Four years ago, the Coursens thought they had found a way to stay competitive on their rolling 615-acre farm: a $500,000 robot milker.
There was just one thing.
“Where’s your internet?” the equipment installer asked.
“We don’t have it,” Ms. Coursen, 41, answered.
“That’s going to be a problem,” the installer said. The robotic milker wouldn’t work without internet access.
“It was the part we really didn’t think about,” Ms. Coursen said later. “We knew nothing about the internet.”
From Kris B. Mamula & Jessie Wardarski’s “Disconnected” for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“It’s never been easier to bring your small business online!” says every single listicle aimed at local small business owners (SBOs) who want to expand to the World Wide Web. “E-commerce is good for you! All of your customers use the internet! So should you! As we said, it’s easy!”
They’re not misleading the SBOs. According to a GoDaddy Global Entrepreneurship Survey, small businesses with a web presence bring in 38% more revenue in general. Moreover, 63% of consumers turn to the internet for information about local businesses and per the U.S. Department of Commerce, e-commerce across the board is growing exponentially every single year.
Simply put, because all these easy how-tos and DIY, “near turnkey,” just-pop-it-in-the-oven-and-it’s-done platforms are exactly where these offline Mom & Pop SBOs they’re trying to reach aren’t yet: online. It’s like sending someone written instructions to teach them to read.
But it’s also much more complicated than that. Rural areas that don’t have solid internet access in the first place, minority communities who haven’t been exposed to the technology, older SBOs who just can’t keep up with the new tricks, international taxes and other government regulations, and the complete lack of education (and budget and equipment) for analytics and marketing for anyone outside the marketing industry, there is really nothing easy about managing e-commerce EXCEPT, maybe, building the website itself. Using it is an entirely different challenge.
The 49% of SBOs who are online are generally younger, urban internet-savvy entrepreneurs or older vets who have been in the business long enough to adapt to tech changes (or can invest in people who do).
Retail giants like Ebay, Amazon, Alibaba and PayPal are each launching initiatives to reach these SBOs on the wrong side of the digital divide, which is mutually beneficial to both parties as offline SBOs learn to increase their sales and use tools in a hands-on way, while the big retailers expand their sellers list and look really good doing it, for all those “little people” they’re willing to share resources with.
On the other hand, do we really think a few flashy, one-size-fits-all programs are going to close the gap effectively? Have these underserved SBOs really been served?
We all know small businesses are the beating heart of the American Dream. But it isn’t just romance, they also drive and diversify a healthy economy full of jobs. As 6,000 retail stores closed in the first four months of 2019 alone, fingers pointed to the old Big Online Retail villain as the cause. But as this opinion piece for Bloomberg points out, it’s not that simple:
What’s happening is a lot more complicated than e-commerce giants such as Amazon stealing business from mom-and-pop stores on Main Street. There is a larger trend at play, involving how Americans are choosing to spend their time as they grow older and wealthier.
Perhaps more accurately, people want to save time by scoping out their shopping experiences online before taking the time to physically visit a brick-and-mortar. It is a huge detriment, then, that so many people and businesses, like the Coursens, still struggle with connectivity:
The FCC's latest numbers suggest that 21.3 million Americans lack access to fixed broadband with speeds of at least 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up. But the true number without broadband access may be much higher, as a Microsoft analysis found that 162.8 million Americans do not use the Internet at broadband speeds.
These are where the offline, Mom & Pop SBOs are. And while connecting rural American SBOs to e-commerce may not seem like it would move the needle much, the numbers are actually shocking. According to an Amazon study cited by Retail Dive:
Improving access to digital technology for rural businesses could contribute more than $140 billion to the U.S. economy over the next three years, and create more than 360,000 full-time jobs in rural communities, according to a study commissioned by Amazon and conducted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Closing the digital divide for these SBOs means everyone wins, not just local economies and the business owners trying to pay for their daughters’ dance lessons, everyone. It’s the economy, stupid.
The Big Online Retail programs to help local SBOs expand their businesses online have the right idea in many ways. It would be wrong to underestimate the impact and genius of what Ebay is doing with its Retail Revival program. The success stories speak for themselves: over the last year the chosen cities of Akron (OH), Lansing (MI), Wolverhampton (UK) and Halifax, Canada helped small business generate millions of dollars in sales over 70 international markets.
