Why Small Businesses Need to Merge Physical and Digital

merge physical and digital

Let’s talk about how small businesses need to merge their physical and digital presences to survive in today’s competitive business environment. Physical retail sales — those conducted at brick-and-mortar locations — still account for more than 90 percent of all sales made. And depending on the industry in which you do business, your ties to local markets and shoppers might not be in as much danger as some others when it comes to e-commerce rivals. But even if you seem to have a “captive audience” at the local or regional level, having a strong digital presence is still very much a necessity today, make no mistake about it.

There’s an interesting balance to strike between the physical and the digital footprint of a company. Here’s what small business owners should know.

The Public Expects “Digital Brands”

There’s a simple reason even the smallest small business needs a digital presence with the basics — including their locations, hours, services and prices, unless they change too regularly. It’s because, even if digital sales are growing faster than physical sales, shoppers have more technology at their disposal, in more places, than ever before. That means smartphones and tablets. According to Nielsen, 65 percent of Americans in 2015 used smartphones to research retail and service-based locations before departing their homes. That number has almost certainly only increased since then.

Merging your physical and digital presence, or letting the two overlap, means, more than anything, meeting your customers where they live. It’s easy to get down on “omnipresent” smartphones and high-speed Internet, but the truth is that these tools are always with us — and that’s a tremendous advantage for the small business owner who knows how to “get out there.”

Most Businesses Are Mobile-Driven or Mobile-First

Where would Uber be without a smartphone app? What about Amazon’s famous barcode scanner for window shopping in Best Buy? Then, there are companies like Sheetz, Starbucks and Domino’s, which have turned mobile ordering into an art form, and even online retailers like Touch of Modern and MassDrop, which are entirely Internet-community-driven.

Being “mobile-driven” clearly has many different forms. It can complement your face-to-face services, or it can, in some cases, replace it entirely for digiphiles who prefer to do their window shopping in a browser. But ignoring the Internet entirely is like blacking out the windows of a Main Street storefront. You’ll have people asking questions about your hesitation, but you’re not going to be making many sales that way. Becoming more invested in your digital channels means competing more convincingly with your business rivals. Depending on how well you plan and roll out your digital presence, you might even be able to punch above your weight when it comes to siphoning off fans and customers from better-established brands. More on that in a moment.

Customer Service Can’t Always Trump Convenience

The great fallacy at the heart of Dunder Mifflin’s business strategy was assuming their B2B customers would always be willing to sacrifice some of the cost savings and the convenience of ordering from big-box stores if it meant receiving customer service from regional experts.

Believe it or not, this isn’t to say your small business can’t have it both ways. If anything, small businesses are in a much better position than huge chains like Macy’s, K-Mart, Toys R Us and J.C. Penney, which were all too bloated and too overextended to react appropriately to the changes happening in how people make purchases these days.

Small businesses can provide the intimate, tactile showroom floor experience of a chain like Sears or Best Buy and couple it with the polished digital presence of a much larger retailer. With each iteration, mobile-first programming languages like Swift and HTML5 get more manageable to work with, meaning small businesses can get a lot of bang for their buck when it comes to web apps, mobile apps and digital shopping and service portals.

Physical and Digital Storefronts Complement Each Other

When it comes to keeping inventories around, lean manufacturing presents business owners with a paradox: How can you provide a variety of products — with customization options, ideally — and still run your operation light and lean? One answer lies in the way physical and digital storefronts complement each other.

“Do you have this in my size?” “Do you make this in stainless steel?” “What about purple?” These are questions customers will have easy answers to when they find a product in your store they admire, but you don’t carry a variant listed online, or vice versa. Customers can see the whole breadth of your offerings online, while viewing a representative selection of styles and materials when they visit your store.

Customizability enters the equation almost seamlessly. Some garage door makers already let homeowners upload photos of their homes to “test run” new door designs against their architecture. Some clothing retailers offer fun tools for matching or designing the perfect outfit for the next adventure or night on the town.

There are also the matters of order ahead/pickup later, self-checkout in retail stores, the advent of entirely cashierless stores and mobile-first payment options like Apple Pay and Google Wallet, which customers can use online or at a physical point of sale. One thing we know for sure is that digital technologies have only provided us with more options and more convenience — for both business owners and customer communities alike.

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Nathan P. Sykes

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