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5 Small Business Retail Trends for 2018

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With 2018 right around the corner, it’s time to think about your future and the future of your business. What does the next year have in store, and what can you do about it in-store?

The retail world is shifting, and it’s important for you and your small business to stay ahead of the curve.

Below, we pair five of the biggest trends small retailers should keep an eye on in 2018 with suggestions on how to prepare for them.

1. Continued buzz around omnichannel retailing

We’re coming up on 10 years of people talking about how omnichannel retailing is going to change the world, and it feels as though we’ve reached the saturation point.

It’s not that everyone has adopted the idea, more that it’s been so thoroughly covered that if you’re not convinced by now, it’s unlikely more information will make a difference.

In 2018, smaller businesses will start tapping into classic omnichannel themes, largely in conjunction with shipping changes.

As the technology to connect online stores, physical stores, and mobile devices becomes commonplace, it makes sense for retailers to unify customer experiences. Why let someone leave your store without making a purchase just because the right size isn’t on the shelf?

Nordstrom store clothing display

Nordstrom is often cited as a leader in omnichannel retailing. [Source: Nordstrom]

Omnichannel systems make it easy for customers to buy from you, which makes it easier for you to make customers happy. The overall goal is to make interaction with your brand as seamless as possible.

What you can do

There are two simple steps to omnichannel success that derive from the same basic idea: no one who likes your products should leave without making a purchase.

  • In store: Actively approach customers who might be “shopping around.” Instead of letting those customers try on in store and buy from someone else online, give them a mobile experience that simplifies online purchases. Send them out the door with a digital coupon or other incentive to make their online purchase from your store instead of Amazon. If you’re worried they’ll buy from Amazon anyway, make sure you’re an option.
  • Online: Lower barriers to ordering by making shipping as transparent and simple as possible. For omnichannel success, it’s important to use the tools you have. Tap into your abandoned cart information and figure out why people are leaving. Chances are, it’s shipping fees. Figure out how to make the buyer aware of the fees ahead of time, or make your shipping process cheaper.

2. Expectation of mobile pay option

Apple Pay, Android Pay, Masterpass, and Visa Checkout are just four of the dozen payment options sitting on each of our phones. You can link a PayPal account to Android Pay, or pull from Venmo.

Whatever the popular payment app of the moment is, customers are starting to expect to be able to use it in your store.

Mobile pay is a simple way to pay for consumers. For small businesses, data is the real benefit here. You can track purchases made with mobile devices to get a better picture of your customers, easily linking in-store and online purchases.

Android Pay advertisement image depicting mobile pay for various items

Android pay makes buying lollipops easy. [Source: Android Pay]

You can also link a customer loyalty program right into your payment system, generating additional purchase incentives for customers and even more data for you.

Your two biggest challenges will be cost and user frustration. On the cost side, a lot depends on your existing payment acceptance terminal, what your provider has available, and how much it costs to upgrade to a mobile-friendly system.

User frustration comes into play when someone wants or needs to use mobile pay because they don’t carry a wallet around anymore, but can’t quite mesh with your system. Customers will only try to scan their phones so many times before giving up, costing you a sale.

To minimize difficult or abandoned transactions, make sure you accurately and prominently display your payment options.

What you can do

Before you do anything, talk to your customers. Do they want mobile options, or do they all pay in cash? There’s no reason to incur the costs of implementation if there’s no local market for the technology.

Ask your payment processor what it’ll take and cost to get mobile payments up and running in your store. Once you have that estimate, you can make an informed decision about what to do next.

Take a look at some of the loyalty programs out there—Belly and SpotOn are popular in the D.C. area—to see if they work for the kind of loyalty system you want to run and with the technology you have lined up.

3. Continued rewarding of transparency

People often think that transparency only applies to businesses that are traditionally seen as the bad guys—such as Big Pharma—or those on the opposite end viewed as shining knights of social responsibility.

In reality, transparency is for everyone. While many customers want to know where their products come from, most are really looking to see that a business has some reason for doing what it does.

Transparency is about knowledge and attention. Are you paying attention to the products you’re selling, and can you talk knowledgeably about them?

Image of a Williams-Sonoma bay leaf wreath hanging over a fireplace

A Williams-Sonoma bay leaf wreath. Made with the good stuff, no doubt. [Source: Williams-Sonoma]

When I worked at Williams-Sonoma, I had a coworker who swore that the reason we sold bay leaves from Turkey and not California was that the Turkish leaves tasted “richer.” For our customers, that bit of information wasn’t really about where the leaves were from. It was about my coworker knowing where, and why.

