Markets dominated by large, international business with seemingly unlimited resources can often seem impenetrable by small businesses.
However, mainstream media advertising campaigns and lower prices are not the only factors that influence customer choices. As many small firms are discovering, there are still plenty of areas to compete with big businesses in 2017.
Flexible delivery will become more important (and more innovative)
With online shopping out of its infancy, customers are demanding more, and one of the steps that big businesses are already taking is quicker and more convenient delivery. Amazon has led the way with Prime Now for 1-2 hour deliveries, and Amazon Fresh for groceries. Meanwhile many stores in the US are catching up with parts of Europe by offering click ‘n’ collect services, where your online purchase is waiting for you at the store.
Amazon has also launched a development centre in the UK for Prime Air – a service that promises to deliver packages within 30 minutes once regulatory hurdles have been cleared. There are at present a number of regulations and regulations surrounding the use of drones, depending on the weight of the drone (see the Civil Aviation Authority’s guidance for more details). Commercial demand, however, is likely to increase pressure on regulators to relax these rules.
SMEs using drones could benefit from quicker and cheaper deliveries. For example, it is estimated the cost-per-mile of an average diesel truck is more than 30 times that of a drone. The SMEs who are quickest to realise the benefits of these advances in technology could establish a clear advantage over their competitors, particularly in the UK.
With the use of drones in in the US stalling thanks to a $5bn investment in a new air traffic control system that doesn’t support drones, Business Insider UK has predicted that the value of the global non-military drone market will reach nearly £2 billion within the next decade. Agriculture, energy, construction and news media are among the industries earmarked to experiment and pave the way.
London-based startup Bizzby Sky has already successfully demonstrated their answer to Amazon’s delivery drones. They can deliver items weighing up to 500g, with an on-board camera offering real-time footage of the journey to the customer.
Expect significant innovation from these alternative platforms, and more off-beat and downright weird ways to stand out when it comes to home delivery and logistics.
Finding strength in numbers
Small businesses can’t compete directly with someone like Amazon on logistics, but there is strength in numbers. Platforms are popping up to corral similar SMEs together, and make their products available in a single online marketplace.
One popular example is the website FarFetch, which links small fashion retailers to a global audience, and has gained funding from the likes of Conde Nast. The key to the success of FarFetch is their careful selection of who they do business with, only selecting suppliers who are innovative and provide something different that is not available on your average high street.
These digital partnerships might also have a physical bent. The local flavour and autonomy granted to Uber drivers for instance could lead to partnerships with local businesses. Cars that are already decorated as a way to improve reviews could find themselves decked out with local crafts and furnishings, which could be sold to passengers at commission.
This would be a PR boost for the company and a boon to businesses, a perfect combination. It could even provide a wage boost to drivers, working around the recent rulings imposing a standard wage. These kinds of connections between local offices of large ‘gig economy’ platforms hail an alternative future, where local and international businesses compliment and assist each other.
Customers like you, so make the most of it
Every day, each of us is bombarded with around 1,600 commercial messages. Yet with TV viewing figures down and online ads being blocked, reaching certain audiences has been getting trickier for some time now. On top of the issue of which platforms to target people on, people may be taking less notice of certain ads.
In the year where ‘post-truth’ seemed to define the popular discourse, trust in anything online – be it companies, institutions or personalities – is at an all-time low. People are increasingly setting their own agendas, and becoming protective of their existing interests.
The great news is that small businesses seem to be bucking that trend. Research from last year suggests that people have significantly more confidence in SMEs, with 80% of individuals surveyed preferring to buy from a small business than a large one.
It’s common sense that SMEs are more agile than large enterprises. But this doesn’t always translate to the service they provide. Social media messages can still go unanswered, and personal touches abandoned in the pursuit of early profits.
This needs to be the year in which small businesses focus in on the attributes that make them special, and communicate them in a way that’s fun, self-deprecating and web savvy. While the impersonal aspect of big companies can make them seem disconnected, you can legitimately represent your business online and over the phone. If you receive criticism, answer it in a way that’s accommodating and perhaps light-hearted. The image you put across in a few tweets could persist for years.
After a tough year, people are craving positivity and escapism. The same sorts of ideas and products marketed in a vibrant, engaging and down to earth fashion will work wonders. And these kinds of connections are only possible for businesses that don’t have baggage.
Unique and physical overtake cheap and digital
In the snap-happy social media age, collectibles and attractive objects make for good photos. With high street boutiques popping up everywhere, online businesses suddenly have to think smart to get their advantages across. If they don’t work hard to stand out and offer a unique service, they could lose ground on everything but the cheapest and most bulky items.
The recent news that vinyl sales outpaced downloads for the first time in the UK is welcome, and perhaps less surprising than it seems. Where the all-digital future was once idealised, people are now yearning for something physical and tangible. As well as supporting the creators more directly, there is a growing realisation that digital content may in fact be less permanent than physical goods.
One key concept that has continued to gain traction is emotional durability: the idea that we should form attachments to products and items that last for generations, and see them passed on through families. Combining ideas of sustainability, physical durability, long term value and positive emotional messaging, this is set to be a defining trait for crafts and other handmade or limited run items in 2017.
This uptick in handmade goods reflects a move away from their initial ‘hipster’ value to something more practical. As well as supporting small businesses directly, handmade goods are perceived as higher quality quality and more original, while the imperfections in each copy are cherished. This is born out in the resurgence of platforms like craft marketplace Etsy, whose stock spiked by 12% in the latter part of 2016.
We’ve already seen a rise in luxury holidays and experiential travel, as people chase memories rather than the standard need for relaxation. We’ve seen the physical video game market boosted by expensive special editions, when not so long ago it seemed destined to go all-online. We’ve even seen ‘everyday biscuit’ sales in the UK fall in favour of premium, artisanal alternatives.
Emerging from years of global austerity, there’s a sudden hankering for unique experiences and products that you can stand to gain from in 2017. It may be tempting to make cheap products that appear more expensive, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. But creating a higher value option that’s both endearing and has cultural capital should be the ultimate goal. Your service may already be unique, but it can always be more special.