Experts predict that over the next few years, online retail sales in the U.S. will approach $400 billion. While that figure represents a small fraction of all retail activity, the rapid growth and diversity of e-commerce options is sure to attract even more customers in search of both value and convenience.
With more and more shoppers going online, plus the ability of large chain stores to offer deep discounts, is there still a place for the small brick-and-mortar retail business?
Mike O’Malley, a retired fashion industry executive and SCORE Counselor, says yes, as long as the store capitalizes on its inherent advantages.
“One is the ability to offer unique products,” O’Malley explains. “For example, many artisans cannot support the volume demands of a big store.”
But, where small retailers can really shine is with customer service.
“A small retailer has the opportunity to build more of a personal relationship, and have a better understanding of the customer and his/her needs,” O’Malley says. “Customers are sensitive to what they feel they deserve in return for shopping at a particular store, particularly if they go there often.”
That’s why small retailers should do everything possible to make their stores places where customers want to shop. That includes everything from friendly, knowledgeable salespeople, to neat, attractive layouts where products and prices are easy to locate.
Remember that as a retailer, you’re not just selling products; you’re selling information and help for customers’ problems. Consider hosting demonstrations, classes, and “how-to” sessions related to the products you sell, and how they’re used. For example, a hardware store can demonstrate how to perform simple home improvement and repair tasks, while gift and gourmet shops can host experts in seasonal decorating and cooking.
“Customers are sensitive to what they feel they deserve in return for shopping at a particular store, particularly if they go there often.”
Smaller retailers also have greater flexibility in being part of the community. While big box stores may have strict limits on participating in charity events, a small retailer can readily identify those activities that match up with customer demographics. Sponsorships or material donations can build loyalty among participants, and there may be opportunities to take the aforementioned demonstrations “on the road” to these events, with displays and information tables.
It’s also possible to “fight fire with fire”—that is, establish an e-commerce site as an adjunct to your brick-and-mortar operations. This offers a channel to serve customers with standard, easy-to-find items, while reminding them that other products are available in your store.
Social media such as blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter are also good ways to connect with customers. You can alert them to sales or the arrival of specialty or seasonal products, provide timely reminders about preparing for holidays or major events, and share topical information and tips related to your store’s products. A vignette about how a customer with a specific or rush need found what he/she was looking for at your store can illustrate your commitment to first-class service—something e-tailers and large chain stores can’t always do.
In other words, the more you can do to enrich your customers’ lives, the more likely they’ll enrich your brick-and-mortar store’s balance sheet.
Visit northcentralflorida.score.org and connect with the “counselors to America’s Business.”