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How Small Businesses Thrive in a Big-Box Economy

business.com editorial staff
business.com editorial staff

By creating a fantastic customer experience, small businesses can hold their own against the big chains.

  • Small businesses can stand out from the crowd of big chains by embracing their abilities to personalize the customer experience.
  • Creating memorable customer experiences, connecting with consumers, and providing unique shopping experiences are a few things small businesses can do to succeed.
  • Small businesses should consider using social media to alert their audience of upcoming promotions and events, hire good employees, and find their niche.

These days, consumers can pick up their groceries without ever entering a supermarket and schedule repeat shipments of their pet's must-have treats and toys for a discounted price. Services like grocery pickup and auto-shipping continue to attract consumers to big-box retailers, but it's what they don't do that may matter most. These popular features of superstores do not bring customers into the store at all. Small brick-and-mortar retailers keep customers coming in by offering a different kind of experience. By connecting with customers through more than an app, small businesses can stand out in the big-box economy.

The recent trend toward grocery pickup and auto-shipping makes sense. When customers could order most items online with just one click and free two-day shipping, a trip to the big-box store becomes an unnecessary hassle. In other words, customers now need a better reason to visit a store than simply needing to make a purchase.

The small business experience

That's where small businesses come in, offering the opportunity for more than a transaction. Independent record stores specialize in hard-to-find albums and host live music events that bring music lovers together. Family-owned hardware stores share generations' worth of expertise, providing customers with product recommendations and how-to tips that stand the test of time. Locally owned gift shops, jewelers, sporting goods stores and others win customers over with unparalleled service that makes them feel welcome.

In each of these ways, small businesses connect with their customers on a meaningful level. They keep the shopping experience personal and engaging, whereas superstores have long thrived on detached, do-it-yourself browsing. The detached approach may lead to a higher volume of transactions, but, as every small business owner knows, quantity is no substitute for quality (and the feeling that you've really been helped) in the long run. 

Take Trio Hardware, for instance. The Long Island hardware store suffered a devastating fire several years ago, destroying its location in Plainview, New York. Wanting to keep the small business in their community, customers soon flocked to the store to aid in the reopening efforts. Volunteers physically carried Trio's merchandise from the damaged storefront to a new, larger location several shops away. When the business needed to expand to another new location, volunteers again pitched in to keep the business moving.

1. Build connections.

The connection that small businesses build with their customers is invaluable. It leads to repeat customers, word-of-mouth marketing and, apparently, some much-appreciated sweat equity from the most devoted of neighbors. The contrast is striking: While big-box retailers and national chains resort to dealing with customers at arm's length, small businesses like Trio Hardware see customers physically lending a hand to help.

To build and maintain this connection, small businesses should continue to focus on customer service, specialized expertise and engaging experiences for customers. These are the qualities that keep customers coming back, cultivating goodwill and trust among consumers. They are the qualities that offset the big-box quantity.

The big-box economy has reached an important turning point. Can national chains keep customers enamored when the transaction becomes a chore? Grocery pickup services and auto-shipping discounts attempt to make transactions convenient once again, but small businesses take a different approach. By offering a genuine experience – complete with professional recommendations, attentive service and an inviting atmosphere – small businesses concern themselves with more than the transaction. They sustain their customer relationships with more than periodic software updates. In return, their loyal customers will sustain their independent, brick-and-mortar shops in even the biggest, boxiest economy.

2. Find your niche.

Larger businesses tend to focus on reaching a broader range of demographics, finding a niche will give you the opportunity to effectively reach a specific market. One of the best benefits of finding your niche is that, while big businesses don't focus on one specific audience, you'll have the advantage of knowing what your local target audience is the most interested in. For a small business, it's best to focus on a niche market. Go in quick and early – you can expand later if necessary. Select only one or two markets that you can kick off quickly.

3. Utilize social media.

There are many benefits of being a small business owner, but one of the greatest is the opportunity to forge a close connection with your target audience. One of the first and most important things you should do to stand out from big businesses is to get active on social media. Social media is a great way to promote your brand, and let your audience know about upcoming events and promotions. To stay ahead of the game, it's best to post daily, instead of waiting until the last minute to post an upcoming event.

4. Hire only the best employees.

Your employees are a large percentage of what makes your business, so it's only natural that you should hire the best employees to ultimately have a more successful business. Big businesses may have more employees, but if you have great employees, your customers will take notice. Employees of small businesses also tend to be more loyal to a company where the employer is directly involved in the business.

Image Credit: jacoblund / Getty Images
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