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Small Business Owners: Do you understand your customers?

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Sally Ashley Hilton

There are many challenges that small businesses in America face, and the likelihood of the challenges decreasing in the coming years is not evident. As we approach the final quarter of trading in 2014, some of the most prolific challenges are that consumers are more informed in this modern digital era, developing the identity and conscious consumer awareness of a brick-and-mortar store in order to compete with online retailers, and the need to ensure your business model is able to rapidly adapt to consumer needs and be flexible enough to follow trends. Finally there is the challenge of facing the inherent need of understanding your customer.

With the dawn of social media, smartphones, apps and a constant stasis of "connectivity," consumers' buying patterns have changed. Prior to the technology boom, customers shopped and made buying decisions based on necessity, quality of service and the informed recommendation on the retail shop floor. Today's consumer, however, is so much more educated in perceived value, product specification and competitive comparable products on the market. With this in mind, independent small retailers must assert themselves with their specialty products and convey the points of difference between their own individually selected inventory and mass-produced products from big box retailers.

Brick-and-mortar stores will always have a presence but their role has changed. Following the huge shift in consumer buying patterns, local retailers need to evolve. Online purchases have become quick and convenient and are somewhat premeditated. Local independent retailers have become something more special, holding the position of a leisure activity. It's more likely your consumers will have interactions with friends and family in a local store that help unite the community and create a comfortable social environment in which spending habits become relaxed. Consequently, each brick-and-mortar store must offer something different and become a destination compared to a faceless online store. They must deliver a more personable and unique experience, leaving the consumer with a reason to return.

It is evident that retailers that fail to evolve or don't offer consumers the right customer experience will not survive. Ever-changing product trends from the retail leaders compel small businesses to react rapidly to compete. A smaller and more diverse product range is an advantage to a small business retailer's flexibility and allows them to change lanes swiftly. It is imperative that small retailers stay abreast of current trends within their markets so they don't become stagnant.

To truly remain competitive, small businesses must understand their customer. The consumers have become conditioned through online purchases, assuming that each individual retailer can preempt and predict their next purchase or products of interest. Consumers will rapidly become despondent to direct marketing that is not specifically honed for them. For instance, no consumer will appreciate a coupon for cat food if they don't have a cat. Independent retailers have a greater understanding of the cultures within their local community and thus have the opportunity to capitalize on their specific demographics.

In the world of small businesses, there are many challenges to be faced. Consumers today are not like the consumers 10 or even five years ago. The scope of technology and the digital world has affected a shift on spending habits that have led to an increased importance on the need to accentuate the difference of individual retailers in comparison to their online and big box competitors. Small businesses, while able to take advantage of the opportunity for rapid lane change and flexibility, must ensure their consumers are afforded the entire experience that they expect in a brick-and-mortar store. Overall it is important that independent retailers personally educate their local community in the advantages of supporting small businesses. Furthermore, independent retailers must come full circle by using business resources and services locally, creating an enriched and cohesive community.

Sally Ashley Hilton, along with Elizabeth Hilton, established Isis Fuller Figure Fashions, a women's boutique located at 711 Main St, Ramona, CA 92065. For more info, email Sally at sallyashleyhilton@googlemail.com or call (760) 654-3173.

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Written by Sally Ashley Hilton of Isis Fuller Figure Fashions

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