Ebay goes to these cities, partners with local governments, educates small business owners over the course of a year and offers them an array of support and services, all free of charge. It is much more than a photo op. From their own publication:
Ecommerce doesn’t have to be a disruptive force – it can in fact strengthen small businesses and communities. Our eBay Retail Revival program has become an exemplary model for how local municipalities and the private sector can work together to leverage technology as a driver of sustainable economic progress. We are immensely proud to be a technology platform that can supplement and enhance brick and mortar small businesses in local communities.
This is fantastic for the mid-range cities Ebay chooses for the program, many of which are online and already have the infrastructure in place to support an e-commerce economy, but it misses the mark on the greatest asset local businesses otherwise offer: that personal, non-corporate, non-one-size-fits-all “feeling” that Mom & Pop SBOs strive for.
They are the ones we most need to reach to move the economic needle as noted above. The Coursens’ family farm, the hardware store where Big Jim knows every detail of the JFK assassination and will tell you all about it when you got the time. They are the ones that truly serve a small, close-knit community, and the quirks therein are what will make them appealing to a broader audience as well. You can buy a hammer almost anywhere, but THIS is the only place you can buy it from Big Jim.
As small businesses expand to include e-commerce, they have to find ways of maintaining their identities as small businesses, which is not something retail giants like Amazon and PayPal need to have interest in. A good example of the balance Mom & Pop SBOs should strive for is this Charleston, SC jewelry shop:
William Croghan, a bench jeweler who began his career in Charleston, SC, circa 1907, would have been “mind-blown” to see his descendants drawing virtual fences around his jewelry store and designing gold jewelry in humorous celebration of Charleston’s infamous pest, the Palmetto bug.
Not to mention selling the occasional pricey piece of jewelry with a click of a customer’s phone.
On the other hand, William would need no explanation of the Southern hospitality, the hand-written thank you notes his granddaughters sent to each of their 15,000 customers, and their philosophy of saying, “Yes, we can do that!” before saying anything else at all.
As we are strategizing to close this divide, we must keep this point in mind: it isn’t enough to teach them to read, we must also show them what to read and how to use the library to their advantage.
The basic needs, as implied above, need to be met first. SBOs, especially those in rural or small local communities, need an even playing field with the following improvements:
- More access to analytics data. There are some initiatives moving forward to this end.
- Better e-commerce education. For this the Ebay, Amazon, Alibaba and PayPal programs are on the right track, but local and state governments could facilitate partnerships among universities, marketing companies and the like to provide education for marginalized or rural SBOs.
- Expanded connectivity. Without sufficient internet capabilities, SBOs are kneecapped. As we, the marketers, know, a few bad reviews following a poor customer experience are all it takes to tank a new, small e-business.
But while these bigger issues are being worked out, there are more targeted strategies we can apply to reach businesses like the Coursens’:
- Make first contact on an analogue platform. Post fliers (they actually can read), walk into stores or onto farms and talk to the people who run them. Get to know what they are about and let them know what e-commerce is about in a place where they are.
- Design the training to be hands-on. For someone not familiar with e-commerce, dictating or handing out instructions will make as much sense as IKEA does to anyone. Place the people you are educating in front of a screen and go through the motions with them.
- Narrow the information through expertise. These SBOs don’t need to learn the whole internet and scope of e-commerce and all the thousands of choices available, nor do they need to know every social media strategy in the playbook. They need to know how and where they can “be themselves” and reach “their people.” Figure that out for them before the first lesson and give them a small space to work in creatively.
- Find those “personal touches” that make small businesses unique. Maybe every time Big Jim sells you a hammer, you also get a complimentary bookmark with JFK’s mug on the front and the story of Big Jim’s storytelling on the back. Or try something like the Croghan’s Jewel Box handwritten thank you notes to show customers a personal experience despite the “one-click” ease of shopping there.
- Connect them with influencers. People who do not regularly use the internet (and most people who do) don’t have a firm grasp on how to launch a social media content strategy. SBOs should probably keep their own feeds simple, but experienced micro-influencers can get the word out about them at a fraction of the cost they would pay professionals.
- Continued, personalized support that can only come from setting up an infrastructure. While Big Online Retail is currently offering support to the SBOs they are educating through their programs, ultimately this is an impersonal, automated customer service function. On the other hand, if the communities surrounding the SBOs are educated as a whole in partnerships with urban and local government institutions among the people who “know” these businesses, then they can support one another as their collective knowledge evolves and grows.