When the UK went into its first lockdown, in March, the Borough Market London bakers and bakery school Bread Ahead (@breadaheadbakery) saw its customer numbers drop and had to stop its courses.

In response, it got creative, hosting live baking workshops on Instagram to replace the unique interaction it would have with consumers in-store and to help build an online community.

“Instagram has been an invaluable platform for us to stay in touch with our customers throughout the pandemic,” says founder Matthew Jones. “On a daily basis, home bakers from all over the world join our online community where we offer live baking classes, baking tutorials on IGTV and a behind-the-scenes look at what we’re creating on Stories.”

It’s a similar tale for PRICK London (@prickldn), a popular cacti and succulents store founded by Gynelle Leon. She has used the pandemic as an opportunity to nurture and grow the online side of her business, encouraging her followers to be #isolatedwithplants to help their mood during lockdown.

“Rethinking our strategy, we were able to drive sales and create weekly buzz through things like ‘product drops’ on Instagram,” says Leon. “These changes not only helped increase our sales, but also built interest in our business and created meaningful engagement.”

Instagram has long been vital for connecting UK businesses and their customers, and this has been underlined during the pandemic. As high streets have been forced to shut, the platform has helped millions of small businesses to reinvent themselves, enabling them to build new “digital storefronts”, inspire customers with images and video, and find new ways to sell goods online.

Instagram is committed to helping small businesses survive and thrive through the evolution

“Now more than ever, people want to feel a personal connection to support the places they shop and Instagram makes it easy for businesses to create content that tells their story, and shows off their products and services in exciting ways,” says Gord Ray, Instagram’s brand development lead.

Currently Instagram has more than a billion users worldwide, 83 per cent of whom say they have used the platform to find new products or services, and one in ten follow a business on the app.

Its specialist business features offer powerful marketing opportunities too, from being able to display your company’s opening hours and contact info, to the ability to boost posts and tag products in Feed, Stories, and soon Reels, so people can easily click to buy.

Since March Instagram has also rolled out a host of new features to help businesses struggling in the pandemic. These include Shops where retailers can create immersive full-screen digital store fronts to help build their brand story and drive product discovery; Food Orders which allows restaurants to offer takeaway services by adding an action button to their accounts that takes followers to their websites; and Support Small Business Stickers to let people promote their favourite small businesses in their Instagram Stories. More than 47 million stories have used the sticker over the past three months.

Times are tough but businesses have been given a unique opportunity to try new things digitally in the crisis.

The high street’s shift to digital began long before the pandemic, but has jumped forward light years since March and the impact is likely to be long lasting. Similarly, Instagram’s new features are not just on offer during the crisis, but here to stay.

“One thing is clear,” says Ray. “Retail is unlikely to ever be the same after the crisis, and Instagram is committed to helping small businesses survive and thrive through the evolution.”

For more information please visit www.instagram.com