Businesses serving customers on their terms in coronavirus siege – The Journal Record

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Jeff Ahl, owner of FastSigns of Norman, said he’s joining in the fight against the coronavirus, offering customers advertising ideas custom designed for the virus. (Photo by Mark Hancock)

NORMAN – As fear of infection spreads about as fast as the social distancing movement, businesses are caught in the crossfire, struggling to survive for the sake of their enterprises as well as their employees.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then the coronavirus is driving businesses to invent new ways to maintain cash flow necessary to keep operating until the economic siege subsides.

From television commercials to social media to word of mouth, businesses are getting the word out that this may not be business as usual, but they’re still in business, and they’re meeting customers on their customers’ terms.

Businesses in Norman were among the earliest to face challenges associated with the coronavirus when Norman became the first community in Oklahoma to declare a state of emergency. A few days later, the city closed bars, restaurants, gyms and other businesses. On Monday, Norman Mayor Breea Clark closed barbershops and beauty salons. On Tuesday, she issued a stay-at-home order, sidelining all but Norman’s most essential businesses.

Jeff Ahl, owner of FastSigns of Norman, said he’s not allowing the coronavirus to erode his business. In fact, he’s joining in the fight against the epidemic, offering customers advertising ideas custom-designed for the virus. He’s busy producing signs for hospitals, banks and restaurants that now offer curbside service. He says those services place his store in the essential business category.

He’s spent the last couple of weeks reaching out to businesses about creating signs for new services and communicating new rules for staying healthy.

He’s offering discounts of as much as 50% to businesses that need signs directly related to the coronavirus outbreak, ranging from curbside service to antimicrobial mattresses and health warnings at hospital entrances. He’s even handing customers free stickers that say, “No handshakes, no hugs, just smiles.”

Ahl said people welcome his calls and appreciate his sign-making suggestions as they chart their way through the coronavirus labyrinth.

“I haven’t talked to anyone out there who’s visibly panicking about this,” Ahl said. “But I have talked to some who have had to lay off people.”

The city of Norman’s recent orders have closed businesses and encouraged people to stay at home, causing a drop in routine business calls, Ahl said, but he plans to continue operating as long as possible to avoid furloughing employees.

“I don’t know how long we’ll last,” he said.

Nikki Carver, president of Super C Mart, said virus concerns prompted her company to begin offering curbside service for the first time on Monday at its location in Noble, which is just south of Norman.

“Customer traffic was extremely bad last week,” said Carver, whose grandfather started the grocery store chain 70 years ago. “It was about double what we were used to.”

Carver said the new service will be good for the community, which has only one full-size grocery store.

“We’re getting a very positive response,” she said. “Customers are really comfortable and excited about it, especially the older customers. We have a large senior demographic.”

In addition to its new curbside service, Super C Mart has rolled out a special senior hour, when the store is open only to customers who are 60 years old and above.

“We get really good feedback about that, and we’re also doing a strenuous job of cleaning inside the store and cleaning carts every time they come back.”

Carver said Super C Mart operates eight stores, including the one in Noble. The company also has stores in Lindsay, Kingston, Carnegie, Apache, Wetumka, Wilson and Maysville.

She’s not sure if she’ll offer the curbside services at other locations. It requires a learning process, she says.

“We’re going to get through this week and see how it goes,” Carver said.

Meanwhile, Lin Copelin, co-owner of Copelin’s Office Center in Norman, said she has always been willing to offer customers curbside service, but the family business has preferred to see regulars step in and peruse their office supplies, toys and educational materials in person.

The coronavirus changed that last week, when they began introducing the service more formally in anticipation of further restrictions on in-store traffic.

Lin Copelin’s husband, Ed, said the Norman mayor’s stay-at-home order will not force them to close their doors because they sell office supplies, which are considered essential to operating businesses. However, he said they have roped off the toys and educational supplies and will either deliver them to customers or carry them to their cars.

In addition to curbside service, the Copelin’s team is preparing packages of educational games, books and other materials for families with children who are out of school with a lot of extra time on their hands.

“The response has been tremendous,” Lin Copelin said. “Customers don’t want to get their children out.”

“This is not ideal,” she said, “but we’re trying to protect our employees and their families and try to get through this until it’s over. It’s for everybody’s sake. We’re doing the best we can.”