Column by Emmeline de Pillis: How to support local businesses in the era of COVID-19

Supporting your neighborhood businesses will increase both the success of your neighbors, and the overall health of your community and yourself.

This column is part of a series on the COVID-19 health crisis written by expert faculty and staff at UH Hilo.

By Emmeline de Pillis
Professor of Management and Interim Dean
College of Business and Economics
University of Hawai‘i at Hilo

Emmeline de Pillis
Emmeline de Pillis

At this time of economic uncertainty during the coronavirus crisis, those of us who can should do our best to support local businesses. Of course we want to support the business people who are our friends and neighbors. But local businesses are good for our island community, and good for our health, too. Even if they’re not financial powerhouses, local businesses can create healthy environments, boost morale, and contribute to a community’s cohesion and sense of pride.

Studies show that local businesses are loyal, they won’t pull up stakes and move at the first sign of trouble. Local businesses are embedded in the community, and their well-being depends on the community. Small business owners who are committed to and have positive feelings about their communities will contribute their money, time, and skills to the community. Right now the island’s service clubs—who are made up of active and retired local businesspeople—are stepping up to volunteer their help with food distribution and other community needs.

If you’ve ever watched business plan competition shows like Shark Tank or Dragon’s Den, you may have heard the judges ask about an “exit strategy.” This is a plan to cash out by selling or going public, limiting losses should the venture fail. But typically, local businesses do not have an “exit strategy.” Local entrepreneurs tend to go in with full intention to stick with it and stay in the community. It’s this full-on commitment that helps the community in the long term. This can be crucial for communities that are poor, rural, and/or remote and which have few other advantages.

Having thriving small businesses in your community is also good for your own health and well-being. The presence of small shops and local retailers is associated with neighborhood walkability and increased rates of walking, contributing to both the financial and physical health of a community. In one study of U.S. communities, a higher concentration of small businesses was associated with better population health, all else being equal. The authors of this study concluded, “A place with a greater proportion of small businesses will have a healthier population.”

How to support local businesses in the era of COVID-19

Sign with words: YES! WE ARE OPEN! To take care of you. We increased out operating hours to meet our customers needs. ALL STORES: MON-FRI 7am-5pm. SATURDAY 8am-2pm. For your safety, we have COVID-19 protocols in place.
Sign at a local Hilo business

Here are some things you can do now to help our local businesses survive COVID-19:

  1. Take the Census. Census results determine the proportion of federal funding that comes into Hawai‘i. In 2015, Census Bureau data was used to distribute more than $675 billion in Federal funds. Nutrition programs, energy programs, business loans, child care block grants, and more—all of these can benefit local businesses, either directly, or by increasing consumers’ spending power.
  2. Call restaurants directly to order curbside or delivery service. Third-party ordering sites may seem convenient, but they can charge restaurants high fees and soak up any profits. If you can afford it, tip your delivery worker at least 20%. Tip in cash if you have it.
  3. Support your local farmer by buying produce boxes from a Hāmākua co-op , a community supported agriculture business, an online farmer’s market, or another online farmer’s market. Not every item in the box will be your favorite. Look at it as a learning opportunity and a chance to try something new.
  4. Shopping centers like Prince Kuhio Plaza may look closed, but some stores are open and more may be opening soon.
  5. Check the Hawai‘i Island Chamber of Commerce website for retailers offering online sales and/or curbside pickup.
  6. Is your favorite local business closed? Call them anyway. Often, they can sell you something by appointment. If you really want to help them out, buy gift certificates.

Sure, it’s convenient to order from that mammoth online store that’s open 24/7. But supporting your neighborhood businesses will increase the success of your neighbors, the overall health of your community, and your own well-being.


Emmeline de Pillis’s research interests include unconscious bias in decision making, gender in organizations, the human-technology interface, and cross-cultural management. She has developed and taught courses in career development and business planning. Other courses taught include organizational behavior, organizational theory, principles of management, and strategic management.

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