Yesterday, the ecommerce behemoth Amazon announced that they would be entering the world of in-store payments, with the launch of the Amazon Local Register.
This product is a mobile-payment service that works with a smartphone compatible credit card readers.
Now maybe it’s just me, but Amazon seems an unlikely friend to the American small business owner. This is a company that has, as part of its core business model, spent the last decade and more doing its very best to undercut the Mom and Pop retailers of Main Street America. In fact, I can’t think of any single company that is so deeply implicated in (or has benefited as much from) the decline of our local retail environment. Except maybe Wal-Mart – and that’s really not saying much.
The tagline of our blog and our mission here at ShopKeep is to ‘Take Back Main Street’ because we believe deeply that a thriving local commercial hub is a core component of a healthy and successful local community. We believe that a dollar diverted from big-box retailers and large-scale ecommerce operations is a dollar towards a better Main Street. It’s in that spirit that I have put together a list of some of the key ways local businesses can stay competitive with the Amazons of this world.1. Customer Service
Amazon, despite its massive scale, still operates at a loss. The reason? They sell on razor-thin margins and have remained heavily focused on achieving enormous scale. As such, it is vital that the small businesses of America survive and thrive on value, not price. And the core, distinguishing value a local retailer can offer is stellar, personal customer service. Labor costs can be one of the biggest expenses a small business owner faces but in my experience, it’s better to pay a little more and engage top quality, motivated sales assistants who can convey your brand, wow your customers – and ultimately drive revenue.
Be Educated and Educational
One of the key elements of this personal service – and a key tool you can use to compete with Amazon.com is subject matter expertise. There’s no better feeling as a consumer than an expert small business owner guiding you through the subtleties and details of your purchase. It’s important, therefore, that, small business owners spend time training their staff to be truly knowledgeable. Also, find ways of evidencing your expertise (and the expertise of your staff) throughout your store – this can as simple as a yoga apparel store showcasing images of their staff doing complex poses. Or pinning up a list of local classes your staff attend/teach at.
It may seem like Amazon stocks every SKU under the sun but there’s still a huge range of goods that can help a business owner form a distinctive inventory. If possible, you need to build out a unique stocklist and then work hard to convey to your customers of the value of that ‘uniqueness’. In my experience, the businesses that are most successful at this process understand that the right inventory should be a reflection of your brand. I’m a big fan of the expression ‘from the feet up’. You need everything you do and the way your store looks to scream that you are the exact right place to buy, say, snowboarding gloves. You’re the snowboarding glove expert and you have the knowledge, backstory, and branding to prove it.
Don’t Be Afraid of Data
Most small business owners get into their chosen field because of a passion for their products, not out of a love of numbers. But if you’re not getting up close and personal with your business data you’re losing out on a huge opportunity to make yourself a lean, efficient Amazon killing machine. In my series on Lean Retail, I spend a lot of time going into this in detail but the key here is that you treat your business like an experiment. A big part of the reason why Amazon is so successful is they are able to experiment with their customers by pushing different products at different times and seeing what sticks.
The small business owner has a massive advantage over Amazon here though as you get to control the physical retail environment and enjoy a nearly instantaneous feedback loop. You can experiment with the decor, sales techniques, music, scents, promotions, and more and build up a very quick picture of what’s working and what’s not in your store.
Embrace Digital Marketing
If you want to compete with Amazon in the online world, it is vital that you get your digital marketing house in order. Google has recently launched a new platform for getting small businesses online, call Google My Business and Facebook is expressing more and more interest in the industry. It was often argued that promoting offline behavior online was impossible but it looks like the mobile device is changing that trend. Recent studies are showing that 8% of local searches end up in purchase within 24hrs, so if you’re still offering coupons in the local paper, it might be time to get online. In particular, small businesses have a unique opportunity to do ‘hyperlocal’ geo-targeting with their advertising and to take advantage of in-store email collection and really pursue email marketing as a way to engage customers.
As ShopKeep, we know that this process can seem intimidating, so we’ve produced guides on how small businesses can effectively get started and leverage content marketing, email marketing, social media marketing, and more.
It’s important to remember that the consumer experience isn’t just about your business. One awesome shop does not a thriving retail experience make. Small business owners need to come together with local authorities and independent bodies to improve the overall retail environment in their neighborhoods. There’s a reason our slogan at ShopKeep is Take Back Main Street. If we want to effect a broad change in buying patterns and get more people spending their dollars in local businesses – and less at impersonal ecommerce sites – we need to work together to make our ‘Main Streets’ more inviting. The great thing is that a dollar spent locally is more likely to be reinvested and result in further gentrification of your neighborhood, so a small change in local consumer behavior can have amazing long-term results.
Embrace the Shop Small message. Most customers want to spend their dollars locally and you can give them the encouragement. Make them feel good about spending money in your store. Tell the story of your purpose and mission as a business. Let them know what buying from you means – what it says about them.
Get Your Customers In Your Store
This might sound silly but nobody ever goes to Amazon to hang out. You don’t spend time on Amazon.com catching up with friends. A local store can be so much more than a place to buy things. It can be a thriving hub of a local community or a niche interest. There’s a reason why bookstores do book readings, or cycling shops offer ‘group rides’ of the neighborhood. They are providing people a reason to walk through their doors. And that really is half the battle. What’s more, you are giving yourself a chance to showcase the other elements I’ve discussed above: your branding, your knowledgeable staff, and your awesome customer service. If you establish that kind of relationship with your customer base, Amazon just won’t be able to compete.