, Olumi realized he needed to narrow his focus rather than trying to be a jack-of-all-trades “yes man.” Today, his recurring monthly revenue is more than 10 times what it was in 2019.

“If you make hot dogs,” he said, “stick to making hot dogs.”

For other business owners, though, the pandemic was the right time to branch out. Runamok Maple in Fairfax, Vt., saw its online syrup sales skyrocket, while restaurant and hotel sales slumped. So the company decided to launch Sparkle Syrup, infused with edible pearlescent mica, to “bring a little bit of joy,” said co-owner Eric Sorkin. And it’s been a huge hit. “All the working dads out there were now at home, and what does a working dad know how to make?” he said. “They make breakfast.”

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Ellen Speers, manager at Titcomb's Bookshop in Sandwich on Cape Cod moves some books from the upper level of the shop downstairs.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

At Copper Dog Books in Beverly, mastering online orders when nobody wanted to shop in person opened the door to shipping gift boxes, including a monthly subscription with two sci-fi novellas, a snack, and a small item such as a journal or key chain. Scenic Roots Garden Center in Sandwich launched a virtual landscape design business and started selling produce from a nearby farm. Both businesses have had record-breaking sales for the past two years.

Adopting new technologies has been a game-changer for many companies. In response to COVID restrictions, the owner of a nautical jewelry business in Washington state put scannable QR codes next to each necklace and bracelet in her window display, directing shoppers who couldn’t come inside to the items on her website. A business consultancy in Utah started digitizing operations when the world went online, including using artificial intelligence to help predict employee turnover, a major challenge during the pandemic. Financial services firms have turned to facial recognition technology from Bedford biometric software provider Aware to give mobile customers a more secure way to check their accounts.

Many companies have embarked on a “digital transformation” during the pandemic, said Mark Tina, vice president of sales for Verizon Business in the eastern US. New high-speed Internet-based services not only have more capabilities than older technologies, they are less expensive, he said, which is key for businesses struggling to survive.

When workers stopped going into their offices, Dependable Cleaners, based in Quincy, saw its business drop to a fraction of what it used to be, driving the dry cleaner to look for ways to become more efficient, said director of operations Carlyn Parker. It switched to a Verizon service that assigns one business number to ring on multiple mobile devices and desk phones, and it added a texting feature to its biweekly pickup-and-delivery service.

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Now, instead of visiting every home-delivery customer twice a week, the drivers only go where requested, allowing the company to add more customers without more drivers. Before Omicron drove companies to push back office reopening dates, Dependable Cleaners had climbed back to 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

“We’re in the fourth generation,” said Parker, whose grandparents started the company. “We’re here to stay.”

Finding new customers has also been a life-saver. When travel came to a halt in March of 2020, revenues dropped to “nearly zero” for LugLess, a Boston company that ships luggage for travelers. But it quickly started playing up the fact that using its services meant less human contact, said chief executive Aaron Kirley. No more waiting in line at the airport to check bags, no more gathering with the masses at the baggage carousel. The company also partnered with moving companies to reach the surge of digital nomads who could suddenly work wherever they wanted —and likely didn’t have room in their cars for all their stuff. And when people complained they could no longer print out shipping labels because they weren’t at work, LugLess developed digital labels.

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By the fall of 2020, business had tripled from its pre-pandemic high, then tripled again last year.

“It kind of forced us to open our eyes and look at new opportunities,” Kirley said.

Some of the new opportunities revealed during the pandemic aren’t just boosting revenues. They’re also saving lives.

A shelf of sold books with the names of customers was set up by the front entrance of Titcomb's bookshop for an easy pickup. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Groups Recover Together, an addiction therapy provider based in Burlington, has almost doubled the number of people it serves around the country since it started offering virtual sessions. Before COVID, people battling opioid abuse had to attend group therapy in person due to the medication being provided, said chief executive Colleen Nicewicz.

But when that requirement was rescinded during the shutdown, Groups Recover Together started holding sessions over Zoom, and then through a new app. The organization now reaches more than 10,000 people a week, nearly a third of whom live in counties with no physical site. Opioid addiction is rampant in rural areas, Nicewicz said; in one Indiana county with a population of just 10,000, Groups Recover is serving one out of every 200 residents, even without a clinic.

Crucially, data show that virtual group therapy is just as effective at keeping people off drugs as in-person sessions, she said. At a time when the opioid epidemic is worse than ever — overdose deaths rose nearly 29 percent in the 12 months ending in April 2021 compared to the year before — reaching more people is critical, said Nicewicz, who is hopeful virtual therapy will become a permanent offering.

“We really met an unmet need,” she said.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her @ktkjohnston.