Small businesses who pivoted to e-commerce saw record sales during Black Friday weekend

“The 'good side' of Covid-19 for us has been it really launched our goal and plans. It put them in warp speed to focus on online growth,” said one small-business owner.

A customer browses while shopping for books at the Strand Bookstore, on Nov. 28, 2020, in New York.Mary Altaffer / AP

Almost one-quarter of small businesses closed their doors during the pandemic — but for the few who survived, and pivoted to online sales, Black Friday weekend provided a much-needed boost.

Over the course of the holiday season so far, small retailers have seen an average 110 percent increase in online sales, according to Adobe Analytics.

“That was pretty heartening to see,” said Vivek Pandya, a senior digital insights manager with Adobe Analytics. “There has been a lot of demand and a lot of opportunity for retailers of all sizes to support shopping demand online.”

Small businesses have long made ends meet by offering unique in-store experiences. The pandemic changed that.

“Brick and mortar was our strength, and the website [used to be] just a marketing tool,” said Brian Miller, president of Geppetto’s, a San Diego, California-based toy store. “But when Covid-19 happened, we enhanced the website and improved it and added order-online-and-pick-up-in-store.”

While the toy store is still not selling at last year’s volume, the option to buy an item online and pick it up curbside “helped a lot,” Miller said, noting that he has seen use of this option double every month since it was rolled out in August.

Essentially overnight, storefront businesses were forced to close as part of public health measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Social distancing and stay-at-home rules catapulted heavyweights like Walmart and Amazon to the front of the pack, as consumers leaned on online shopping and grocery delivery more than ever before.

As Walmart and Amazon reported record growth, 23 percent of small businesses reported having to close at some point during the pandemic, according to a July poll from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. More than 163,000 U.S. businesses on Yelp have closed since March, according to a September report from the company.

Mia Semingson, co-owner of Two Hands Paperie in Boulder, Colorado, has doubled down on the business's e-commerce strategy. The store rolled out curbside pick up for online orders and bought a warehouse in Utah to store products for online shipping.

The investment has paid off. While store sales decreased, the company increased its online sales by 700 percent over the Black Friday shopping weekend compared to last year. The company’s total sales exceed those of last year.

“The 'good side' of Covid-19 for us has been it really launched our goal and plans,” Semingson said. “It put them in warp speed to focus on online growth.”

The pandemic has also been good for sites like Etsy and Shopify, which allow small businesses to quickly set up e-commerce shops. Shopify, a shopping platform that offers pre-engineered e-commerce sites, said it saw a record $2.4 billion in Black Friday sales globally, which amounts to a 75 percent growth in sales from last year. Etsy saw a 108 percent increase in sales in November from last year, according to Edison Trends, a digital commerce research company.

“That is a great story for Etsy,” said Hetal Pandya, co-founder of Edison Trends. “They’re now considered in the big league with 108 percent growth.”

Etsy CEO Josh Silverman told CNBC that the most searched item on the platform was "personalized gifts," underscoring how shoppers are looking for ways to make the holidays special during a time when they may not be able to gather.

"There’s always a need for things that are going to be cheap and arrive fast," Silverman said. "But more and more I think people want an alternative to that, when they want that product to mean something to them."

Consumers may be buying more unique purchases that are typically offered by small independent businesses, but big retail chains still outweigh them, said Simeon Siegel, a managing director and senior analyst at BMO Capital Markets.

“People buy products that they believe make them look or feel better — whether that’s a pair of Nike shoes or something unique from an independent marketplace,” Siegel said. “Ultimately, the largest brands still sell the most products.”

Miller at Geppetto’s in San Diego said he still kicks himself for not rolling out curbside pick up earlier in the pandemic. But he has no plans to discontinue that offer even once a vaccine is widely adopted and people return to stores.

“It also gives consumers the option to shop locally versus 'the A-word' — Amazon,” he said. “It gives them the option to support local businesses even if they want to order online.”