How Local Stores can Compete with Big-box Chains

By Samuel Greenberg

Covid-19 changed nearly everything about the way people shop, requiring retailers to adapt, almost immediately, to an entirely new reality.

But while independent stores scrambled, big-box stores continued to rake in business, as consumers shifted to one-stop and online shopping.

However, these smaller businesses are resilient. The changes brought on by the pandemic have forced them to adjust their traditional business models to stay competitive in the digital age. Here’s how.

Build an Online Presence
Nearly 97 per cent of all consumers use online tools to decide where to shop locally, according to a report by experience management company Qualtrics. Translation: If an independent business owner doesn’t have an online presence, they’re basically asking users to shop elsewhere.

Think of a website as a digital storefront. Retailers invest a lot of time and energy into making sure their storefronts are beautiful and inviting. They might even include personal touches to set themselves apart from their competition. Their digital storefronts should do the same.

After all, everyone has visited websites that look like they haven’t been updated since the age of Blockbuster video stores.

Do those sites elicit trust or the urge to make a purchase? Of course not, and why would they?

Plus, it’s 2024; consumers expect relevant information to be just a click away. That means a website should include everything from a business’s hours of operation to its brand story and, most importantly, an up-to-date product catalogue. (Nobody wants to spend hours perusing products in-person.)

And since more than two-thirds of all website visits come from mobile devices, they need to be mobile-friendly, too.

Embrace Local Reviews
The importance of local reviews cannot be overstated. According to that same Qualtrics report, more than 93 per cent of buyers read reviews before making a purchase. And that number gets even larger when it comes to big-ticket purchases like furniture.

But a store doesn’t just need reviews — it needs good reviews. Luckily, independent retailers have two powerful review tools at their fingertips: Google My Business and Yelp.

Google My Business (GMB) profiles are what Google shows when someone searches for local results (terms that include ‘near me,’ for example). They usually contain hours of operation, ratings, reviews and so on.

Independent retailers can (and should) take control of their GMB and Yelp profiles. By adding store pictures, listing special services and responding to comments, these businesses show engagement in the community. In the digital age, more engagement means more leads.

Big-box stores may have multimillion dollar marketing budgets but they’re lacking two things: a brand personality and excellent customer service. GMB and Yelp profiles should be used by local retailers to demonstrate both.

Optimize for Organic Search
Any retailer that has taken the time to look into digital marketing for their business has likely come across the term SEO.

But what exactly is SEO? Why is it important? And how can a retailer use it to drive leads to their store?

SEO stands for search engine optimization and it’s the art of optimizing digital content (like web pages and blog posts) so it ranks higher on search engines like Google.

If someone searches for a specific furniture store’s name on Google, that retailer wants their website to be the number one result. That’s just common sense. But they also want their website to be the number one search result for terms related to their store like ‘furniture stores near me,’ ‘best furniture brands’ or even ‘furniture in Toronto.’

Consumers who search for terms like these are already high-quality leads and retailers want them buying from their business, not skipping off to the closest big-box store.

Use Google Ads Strategically
It’s true that one has to spend money to make money but that doesn’t mean a business has to spend a lot.
Enter Google Ads, which is the single most effective tool for driving leads on a budget. Many retailers already utilize this program since it allows users to choose exactly who sees which ads down to the tiniest detail. With an experienced digital marketer running ad campaigns, qualified leads can be found and nurtured with almost zero wasted ad spend.

Streamline the Online-to-Offline Sales Funnel
A retailer has a strong online presence and cultivated great leads. Now, has does it sell digitally?

This is where the online-to-offline sales funnel comes into play. Remember, the average customer wants to spend little time in a store. They’ve done their research at home and they want their physical buying experience to be quick and easy.

In order to turn digital leads into in-person sales, the online to in-person transition needs to be as seamless as possible. Interaction management programs can help with this. These applications gather a customer’s communications in one place — text messages, web forms, e-mails and even call transcripts. Each customer has their own profile and all their communications are right there, in chronological order, for retail sales associates to read. This allows associates to give customers exactly what they want the minute they enter a physical storefront. No trying to find the products they were looking at online or figuring out which associate they were talking to. Just seamless, online-to-offline conversions.

Embrace Visualization
Retailers can find similar success with augmented reality (AR) visualization tools, especially those that have both online and offline functionality. These tools allow buyers to upload pictures of their rooms and then see how they’d look with different furniture. Data indicates customers who use visualization tools are significantly more likely to purchase furniture on their first trip to a brick-and-mortar store (with less samples, as well). In an age when fewer trips to a physical location means a higher conversion rate, this is exactly what independent retailers want to encourage.

Samuel Greenberg is a search engine optimization and content marketing consultant.

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