Small businesses are flexible, personal and fill business niches that can prove highly profitable. Embracing all three of these qualities may help provide a path toward success—that's the power of being small.
This was one of the lessons that emerged from the packed halls of the National Retail Federation conference, Retail's BIG Show, held at the Javits Center in Manhattan in January 2016. The inaugural Small Business Experience at Retail's BIG Show, sponsored by American Express OPEN, hosted small-business leaders to discuss the latest trends impacting small businesses—and why small-business owners can excel at growing their customer base, even without a big business budget.
Here are a few of their tips.
1. Focus on the personal touch.
Dave Ratner, president of pet supply company Dave's Soda and Pet City, based in Agawam, Massachusetts, tries to focus on what the customer really needs. He trains his cashiers not to say, “Would you like to sign up for our email list?" Customers often fear spam or getting too many email pitches. Instead, Ratner suggested giving your customers a reason to stay in touch. Tell them you can send emails alerting them to recalls for the dog food they buy most often, or that you can email them when their preferred cat litter goes on sale. Customers may be more likely to see the value in receiving information for their own benefit, not just the store's.
At Logan Services, Inc., a heating and cooling provider in Kentucky, director of marketing Amanda Kinsella discussed how she posts profiles of her employees on the company Facebook page.
“I want customers to know that my business is run by humans," Kinsella said. She and her staff also encourage customers to tell their own stories online to help boost the positivity around her business. They ask customers directly to post stories and photos to company social media pages.
2. Invest in technology.
Tech advances have made all sorts of number-crunching and money-saving options available to small businesses. For example, Nikki Baird, an industry analyst at RSR Research, pointed out that IBM's Watson cognitive computing technology now offers analytics services such as running data to glean personality insights, which Baird estimated could cost approximately $1,000 a year for a small business.
Cloud storage—shifting data needs to online server storage—may negate the need for some small businesses to buy hardware, Baird said. Some applications now offer subscriptions, so businesses don't have to purchase licenses.
Not all options fit all businesses, and not all services are built to grow, Baird cautioned, so it's worth investing some effort into researching options.
She cited one retailer who partnered with a young firm to test in-store video tracking. The video analytics firm gets real-world testing and results they can use as part of future sales pitches, and the small retailer learns more about consumer habits in their shop.
“That openness to learning and experimenting—you need to be looking for these small vendors that need a marquee retailer," she said.
3. Find your niche.
Abrams recalled meeting an accountant who carved out a successful business with national reach by specializing in ophthalmology offices. It wasn't that eye care needed a great deal of accountancy specialization, but once the firm had experience with one client, the rest grew organically.
Focusing on a small area of the market offers a chance to provide a service tailored to that niche that others can't. That focus also offers a chance to truly target marketing efforts and understand the needs of those clients in the most minute detail, said Abrams.
4. Stand out from the crowd.
Creativity can overcome so many obstacles, and small businesses have more flexibility than many large corporations to try different approaches.
Two giant cat trees, the largest he'd ever seen, caught the eye of Ratner, the pet store president, at another shop. They were so big he had to ask around for the price—apparently, no one thought they would sell, or no one had asked before. And they were pricey, Ratner says. But he had a hunch that those epic feline playgrounds would make a statement that might draw cat aficionados to his store. And, he says, he was right.
Create a scene, suggested Andrea Bernholtz, CEO of Titan Industries, Inc. Offer shoeshines—but set up the chair and bootblack in the store display window, creating an attention-grabbing scene for people walking by, she said.
5. Don't forget the basics.
Abrams, who specializes in business plans, annually revisits her own plan with her team, she said. One time, that attention to basics saved her business. Her team realized one year that too much of their business came from one national chain, and they put effort into expanding their base. When that chain went out of business, her business remained afloat because her team had used their annual review as opportunity to find a hole, and fix it.
It's not just about the big picture. Make your store a welcoming place where shoppers want to spend time, said Bernholtz, the CEO of Titan Industries. If you sell clothes, install nice lighting in the dressing rooms. Put chairs around the store for partners or friends who aren't buying. Offer small toys to help keep children occupied, she suggested. People can't buy if they don't stay.
Because ultimately, while technology advances and there's always something big, flashy and expensive filling the retail space, small-business values remain timeless.