Big brands are retreating online where their huge warehouses, logistics expertise and large product ranges can be used to serve customers without the need for bricks-and-mortar premises. SMEs don’t have that luxury.
Though physical and online retail are often seen as opposite ends of the spectrum, it’s actually a combination of traditional retail and digital technology that will help businesses survive today’s high street. Consumers expect a 360° experience. They want to view products online, try-and-buy in store and give feedback via social media.
The foundations of creating a successful business haven’t changed, but the media available to deliver that strategy have.
Word of mouth
The oldest—and still the most successful—method of building a loyal following is through word of mouth advertising. Customers need to experience something exceptional to talk about you. Meeting or surpassing expectations won’t cut it—businesses must go above and beyond to warrant a mention in passing conversation. Products or services must be fine-tuned to appeal to a fully researched and understood target market.
“We identified a niche; we provide a variety of top quality coffee and we try and educate our market.”
Full Court Press
Raising the invisible bar is difficult, and staff can’t be solely relied on to provide an outstanding customer experience. Everyone has good and bad days, and service can be inconsistent, even in the best establishments.
Providing full training and outlining the minimum standards of customer service expected of employees can help SMEs to surprise and delight patrons and thus elicit a coveted recommendation. This guide from Survey Monkey provides key elements to improving customer service, which are applicable regardless of the industry.
Loyal customers are the most profitable—there are several tactics that small and medium-sized retailers can use to keep people coming back.
Be consistent and reliable
Make it clear what the business stands for and stick to it. When offering luxury products, a retailer shouldn’t undermine this position by holding regular flash sales or advertising large discounts. Similarly, a sudden hike in price or a change in product lines will not be well received.
Employ product experts
Everyone who interacts with a customer should know what they are selling, show a passion for it and pass that on to whoever walks through the door. With so much information available online, if a customer asks for help, they really need it. Making sure they get it on the spot provides them with a sense of security and trust.
Give customers a say
They are always right, after all! Ask customers if there is anything else they’d like to see in store and act on this. How you do this will depend on your industry. It might be questionnaires inside a menu, asking a few questions at the counter or even an instore tablet where opinions can be expressed.
“It is satisfying being able to understand what the customers want and making those changes quickly.”
Perfecting customer service
While loyal customers are integral to a retailer’s success, it is ultimately the staff that determine the success of a shop, food outlet or service provider. If employees feel valued, they are much more likely to become brand advocates and provide great service.
Many high street retailers complain about being showrooms for the likes of Amazon. Customers walk in, see the product they are interested in, decide that they want to purchase it—then go home and do it online. However, a Kellogg Shopper Index survey found that of those who admitted to ‘showrooming,’ 40% were fully intent on buying in store but were "driven to leave" because of bad customer service.
In order to compete with high street brands, SMEs must differentiate themselves with the products they have on offer. Exclusivity is an effective tool to enhance demand. Jake Hardy, owner of independent menswear store Number Six, competes with chains by specialising in "clothes from brands that you don’t generally find in the big stores" and by only purchasing limited edition stock from big name brands.
Pop-ups are also now a popular method of enhancing the appeal of exclusivity. This is also useful for testing new products, educating new customers, and generating brand awareness. You can read about some interesting examples of pop-ups here.
The importance of an online presence shouldn’t be overlooked by even the smallest start-up. An attractive and functional website can be a business’s best employee, rolling marketing, customer services and sales into one. But that’s just a stepping stone towards a full digital strategy that not only drives online sales but boosts footfall.
The Dollar Shave Club YouTube video is probably one of the most successful content marketing efforts from a brand within the past decade. It has gained more than 24 million views since it was published in 2012, and boosted the brand into the mainstream. It was clearly created on a low budget, but its ability to leverage humour helped it go viral.
“Almost half of all micro or small businesses have suffered from a cyber security breach in the past 12 months. Yet only 37% of businesses have specific cyber security insurance in place, with many people believing it is already included in their business insurance. Cyber insurance is often an add-on to a broader insurance policy and unless you ask for it specifically it may not be included, so check your documentation or speak with your insurance provider.”
Towergate Marketing Manager for SMEs
Social media strategy
Social media is often the first port of call for start-ups and SMEs looking to gain traction from their digital marketing efforts. A solid social strategy is flexible, targeted and personal, focused not only on getting people in-store with offers and product announcements, but on retaining them with customer service and useful digital content.
Manchester-based coffee chain Java Bar Espresso has four sites across the city and uses Facebook to great effect. Regular posts, usually featuring an image about new products and events interspersed with a few mentions of employees and the local area create a personal feel that engages regulars and keeps them updated.
SEO has been around for a while and it’s an area where the goalposts constantly move, giving smaller businesses plenty of opportunity to chip away at their competitors. With most of us now using mobile devices to search online, major search engines are placing more emphasis on local results.
For small businesses, SEO is a cost-effective solution that lets them easily analyse the success of their efforts.
“The internet can be the great leveller," says Miriam Ellis, local SEO expert. "If we can help the little guy compete on the web, we can promote valuable local flavour even in major cities. Monopolies aren’t consumer-centric, and if quality and variety suffers, the customer isn’t well-served.”
Jules B, a fashion retailer with four stores across the North-East of England performs very well for several keywords and local searches. The website lists the addresses of its stores very clearly on a page that is linked to from the homepage, offers a store finder and provides virtual tours of each site.
For further advice, check out this comprehensive guide at Moz.com.
A high-tech approach does not have to be limited to the online domain and can go further than a well-built website. In-store tech can offer an improved customer experience, as well as a deeper level of valuable insight and customer feedback.
Businesses can track purchases, offer flexible payments and ping pop-up adverts onto people’s smartphones as they walk past their stores. The Regent Street Shopping App allows subscribed stores on Regent Street in London to silently ping customers’ smartphones as they walk past with pop up as messages featuring targeted deals, discounts and promotions. Halfords offers a quality yet understated experience for its customers who can search for car parts by simply typing their licence plate into one of the in-store tablets.
iZettle, a financial tech company championing the in-store tech revolution for SMEs, offers the Order & Pay app to independent hospitality businesses. The app allows customers to pre-order and pay for items for delivery or collection in-store, awarding loyalty points for each purchase as they go while offering greater convenience and flexibility.
Vend is another useful business software tool. It allows the owner to easily track sales and to provide quick data on what items, products and services are and aren’t working well. Its key benefit is that it allows business owners to make decisions based on clear consumer data. Hops Burns & Black are a South London seller of craft beer, who say that Vend has saved them "hours spent on stocktaking," creating a much more accurate stock take at the end of each quarter and giving them a stronger focus on profitability.
The advent of aggregator sites has changed the way businesses develop partnerships. Providing everything from loyalty programmes for independent retailers to booking services, these aggregators help businesses fill empty appointment slots and reduce no-shows and build an online reputation with reviews, all while retaining a personalised, local service.
Treatwell is helping small high street beauty service-based businesses, such as hairdressers and spas, to grow by allowing customers to purchase services and vouchers online and provide reviews.
The Urban Chocolatier, which has three dessert bars across London and Bradford, has taken advantage of LoyalZoo’s loyalty platform to replace its old card and stamp system giving customers the choice to keep loyalty points on their phone.