By Rieva Lesonsky

I grew up in the world of small retail. My dad, both grandfathers and my uncle all owned small neighborhood retail stores in Brooklyn and Queens, New York. But that seems like a lifetime ago. Retail has evolved rapidly since then. Today’s small retailers are facing increased, often global, competition; tight consumer budgets; changing demographics; numerous retail channels and new technologies. How can you best prepare to meet these challenges? I talked to Scott O’Neill, SVP, North America at MPP Global to get some answers.

Rieva Lesonsky: Were there significant changes for small digital retailers in 2016?

Scott O’Neill: Mobile commerce will continue to be the new e-commerce. Getting it right on mobile could mean the difference between success and failure.

Personalization is a challenge for smaller retailers. Consumers will increasingly expect a higher level of personalization, but the technology for personalization can be expensive and requires fine tuning to get it right.

Instant gratification was another challenge that retailers encountered in 2016. With the launch of same-day delivery by big names, it is hard for small retailers to compete with the “get it NOW” online shopping experience.

Lesonsky: What can small retailers, both storefront and digital, learn from Black Friday/Cyber Monday 2016, and the holiday shopping season in general?

O’Neill: Three key learnings stemmed from the 2016 holiday shopping season:

  1. Personalization and one-to-one relationships: The adoption of artificial intelligence and machine learning is becoming a regular occurrence, and uptake is set to increase during the next year. Retailers will be able to improve the shopping experience by driving recommendations, target offers and incentives or building out more intelligent and centralized customer service.
  2. Streamline in-store with online: Technology in-store has become more popular compared to a year ago, but to effectively provide a frictionless shopping experience, retailers need to ensure they can also support and streamline in-store experiences with online. In 2017, shoppers will be looking for the highest level of convenience, and retailers need to ensure they are not being hindered by legacy systems.
  3. Purchasing via voice devices: We have seen plenty of innovations and focus put on voice when it comes to user interface in recent years. Amazon, for example, saw 9 times as many sales of its Echo products compared to the holiday season last year, with millions of Alexa devices sold worldwide in the last year. Retailers have an opportunity to experiment and future-proof their products and consumer purchasing habits by tapping into an area that is growing year over year.

Lesonsky: How can small retailers better target customers?

O’Neill: A few tactics that smaller retailers can use to better target their customers are search engine optimization (SEO) enhancement, remarketing, tracking and incentivizing site visitors to share personal details.

Lesonsky: How can Main Street retailers launch an e-commerce component, if they haven’t already done so?

O’Neill: They need:

  1. Good planning and preparation. There will be a lot of decisions and potential tradeoffs to make, proposals to review and costs to analyze. Getting another set of eyes on all planning will help you make the right decisions for your business and help the project run as smoothly as possible.
  2. Accurate estimates. Getting the right people in the room to estimate this is important. Question any estimates very carefully—who did it and what is it based on?
  3. The MVP and “must have” requirements. Be clear early on what the minimum viable product (MVP) is and what features are must have, nice to have, etc., for going live. You may be faced with de-scoping or some tradeoffs at some point in the build, so knowing what can wait for a post to go live is important.
  4. Get a prototype working as soon as possible. If time allows, I seriously recommend getting the core customer journey as a working HTML prototype or proof of concept, using a real subset of data. This will soon flush out any underlying issues with user experience (UX) or data issues and build confidence quickly.
  5. Performance. Thorough performance testing to ensure the site can cope with forecasted peak demand (pages per minute, orders per minute, etc.). Carefully look at anything that is adding to page weight and load times, and be clear on measures of performance—how they will be measured and binding SLA terms.
  6. Detail specification. Provide and sign off on detailed functional specs, wireframes and intended page behavior upfront before any development begins.
  7. Configuration. Focus carefully on core configuration settings of the platform—basket duration, session duration, cookie settings, etc.
  8. Third-party integration. You will potentially be integrating a lot of third-party solutions—payments, address lookup, user reviews, etc. For each, ensure the design of the solution is well-documented and the sign-off process is clear.
  9. Getting the business ready. Think and plan very carefully about how you prepare the rest of the business for this new platform. After all, they will be the ones using it on a day-to-day basis.
  10. Setbacks. No matter how detailed the planning and experienced the team, no doubt you will get challenges, issues, delays or setbacks over the course of the project. Triaging and tracking problems quickly is key.

Lesonsky: Mobile is king right now. Have most small retailers figured that out yet, or are they lagging?

O’Neill: Responsive web design is now a necessity when it comes to websites. As people access the web using a variety of devices including desktops/laptops, tablets, phablets, smartphones, games consoles and TVs, it makes perfect sense to ensure that everyone viewing your site is enjoying an optimal viewing experience. Responsive web design means your website will adjust, responsively, according to the screen size of the device. This means your site can be optimized for tablets and smartphones as well as standard desktop/laptop viewing.

Many retailers’ websites today are still not optimized for mobile devices. With mobile browsing having now overtaken traditional desktop/laptop browsing, there is no going back. If a retailer’s website is not optimized for mobile, they will lose sales to their competitors and lose ground in the Search Engine Results Pages.

Lesonsky: What are the most important things small retailers can do to grow their businesses in 2017?

O’Neill: Here are five:

  1. Keep delivering the basics really well (and don’t get distracted from those basics).
  2. Keep it really simple.
  3. Genuinely solve customers’ problems.
  4. Remove the barriers to purchase.
  5. Design and develop tailored “product + services” solutions.