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Small firms get creative amid coronavirus crisis

Hannah Fuchs
March 26, 2020

Much of Germany's economic life has ground to a halt. Now, many small and medium-sized companies are developing creative new ways to generate revenue.

Köln Laden Coco
Image: DW/H. Fuchs

Should we forgo delights like ice cream as we try to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic? After all, shouldn't we all be at home self-isolating, worrying about our friends and family and possibly even our jobs?  Yes, we should. But — if bought and eaten very carefully — is a lick of ice cream really so bad?

Livelihoods at risk

Rainer Winter doesn't think so. He founded and runs the Cologne-based chain of Keiserlich ice cream parlors, and is eager to keep his business up and running. Before Germany's national shutdown of nonessential businesses, he continued to sell ice cream, though he asked guests to keep a safe distance from each other and implemented very strict hygiene standards for staff as well.

Initially, he says, that kept ice cream lovers coming for a scoop.

Rainer Winter
Winter said he kept his ice cream shop open for as long as he couldImage: privat

"Customers accepted the new safety measures," he says. "That was great."

But not everyone thought keeping the parlor open was such a good idea. Online, some lambasted Winter, accusing him of avarice and irresponsibility. Winter, however, said, "No one sees the responsibility we have for our staff." At the end of the day, he added, "every business is made up of people."

Read more: Pressure mounts on food delivery workers amid COVID-19

According to Germany's Federal Statistical Office, some 99.3% of businesses in the country are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). More than 60% of all the people employed in Germany work for SMEs.

A survey conducted by Germany's Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DIHK) found that while many German SMEs are eagerly anticipating help and financial assistance from the state amid the economic shutdown, they're also taking matters into their own hands. 

Special deals and vouchers

Across German towns and cities, you can see many shops, restaurants and the like advertising special deals or vouchers that can be redeemed once the lockdown ends. Business owners, service providers and restaurateurs are getting creative to keep customers coming, and themselves out of bankruptcy.

Many business owners are taking to Instagram and other platforms to ask patrons to buy vouchers to help carry them through the shutdown. Hashtags like #supportyourlocals and #stillopen are trending online, and drawing attention to the plight of many SMEs today.

A pandemic wasn't part of the business plan

It's difficult keeping abreast of all the special coronavirus deals, campaigns and initiatives right now — not just for prospective customers but for business owners, too. That's why Vanessa Janneck, who runs a shop for sustainable design products in Hamburg, launched a platform where freelancers can network and help each other in these difficult times.

"I found it hard finding information for the self-employed," she said. That's why she joined forces with Boris Arnold and Florian Brendl to launch 2gather.jetzt, an online platform where the self-employed and small-business owners can support each other. The team also offers a template on their Instagram channel so freelancers can make public offers or requests.

Writing on Xing, a professional networking platform, Janneck said, "A pandemic was never part of my business plan." Now she, just like everyone else, is scurrying to adapt to the coronavirus shutdown.

Screenhot der Webseite 2gather.jetzt
2gather.jetzt provides information to small-business owners and freelances Image: 2gather.jetzt

Janneck told DW she feels there's a sense of solidarity among freelancers and small- business owners.

"Last week, the atmosphere was different but now, people are coming up with creative ideas, they're networking and supporting each other,” she said.

Social distance shopping

"We're all in this together," said Saskia Wichelhaus, who owns Coco, a small shop selling knick-knacks in Cologne. The writing on her shop's windows tells potential customers about "social distance shopping." 

"I thought to myself that we've got to make the best out of this situation," Wichelhaus said. That's why she said she "some beautiful items like candles, toys and lucky charms" in the window displays.

Read more: What are Germany's new coronavirus social distancing rules?

Customers can now go window shopping — provided they keep enough distance among themselves, that is. And if they spot something they like, they can text, call or email her to inquire about or buy an item. She said each message she receives "gives us strength," adding that it "feels great to sense this level of solidarity."

Coco in Cologne
While it's not an intimate shopping experience, it does let customers support a local businessImage: DW/H. Fuchs

Making the best out of the situation

One of Wichelhaus' best-selling items are tailor-made face masks by Susanne Kelber of Cologne-based crepes suzette.

Usually, Kelber and her team specialize in producing pillows and so-called Schultüten, which are elaborately crafted and colorful sweet-filled cones given to German students on their first day of school. But now, amid the coronavirus outbreak, Kelber has switched production to face masks. And while her tailor-made versions might not meet the highest medical standards, they do offer a certain level of protection. 

Read more: The coronavirus economy: Switching production for the greater good

A delectable distraction

Now that Rainer Winter's ice cream parlor was forced to close, along with all other nonessential shops in Germany, he's started a takeaway service.

A locked shutter in front of the Keiserlich ice cream shop in Cologne
Winter has put all but an ice cream take away service on ice for the time beingImage: DW/H. Fuchs

While he admitted that it's not exactly profitable, he's said he is keen to keep things "as normal as we can, for us and for our customers."

Customers, meanwhile, are fond of the takeaway option. They tell him indulging in some tasty ice cream is a small moment of distraction at a time when a bit of a pick-me-up is exactly what they need.

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