Virtual Pivot: The evolution of goods, services and ads

Giant Voices is seeing requests for more digital content. From left: Pascha Apter, Giant CEO, Jena Mertz, director of operations, and Lisa Bodine, Giant president.

From retail and healthcare to reading and investing, almost all of our needs can be handled online. There’s no doubt the world was already headed in that direction, but in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual offerings are now almost a foregone conclusion. 

While some businesses have been able to succeed without much digital interfacing, most have learned that change is inevitable. To remain solvent, many businesses in the Duluth/Superior area have pivoted the way they do business to include a variety of virtual offerings combined with more traditional methods. 

Books 

Bob and Angel Dobrow own and operate Zenith Bookstore at 318 N. Central Ave. in Duluth. Zenith, which opened in 2017, sells a variety of new and gently-used books along with other items, including puzzles, greeting cards (most by local artists) and Zenith-brand merchandise. 

The pandemic, combined with competition from global giant Amazon, pushed the Dobrows to expand their business. They now offer online shopping, curbside pickup and audiobooks.

“The elephant in the room with regard to book-selling is Amazon,” Bob Dobrow said. “The rise of Amazon some 20 years ago led to the decimation of many independent bookstores. But indie bookstores have come back – and have even thrived and prospered – by offering services and a vision which Amazon does not.” He described this purpose to include supporting local authors, offering exceptional customer service with in-person recommendations, building community with partnerships, hosting events and offering a safe, comforting and welcoming place.

“We started our business during this comeback of indie bookstores,” Dobrow said. “In the first year or two, we had very little online business, and our website was mainly informational. We knew we had to move into e-commerce. About two years ago, we changed our point-of-sale software to a system that allowed us to integrate our website into a ‘web store.’”

By the time COVID hit, Zenith had already laid the technical basis for a big push to online sales, but they still didn’t have the customer base, said Dobrow, so online sales were small compared to in-store business. However, with COVID, and having to close the store for a few weeks and only allow curbside pickup, their online sales mushroomed.

Today, customers can browse the store in-person or online. Patrons can pick up items in-store, have their order shipped to them or use the curbside option. 

Zenith also partners with Libro.fm, an audiobook company supporting indie bookstores. Libro offers almost everything Amazon-owned Audible does but with the strong support of indie bookstores and the buying local movement. When people sign up with Libro.fm, they choose a bookstore to support. If they choose Zenith, then Zenith receives a percentage of every sale.

Zenith has experienced much success with these initiatives. 

“We are extremely lucky to be in a city and community of enthusiastic readers and folks who have a strong, ‘buy local’ ethic,” Dobrow said. “And of course, with COVID, more people are reading, too.”

Fitness

During the pandemic, fitness centers were one of the first industries mandated to close. People turned to virtually-connected home gyms such as Peloton, Mirror or Tempo. Many local facilities realized that in order to survive, they had to go virtual. 

“During the pandemic, we had a mandatory closure from March 17th to June 1st,” said Chris Stenberg, CEO of the Superior-Douglas County Family YMCA, at 9 N. 21st St. in Superior. “We realized pretty quickly that we needed virtual offerings. It was already on our radar before the pandemic, but for a lot of us, we were forced to figure this out.” 

The “Superior Y” launched a YouTube channel featuring free workouts open to anyone. Their website now also offers live and pre-recorded workouts including yoga, kickboxing, boot camp, silver sneakers (for older adults) and more exclusively for members. 

Julie and Mike Hendrickson are the owners of Destination Fitness. With locations at 4966 Rice Lake Road and 350 Harbor Drive in Duluth, the business has been operational since 2012 and offers personal training, adult fitness classes, youth training and corporate training.

“We had zero online offerings before COVID,” Julie Hendrickson said. “We make personal connections with people that are hard to make online.” Today things are much different. 

“Our entire adult fitness class schedule is now available virtually, plus those with a membership also have our classes available on-demand,” she said. “Since COVID, we do a fair share of personal training virtually, too.”

Both the YMCA and Destination Fitness plan to continue their online offerings, post-pandemic. 

“It has kept us afloat and is something we will continue to offer from here on out,” Hendrickson said. But she also stressed that having a connection with a personal gym, whether you attend virtually or in-person, is invaluable. 

“Knowing clients personally cannot be replaced. We have an awesome little community here that people need. Firms like Peloton don’t make a personal connection. If you don’t show up for a class on Peloton, does the trainer reach out and ask how you are and where you’ve been? No. Does a Peloton trainer answer questions about diet and hold you accountable towards your goals? No. Personal trainers do that; we do that.”

“I think virtual classes are here to stay,” Stenberg added. “We want people back in our facilities and to have that social connection, but people are going to continue wanting these options.” 

Advertising

Pearson & von Elbe Advertising (PVA), at 1427 London Road in Duluth, is a full-service marketing agency specializing in creating, planning, executing and maintaining marketing campaigns using both traditional and digital marketing. Owner Briana Manning concedes that traditional forms of advertising, including print and radio ads, have been on the decline. However, she remains optimistic about these forms of marketing. 

“When referring to newspapers, magazines, newsletters … subscriptions started declining before the pandemic,” Manning said. “But online readership has been steadily growing and providing mostly free access to news information in real-time. The newspaper industry has seen that coming, and many papers made the move to a digital format and continue to be a source for that information.”

She noted that we still live in a tangible world and not everything is online. 

“Print can still be exciting. There is the use of colors, shapes and textures outside the constraints of the digital screen, like embossing and metallics, for example.” 

Manning also said that thank you notes, when written on a notecard with a company logo, are a modern form of marketing. Many business cards, too, include QR codes and company website information. 

“Product packaging, indoor and outdoor banners, direct mail, calendars – all are versions of print and still widely used in marketing,” she said. 

Local radio also retains a significant place in the marketing mix, said Manning. 

“Many people look for a local source of entertainment. Morning shows still engage with their audiences through text lines, social media and contests. You can still listen to high school and college sports on our local radio stations. Like newspapers, radio is adjusting to a life in the digital world. They are streaming, have websites and use social media.”

When it comes to the future of ads and digital marketing, Manning shared that Chatbots and video marketing have grown in popularity. She also noted the importance of search engine optimization (SEO). 

“If a business does one thing right now, it should be to learn how they rank with search engines. Businesses new to the online world or who haven’t had much luck with online connections yet should look at improving their SEO.”

The bottom line, Manning said, is listening to her clients. 

“The choice between traditional and digital marketing comes down to which one best fits the needs of our clients. We do use both, but advertisers are starting to use more online advertising.”

Giant Voices, located at 212 W. Superior St. in Duluth, is a strategic marketing agency offering leadership in business, sales and advertising with both traditional and digital marketing expertise. They have been in business for nine years. 

President/co-owner Lisa Bodine shared that ultimately, the pandemic has been good for business. 

“We have a lot of clients now looking at how to stay relevant and how to connect sales and marketing more deliberately,” she said. 

“For those of us in the world of marketing, we are big advocates of placing media where your target audience is,” she added. “Print and radio are still viable types of media. But it’s certainly not for everyone.” 

For instance, “Print and radio are very difficult to quantify from a return-on-investment standpoint. Business owners are looking for concrete examples of ROI.” 

Bodine added that, in addition to digital content, she is seeing more requests for a variety of measurable marketing tools and tracking databases.

Evolution is key

Thanks to an increasingly digital society – combined with a lengthy global pandemic – flexibility and evolution remain key to keeping most industries solvent. This includes offering both virtual and traditional options. 

“Every dollar counts,” Manning said. “Spending money on the right marketing strategies can drive the success of a business.”