The picture in many parts of Essex is similar to elsewhere in the country. Once busy high streets are seeing more and more of their shops with shutters down, either due to going out of business, moving to busier out-of-town retail parks, or because they’re switching to ecommerce.
Although it was already happening, the 2008 financial crisis accelerated this process as we lost big names like Woolworths, Zavvi, MFI, Focus, Borders, JJB and Comet. More recently, we’ve seen Phones4U, Thomas Cook, Austin Reed, BHS, Maplin, Pound World and even Toys R Us shut up shop.
Some industries have fared better. High street bookmakers actually increased the number of stores they operated during the last decade, despite facing increasing competition from online sports betting sites that offer free bets to their customers. Meanwhile, coffee shops and other leisure businesses have enjoyed growth as consumers are spending more on “experiences” and less on “goods”.
It’s not just high street retailers that are feeling the pressure; every business from accountants to tradespeople are also seeing the change in the way that customers engage with them. Instead of heading to the Yellow Pages, people are using the internet and social media to find reputable people to provide the services they need.
As our shopping habits continue to change, it’s likely that this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.
Businesses in Essex, the UK and right around the world face two choices. They can either accept fate and wait for their sales to slowly dwindle, or they can adapt and look for ways to better serve the changing needs of their customers.
The internet provides many options for helping your business to survive and thrive in the 21st century; here are some ideas you can adopt.
Utilise the Internet for “Word of Mouth” Marketing
Many small businesses rely solely, or at least heavily, on “word of mouth” from satisfied customers to attract new people through their doors. This is often the case for businesses that sell services and complex products, things that you wouldn’t buy very often.
For example, if you need a plumber, painter, or mechanic, you’re likely to ask for recommendations from people you trust.
The same goes for when you’re buying a phone contract, computer or car. People will often ask their friends, colleagues, and others in their network if they’ve had any experience of dealing with companies they’re considering buying from.
The internet can be used to take this to another level. Asking your customers for reviews, either on Google, social media sites like Facebook, or dedicated review sites like Trustpilot can help build credibility for your business online.
Then, when someone comes to search for your business or the service you provide online, they can use the word of mouth reviews from other customers to make a decision on whether to trust you or not.
Utilise the Internet to Sell to More Customers
If you’re an independent retailer in Southend, you have the town’s population of 183,000 people, some of the 1.478 million that live in the surrounding county, and the 6.4 million tourists that visit each year as potential customers. This gives you a maximum market of around 8 million people, not accounting for different demographics and your target market.
If you can sell your products online you increase this to the more than 66 million people living in the United Kingdom and even the 7 billion people on the planet.
Selling online doesn’t need to be complicated or expensive either. If you aren’t comfortable with doing any coding, then services like Shopify and Square Space are cost-effective and easy ways to get started.
If you already have retail space, then you already have the stock and facilities you need to get started. You can just package up the products you sell while the shop is quiet and have them collected by a courier.
You can also use services like eBay and Amazon to tap into their huge customer bases to increase your sales.
Use the Internet to Offer Customer Service
Just like customers can take to the internet to rave about the quality service they receive from you, they can also use it to complain. When you first start using social media it can be a little scary to imagine your customers complaining in public.
However, research has shown time and again that effectively and promptly responding to these complaints can actually work in your favour as new and potential customers can see that you handle these appropriately.
It’s best not to get into a slanging match with customers, especially if you personally dispute some of the statements they make. There are some exceptions to this though, like the restaurants that go viral when they respond to unreasonable customer reviews. For example, a reply from the owner of The Sticky Walnut in Chester saw the restaurant receive national news coverage and a wave of support from the public.
Most social media experts recommend that you respond within an hour, and if resolving the issue is going to take longer, you should acknowledge the complaint and advise the customer that it’s being investigated.
Use the Internet to Communicate With Customers Better
As well as responding to complaints, you can use social media and other tools to communicate more regularly and effectively with your customers. You can provide them with information about your latest products and promotions and give them gentle reminders that you exist so that they don’t forget about you.
Despite many marketers claiming that “email is dead”, the reality is far from that. Building a list of customer email addresses can help you to provide regular updates in a personalised way. You can even tailor it to the type of product or service they buy. For example, if you run a restaurant that caters to people with different dietary requirements, sending newsletters to customers with gluten intolerances about the new menu items that they can eat may be a good way to keep them coming back.
Similarly, using social media to provide updates about service issues can help keep your customers in the loop and save your employees time while they fix the problem. A great example of this can be seen in O2. The mobile network suffered a major service outage in 2012, but its social media team took to Twitter to keep customers updated, responding individually to each tweet (except the ones that were violent or demanded immediate refunds).
In just a day, it turned thousands of angry mentions into positive ones by being open and honest in its communication. This helped it to retain many more of its customers than analysts predicted.