How Small Business Can Win: Surviving in a World of Big-Box Retail and E-Commerce

As big box retail and the world of e-commerce continue to expand, small business retailers may find it increasingly challenging to remain competitive against large businesses that can offer customers lower prices, wider selections and even the convenience of home delivery. But despite growing challenges, small businesses are still highly valued and have a few advantages playing in their favor. For example, not only do they enjoy lower expenses as a result of smaller size, but local businesses can offer proximity and immediacy, and often have a better public perception than large businesses. According to the 2018 Holiday Retail Survey conducted by the WSU Carson College of Business, 60 percent of customers actually prefer shopping at smaller, local establishments. With that in mind, here are a few ways that small retailers can get the upper hand and remain competitive with big businesses:

Exceed Expectations

With small businesses, customers often expect to find higher prices and smaller selections than at large department stores or online retailers. While this is inevitably the case, finding small ways to exceed these expectations will leave customers impressed and more likely to keep coming back. For example, smaller retailers could employ a “broad and shallow” approach, offering an expansive selection to meet a variety of needs. Not only will shoppers be pleasantly surprised to often find what they need, but it will also make the shop a go-to for unique, or last-minute needs that might not be worth the hassle of a trip to the department store. Of course, the same goes for offering lower-than-expected prices when possible, as well as the occasional sale.

Additionally, consumers often prefer to shop local as they tend to associate it with better customer service. This is critical, as 93 percent of shoppers reported that good customer service has an impact on their purchasing decision, and 82 percent believe that local chains or small businesses provide better customer service. Retailers can hone in on this by ensuring that all staff members are knowledgeable and friendly. Showing willingness to go above and beyond to assist your customers, such as ordering additional products for items not available in-store or tailoring your offering to individual customer needs, can leave a great impression and form satisfied customers who will keep coming back for more.

Embrace being small and local:

Small businesses have a few impactful business tactics available to them that simply aren’t possible for a lot of large box and online retailers – so put it to good use! Start by creating an enjoyable experience unique to your shop. People may often opt to shop in-store because they prefer the experience to online shopping. In fact, many prefer small, local shops because they find them charming and cute. Being local also makes the business closer and more convenient for a lot of shopping needs. Especially if the shop is in a central location, such as a downtown area, a business might benefit from both location and atmosphere.

Another advantage of being small and local is the ability to learn the names of loyal customers. Take an interest in them. Let shoppers know they are dealing with a friend. Personalized marketing is one of your strongest assets because it goes beyond a simple business transaction and makes visitors feel valued. Knowing that a place is personal and friendly can have a great impact on inspiring customer loyalty and building affection for the business and staff on the part of the community – which leads to the next point:

Embrace the community

People often identify with the community in which they live, and it may even become part of the way they view themselves. This is a great benefit to small businesses who also endeavor to support and be a part of the community, as many people want to support businesses that invest in their communities and share the same values that resonate with its members. Support local organizations and activities to increase visibility as much as possible. Some ways to do this could be through hosting workshops, sponsoring events or attending various community gatherings.

Finally, take advantage of anything that brings positive attention to the store, such as capitalizing on events like “Small Business Saturday,” or finding opportunities to tell your shop’s story. Make sure to be active on social media channels and engage on platforms commonly used by other local members. Great sites can include Facebook, NextDoor or Meetup. Local shoppers are more likely to value and be loyal to a store that is considered an integral part of the community and a positive contributor.

While it’s inevitably true that small businesses face distinct disadvantages when it comes to competing with larger retailers, there are still several ways in which bigger isn’t always better. Capitalize on your strengths as a small local establishment. Be genuine, helpful and engage with customers and the community. Remember, it is often feasible to offer exceptional service, lower-than-expected prices or unexpected selection, and to achieve greater customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Ron Pimentel is a clinical assistant professor of marketing and the Faculty Director of the Professional Sales Certificate program at Washington State University Vancouver. There, he teaches courses in Sales, Marketing, and Consumer Behavior and works with partners from the local business community to develop and place sales professionals.


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