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MMA Innovation Award winner, From The Beacon, February 2022
The city of Taunton is expanding a program it designed to give local small businesses a boost during the pandemic by helping them improve their sales technology, websites and social media.
The city launched STEP UP (Sales Technology & Efficiency Professional Upgrade Program) in March 2021 to help small businesses owned by women, people of color and veterans become more technologically agile in their customer interactions. Last month, the city announced a second funding round for the program, and has expanded eligibility to include all Taunton businesses with fewer than 10 employees.
City officials said they wanted to help small businesses that couldn’t pivot as easily as larger companies to offer online ordering and other contactless services. By helping small business owners with point-of-sale services, web design and social media, the city wanted consumers to be able to find local businesses and more easily place orders and make appointments online.
“Giving our small businesses a step up on their digital capabilities and presence on the internet allows them to better compete with the larger chains,” Mayor Shaunna O’Connell said.
Taunton residents want to patronize local businesses, O’Connell said, but they will often gravitate toward convenience when given the option. The city’s program helps tip that balance back in the favor of local small businesses, she said.
“When our residents know they have choices of where to spend their money, and they can easily locate and transact with small businesses on their phone and computer, then everybody wins,” O’Connell said.
Taunton’s Office of Economic and Community Development oversees the program, which includes meeting with approved applicants to gauge their needs and contracting with web designers and a social media consultant to work with the businesses. For point-of-sale systems, the city either works with the vendors that businesses are already using or reimburses the businesses for the purchase of pre-approved upgrades.
During the program’s first round, the city helped 19 businesses with one or more of their technological needs. Of those, 10 received new point-of-sale systems, 14 got new or redesigned websites, and 11 received help with social media. The businesses include restaurants, music shops and beauticians.
On average, officials said the city spent $2,000 for each website; $1,500 to $2,500 on each point-of-sale system; and $75 an hour on social media coaching sessions. (In this new round, the program will also help businesses with logo design.) The project’s relatively low costs allowed Taunton to help 19 businesses, but it received more than 35 applications last year, prompting interest in a second round of funding.
To pay for the first round, the city used $55,000 from an Urban Agenda Grant from the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. This time, the city is using $100,000 from its American Rescue Plan Act allocation. Given the longer spending period allowed under ARPA, Taunton will offer assistance on a rolling basis, and the city estimates that approved businesses will receive their upgrades within two to four months of applying.
With the additional funding, the city hopes to help 30 to 40 businesses in the second round. City officials said they view the program not only as a means to help local businesses survive the pandemic, but also to help them make long-term, sustainable improvements to their operations. In a survey, two-thirds of participating first-round businesses reported an increase in sales, clients or general interest.
For more information, contact Grant Coordinator T.J. Torres at 508-821-1030 or email@example.com.