“It’s time to change our habits. We’ve got to get off the computer and get to the store,” advised Tim James with the Greater Cayce-West Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

James was one of three chamber CEOs who shared their insights on reinvigorating local small businesses at Tuesday’s Northeast Connection and Small Business Breakout virtual meeting sponsored by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

James told attendees area residents can help small businesses rebound by doing business in person. “It’s not just about shopping local. We’ve got to love local, too,” he said.

James, Columbia chamber CEO Carl Blackstone, and Lexington chamber CEO Angelle LaBorde agreed people are eager to get back out to their former favorite stores and restaurants — but they also agreed staffing is now a tremendous problem for small businesses trying to serve those customers.

“The hits just keep coming for the hospitality and retail sectors,” Blackstone said. “If you’ve got good employees, you’ve got to take care of them. It means being creative in finding ways to recruit and then keep them. And it’s probably going to cost all of us a little more.”

Some businesses have thrived during the pandemic by reinventing their products or the way they go to market, the panelists said. A downtown Columbia clothing store unable to serve customers in person started an online store, and sales tripled. A local distillery switched from producing beverages to sanitizers, meeting a critical need. And a company specializing in 3-D printing shifted to creating face shields now sold nationwide and beyond. But having a strong staff is still key, no matter what, where or how you sell, they said.

“You’ve got to create a company people want to work for,” said business consultant Ron Harvey.

Panel moderator Jared Clary of Splash Omnimedia agreed keeping good staff requires more than a good paycheck.

“You’ve got to feel like you’re contributing,” Clary said. “People want to make a difference.”

The Northeast Connection and Small Business Breakout group meets the third Tuesday of every month to network, share ideas and offer encouragement in a tough economy. Participation is free and open to anyone. Learn more about free online sessions for small businesspeople and other services on the chamber’s website.

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