The pandemic has changed so much about the way people approach life. It’s made people prioritize health. It reminded people about the importance of family. It has people reevaluating their lifestyle and their careers.

It’s changed the way every business operates to differing degrees but no more so than for small businesses. With consumers embracing online retail in a big way during COVID, even the smallest businesses needed to jump on board and get online.

However, this means that small businesses have to act more like big brands to compete in the online world. And while today there are tools that help small business design a professional looking brand, there is a lot more to branding than looks alone.

In a post-pandemic environment, it’s changed the way small businesses need to approach their marketing, branding, and customer service. Here are six ways small businesses need to continue to evolve to compete effectively and stand out.

1. More Emphasis on Ethical Supply Chains

During COVID, consumers were very aware of the health and economic troubles it caused in emerging nations and countries that produce many of the products we consume. As countries continue to recover, consumers want to make sure suppliers are not taking advantage of poor countries just because labor is cheaper.

With the abundance of information available online these days, consumers are more aware of not only what you have to sell but where it comes from. Customers have become more interested in whether products were manufactured using sustainable and environmentally-friendly processes. They want to make sure that ethical practices were used and that manufacturers and suppliers in foreign countries don’t use forced labor (child labor, slave labor, or poor working conditions).

Moving forward, small businesses need to be ready to answer the question from consumers about where a product comes from and how they were made, and whether your business is ethically sourcing your products.

2. More Community Involvement

Consumers watched over the past year as many small business owners struggled to stay in business. As consumers saw local businesses close up shop, many saw the impact of these struggles firsthand.

It reminded them of the importance of shopping locally.

While online sales rose during the pandemic, 65% of purchases are still made in store. Consumers worried that if they didn’t support local businesses, they may not have the option to shop in person anymore.

As such, it’s important for small businesses to sell their local ties and roots to the community. One of the best ways to do that is by supporting local causes. During the pandemic, supporting frontline workers and accommodating vulnerable people made an impact. The way you treated your employees was noticed, too.

Continuing to support local charities, events, and providing community service can keep your business in front of local consumers and remind them of the important role you play in the community.

3. Authenticity Matters More than Ever

One of the reasons why people support local businesses is trust. When you live and work in the communities you do business, you’re more likely to treat people honestly and ethically.

Businesses also have to be authentic in the way they support their community. For example, local breweries that switched their product lines to make hand sanitizer showed a commitment to community safety. Restaurants that offered free meals for frontline medical workers and businesses that made donations to food banks while people were out of work demonstrated an authentic desire to help.

Businesses that took extraordinary measures to protect their workers or refused to lay off employees despite a downturn in business made businesses stand out. Consumers notice when businesses put people ahead of profits. Conversely, businesses that appeared to be trying to profit from the pandemic or gave lip service to helping were called out publicly.

As a society, we’ve set a new standard for authentic and moral behavior in business. Millennials have been making consumer decisions based on social responsibility and authenticity for years. Now, all consumers are increasingly making buying decisions based on the actions businesses take (or don’t take) to help.

4. Not Having a Website Is No Longer an Option

As people stayed home and ordered in, online spending grew at record rates. Online shopping and home delivery have become more common. Even older consumers that didn’t shop online in years past are now comfortable making online purchases.

Consumers spent more than $861 billion with US retailers in 2020 — a 44% increase from the year before. Analysts estimate the nearly $175 billion of that figure can be attributed to pandemic spending.

People have become accustomed to shopping and ordering online whether it’s Amazon or a local business. Not having a website or a way to order and purchase online is no longer an option. Thankfully, building a website is not the big undertaking that it used to be. With a plethora of website builders to choose from anyone can make a site.

While people want to support local businesses, brick and mortar locations — especially mom and pop businesses — need to make it easy for people to shop online. Consumers that don’t want to leave home may limit their consumer choices to where they can buy online. If you aren’t offering the same experience, they may have no choice but to shop your competitors.

When people do venture out, they want to make sure your business is open and has what they want before making the trip. They don’t look in the Yellow Pages or even phone you anymore. They go to Google and look for your website. If they can’t find you when they search online, you’re missing out on a big opportunity.

5. Fast (and Caring) Customer Service Is Essential

The move to online shopping has tilted the playing field in favor of the big names. Your competition is no longer just the store down the street, it’s Amazon.

Amazon has set the bar pretty high when it comes to fast customer service. Two-day free shipping is common. In some cities, delivery can be within a few hours. While you may not be able to match pricing, you can provide superior customer service.

It’s not just being friendly and helpful when they visit your store either. You also have to support your online store with online customer care.

This means responding quickly to queries online. For example, if someone called your store, you’d answer the phone right away and answer their questions. Why should it be any different online?  When hours pass without a response, customers believe you don’t care. More than 90% of customers say an immediate response — 10 minutes or less — is important when they have a question.

It’s all part of recognizing customer demands for a better customer experience.

6. A Stronger Focus on Customer Experience

Customers stop buying from businesses for several reasons but all the things that add up to customer experience are by far the biggest contributor.

A study by the Rockefeller Group showed that 68% of customers stopped using a company or service because they believed the company didn’t care about them or their problems. Another 14% said they changed shopping habits because they were dissatisfied with the experience they had or the support they received.

In the store, this means having trained sales associates focused on customers first. They must be more than just friendly. They need to be knowledgeable about products and help consumers make smart purchasing decisions. They need to be willing to take the time they need with customers and handle business efficiently.

Online, it means having a website that loads fast, displays properly on mobile devices, and makes it easy for consumers to find what they want quickly. Website conversion rates drop by an average of nearly 5% for every additional second of load time beyond 0-5 seconds.

One pain point for consumers is wait times. How many times have you been ready to check out in a store and there are long lines and few registers open?  The same experience happens online when you put something in your online shopping cart and the checkout process is tedious. Both provide poor customer experiences that can drive customers away.

Customers Are Holding Businesses Accountable

Businesses have always had a responsibility to do more than just sell goods or services. Small businesses in particular have always been big supporters of the local community. Now, consumers are recognizing the important role local businesses play. In the past year, 60% of shoppers said they have made more of an effort to support local businesses than in years past. This represents an opportunity for small businesses.

At the same time, customers are increasingly holding all businesses more accountable – whether it’s how goods are sourced, whether businesses are active in the community, or whether they provide a great customer experience in-store and online.

In the future, the businesses that are proactive about taking care of their customers and their communities are the businesses that will continue to grow.

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