Using your mobile phone or web browser to order and pay for everyday good and services seems to be the norm today's tech-empowered consumers. But the majority of small and medium businesses — the major segment of our local economies — have yet to fully bring their sales online. And as e-commerce outfits follow Amazon and Ebay's lead in adopting a purely data-driven model to deliver greater value in the face of reduced margins, retailers, wholesalers and service providers that don’t embrace technology will be at a major disadvantage.
While the business case for embracing technology is widely documented, small business owners have historically shied away, given the high cost and operational complexity. But the rise of software as a service, cloud computing and open APIs has changed the game for the industry, allowing small businesses to take advantage of software and data in entirely new ways.
We segmented small businesses into four generations of technological maturity. At either end of the spectrum are the minorities — mom-and-pop shops on one end, with antiquated cash registers and no bar codes, and the other end we have most tech-savvy businesses, who are using data to optimize everything from online marketing to inventory. The majority are somewhere in the middle — they’ve embraced basic or cloud-based technology but aren’t taking advantage of their data that’s now easily API-accessible in the cloud. And they’re leaving money on the table as a result.
No matter where your business falls on this spectrum, we've compiled best practices learned while helping our small business clients successfully cross the digital divide.
Bringing Your Operations Online
Bringing efficiency to operations is critical for retailers and wholesalers alike. Choosing a cost-effective, cloud-based sales and marketing platforms that facilitates smart decision making for everything from online order entry and payment to automated billing and marketing, to is the first step. There are many to choose from, so consider the following benefits when evaluating one for your business:
Evaluate feature richness.
Historically, point-of-sale (POS) systems were vertical-specific, but today it’s more common to find open platforms that work across many verticals that support rich integrations and add-on solutions. That said, you want to make sure the POS system you choose has the features that are core to operating in your vertical. For example, if you’re a clothing boutique, you need accounting integration, employee management, and sales tax automation. Cafés should look for platforms with turnkey loyalty programs and staffing solutions. Consider integration, too. Many systems can function with the software you’re already using, and integrate with third-party sites like Yelp and Google, so information such as hours of operation and menus can be updated online in real time.
Put analytics to work.
The cloud and APIs are providing access to data on every aspect of the business, allowing retailers to make smarter, and sometimes unforeseen, business decisions. The Cafe Grind*, a busy NYC coffee shop, uses its POS system to track customer visits, how long it takes to serve each customer, and which items are selling, saving the store five to 10 hours per week in managing logistics. Palo Alto–based Tin Pot Creamery* used demographic analytics to prove that opening a store in the neighboring town of Los Altos would not cannibalize sales in its current location, overcoming a strict real estate rule banning locations within five miles of each other.
Engage with your customers.
Amazon and Starbucks have made reaching customers a science. They’re not simply acquiring customers — they’re enlisting subscribers who shop so frequently that joining a service like Amazon Prime is a no-brainer. You don’t have to be Amazon or Starbucks to do this. Omaha-based Scooter’s Coffee* has enlisted a loyal customer base rivaling that of Starbucks through its mobile app, where 7% of transactions occur. Here are a few examples of how small businesses are delivering the most convenient, personalized experiences for customers, and how other small business can follow suit:
Incorporating mobile devices — tablets or POS devices — is crucial, considering that 68% of diners say server handheld tablets improve their guest experience. You still need at least one mobile device that can print physical receipts, but many customers (42%) now prefer email receipts. Spend time handling the devices, and take yourself through the customer’s experience before you buy. While mobile payments are still nascent, about 33% of U.S. smartphone users are expected to use them by 2020, and U.S. Apple Pay transaction volume is up 450% over the past year alone. To stay ahead of the curve, look for a POS system that accepts as many forms of payment as possible, including EMV (Europay, MasterCard, and Visa), and Alipay.
Bring ordering online.
Online ordering and e-commerce is a huge opportunity for small business to drive incremental revenue. Morgan Stanley projects that the U.S. delivery market will skyrocket from $11 billion annually to as much as $210 billion over the long term. A recent study found that restaurants offering online ordering have seen their takeout revenue grow by an average of 30%, while one in five saw revenue double. Partner with established delivery services such as UberEATS, GrubHub, and Seamless to take advantage.
Launch a digital marketing program.
Most consumers resort to online research for products and vendors before they make a buying decision. It pays to invest in online marketing and inbound marketing, which are proven to increase purchases by 20% or more. Launching a digital marketing program can be tricky, though. Understanding online paid advertising and content marketing are important. Offer a significant discount, complimentary consultation or a "freemium". Advanced marketers are taking this a step further, integrating CRM with loyalty systems to identify top customers, buying trends and other key data points used to deepen client/vendor relationships.
While tech is the secret sauce of the eBays of the world, it’s also leveling the playing field for small businesses. There will always be a place for small businesses, but the ones that will succeed in today's hypercompetitive marketplace are leveraging sales and marketing tools to connect with customers and run more efficiently.