By Hillary Berman
As if small businesses don’t feel overwhelmed enough already by the power of the big guys, Wall Street financial firm PiperJaffray recently noted that Amazon now has a warehouse or delivery station within 20 miles of 44% of US households.
PiperJaffray notes, “We believe this gives Amazon a critical competitive advantage now that it has acquired so many Prime users in the United States: same-hour and same-day delivery can structurally replace trips to the store.” With all due respect to the super smart analysts, we disagree.
There is power in small. Main Street is alive and well. There’s no bot, automation or process can replace the truly personalized, engaging experience of shopping small. Want to beat Amazon? Yes, it takes work. While you likely can’t compete on price or selection, you can take a few pages out of the Amazon playbook and apply the tactics in more customer-centric ways that drive great relationships. Amazon might have millions of buyers, but you can have a highly valuable handful of loyal customers.
Become a resource for ideas. Amazon has mastered the “if you bought this, you might like that” automation. And you can sort by any number of top products in a given category, for a topic area or by age (books and toys). But recommendations are often trite. Small businesses have the opportunity to offer unique ideas based on anecdotal customer feedback (the conversations that simply aren’t captured in reviews), scouring tradeshows for what’s hot, new and interesting, and listening to customer wants before offering a solution to their needs based on a few simple search criteria. Looking toward holiday or often a go-to resource for year-round gifts? Come up with some great gift guides that offer ideas well beyond what’s on the big guys “must have” lists.
Personalize communications. Personalization is all the rage in marketing. But it’s all driven by data and automation. There’s little that’s actually personal. When you’re small, however, you have the opportunity to establish, build and maintain relationships with customers. Use these relationships to keep in touch with them in truly personalized ways that connect. Drop a customer a hand-written note to thank them for working with you or sending a referral. Pick up the phone (whether iPhone or that old fashioned thing with a keypad) and give them a heads up that a new style or flavor by their favorite manufacturer is in stock. Or send a card or flowers to recognize a birthday, anniversary, new job or retirement.
Support local organizations. Sure, Amazon has AmazonSmile. But a few pennies on purchases can hardly compete with the support a small, local business can give its community. Whether through in-kind product or service donations, financial contributions or helping hands, a small business has the ability to make a real impact. Plus, being a good corporate citizen can increase awareness of your business and help support sales. Most importantly though, giving back demonstrates your business’s appreciation to the community in which you operate.
Create buying urgency and excitement. Amazon created Cyber Monday in July with its now-annual Prime Day. It drives sales and attracts deal seekers when little urgency typically exists – the middle of summer when buyers tend to be more focused on the beach than bargains. As a small business, you have the opportunity to build marketing programs around myriad holidays (and pseudo holidays), to promote seasonal offers, and to create urgency to try something new or only available in limited quantity. Being small, you can create and launch these programs quickly and more frequently – without nearly the red tape or integrations required by a huge multi-billion dollar e-tailer. Listen to your customers and pay attention to their buying habits – with this information you’ll be well prepared to implement incentives and programs that will be attractive and interesting to them.
No matter how quickly Amazon can get product into customers’ hands, how streamlined it can make the buying process or how competitive it can be on price, it cannot replace the relationships you have with your customers. Take the time to invest in your customer relationships. Small businesses that survive and thrive in today’s on-demand economy get to know their customers, provide value to their customers and engage their customers.
Hillary Berman is the founder of Popcorn & Ice Cream, a Washington, DC-based marketing consulting firm focused on small businesses and start-ups, the author of Customer, LLC: The Small Business Guide to Customer Engagement & Marketing, and a Google Small Business Advisor. Follow her on Twitter at @popcornicecream.