Customers are happy to reward increased transparency, as well. One study found that “86 percent of millennial moms reported that they would pay more for a product with full transparency.”

What you can do

Make conscious decisions about your sourcing. Be able to defend the things you sell, the prices you sell them at, and the way your business runs. If you don’t know why you do something, figure it out.

Most important of all: make sure your employees know these answers too. They’re the ones on the floor of your store fielding customer questions, and need to know your shipping methods and sourcing information to avoid giving an unsatisfactory answer.

Transparency is a constant undertaking, but one that makes you a better businessperson at each step. If you evaluate and can justify the work you do, you’ll identify and resolve your business’ inefficiencies.

4. Ever shortening shipping windows

As a small retailer, you’re all too familiar with the Amazon struggle. The online retail giant often offers the same or comparable products as you at a lower price, or in more colors.

One of the less-discussed but most disruptive Amazon effects is how the company has shifted consumer shipping expectations. Two-day shipping is now an expectation, with shipping windows as short as three days being seen as standard speed.

Amazon Prime advertisement graphic

Look at all the value—and streamers. [Source: Amazon]

Amazon—specifically its Prime shipping options—has made shipping a difficult proposition for small businesses. You don’t want to scare people off with shipping costs, but you also don’t want to (or can’t) eat a bunch of overhead expenses to drive shipping costs down.

Throw returns on top of that, and you could easily add 30% to the price of an item if you pass shipping costs on to your customer.

What you can do

Smart businesses are exploring alternative shipping systems to keep costs low and customers happy. Your main trick should be a ship-to-store option if you’ve got a brick-and-mortar location.

Ship to store allows you to leverage existing delivery options to get items quickly and cheaply. Customers receive free shipping, you’re bringing them in store and keeping costs low, and there are no return costs if it’s not what they want. Some stores don’t even charge customers to order items, making the sale in store after the product arrives.

Online, shipping is all about options and clarity. Give the customer early notice of costs so they’re not hit with sticker shock when they see their cart and shipping total. If your customer passes a certain order amount threshold, make free shipping the default.

From there, I’d recommend offering 3-4 day shipping free of charge. For two-day and overnight options, don’t eat the costs if you can avoid it. Don’t tack on handling fees; the customer shipping charge should be as close to your actual cost as possible.

5. Personalized customer service will differentiate brands

For small businesses, there are lot of opportunities to interact with customers and create personalized experiences.

Companies like Amazon and Netflix are using machine learning and big data to increase revenue and stickiness by making better recommendations for follow-on content. That is, the products that you consume after you complete a browsing, viewing, or buying action.

Netflix Tech Blog breakdown of the Netflix recommendation engine

Netflix recommendations at work. [Source: The fascinating Netflix Tech Blog]

In a lot of ways, small businesses have an advantage here. Smaller businesses sell less items, have fewer customers, and typically have a better understanding of the products they sell. Instead of relying on an algorithm to suggest something to go with a sweater, you can just pull a skirt off the shelf.

Customer service is moving online, and customers love it. In store, there’s still not a lot that beats a smile and a friendly attitude. These interactions improve your customer rapport and make it easier to fill their needs.

What you can do

Customer service and eCommerce software can help you connect with site visitors and get them to the products they want. Brick-and-mortar establishments don’t need to buy anything special—you just need to be nice.

With the holidays right around the corner, it’s a great time to practice and train employees on how to make up-sizing sales. These add items to customer baskets and increase the chance that a customer will come back to make another purchase.

While basic selling techniques can increase the number of sales you make, you should focus on personalization. Pull all the tips from this piece together to give customers an experience resulting in the purchase of a transparently sourced product, based on individual needs, through a payment system that works for them.

If you can pull that off, you’ll hit the ground running in 2018.

Other trends

These are the biggest trends I’m expecting to see in 2018, but there are so many moving pieces in the retail world. What are you planning for in 2018?

Localized marketing? The end of Facebook advertising? Drop a line in the comments and let me know what’s on the horizon for your business over the next year.

Looking for Retail Management Systems software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Retail Management Systems software solutions.

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About the Author

Andrew Marder

Andrew Marder is a writer for Capterra. His background is in retail management, banking, and financial writing. When he’s not working, Andrew enjoys spending time with his son and playing board games of all stripes.

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