Small to medium-sized retailers, the denizens of Main Street, are facing an existential crisis in the face of the pandemic. No news there. The situation can seem so overwhelming that it might be hard to find a place to start digging out of the unprecedented financial hole. SMBs – and any other retailer, for that matter – recognizes the urgent call to embrace the digital shift.
How to compete for those online customers and digital dollars? The first rule of competing is not to compete. There are very few retailers that actually compete with each other, and they tend to be high in the food chain. Target competes with Walmart. Kroger competes with Wegmans. Macy’s competes with Nordstrom. But anyone who thinks competing with Amazon is a useful exercise should rethink their strategy.
Being an SMB in the eCommerce space, especially at the beginning, is not about competing – it’s about finding partners, and finding strong cards in the deck and playing them. As an SMB, the struggle should never be about scale, selection and price. Leave that for the big boys.
That said, the eCommerce presence should reflect the in-store value proposition. In fact, one of the replicable tricks from Nordstrom’s last quarter is that they fulfilled their eCommerce orders from store inventory, which can work on a smaller scale as well. If a boutique specializes in prom dresses, for example, it can try to add more value to the experience online.
Look at what independent bookstores did during the pandemic – as in-store operations, they have warded off Amazon mostly by fulfilling orders in stores (immediate gratification) and meeting consumers’ emotional need to buy from a seller other than Amazon. Online, they did the same thing: They started home delivery, launched book clubs and made the book selection part of the overall experience. It’s simply a case of playing their strong cards.
The events of the past few weeks have made it evident that online tools will be built for SMBs – and they should use them. eCommerce for SMBs is not an expensive entrée: It’s a buffet. In one tray is Facebook Shops, with its ability to connect inexpensive ads with simple eCommerce capacity. Over here is Criteo, with its ability to incorporate media to monetize the site. Then there’s Instagram Shops, which can showcase products and influencers. These may seem like limited strikes, but added together, they blend well with in-store sales.
Finally, as alluded to earlier, SMBs should find partners. Chambers of Commerce and Main Street associations have resources beyond what the struggling federal programs offer. If expertise is lacking, SMBs can reach out to local universities. There are hundreds of kids who won’t see their planned careers taking off this fall due to the pandemic. If experiences in Toronto, Philadelphia, Boulder and other cities are any indication, local academia can be a rich source of advice and expertise.
Above all, retailers should take a few shots. The digital shift will likely not be a fad – it’s expected to be a behavior that sticks for consumers, and that doesn’t have to mean shifting to the biggest available outlet. Customers have affinities that worked before the pandemic. Retailers can succeed by rediscovering them, representing them and finding a way to meet them online.