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Is the future of British business online?

The fate of Britain’s high streets has not been far from the headlines in the last 12 months along with claims that the internet is killing businesses that don’t invest in a good online presence. But is it just a simple case of online vs. traditional businesses? We explore how the two can work together and how to apply the same principles to your small business.

The title of this article might seem like a foolish question; of course businesses need to move online! As a nation, we spent an extra £6.2 billion online in 2011 than we did in 2010 and online sales now make up 19% of all retail sales (Office of National Statistics, 2012), so it makes sense to have some kind of web presence. In the same year, 12,669 independent retailers also went out of business (British Retailers Association).    

If the headlines are to be believed, the high street and traditional ways of doing business are on their way out, with online only businesses taking over.

But while there may be some truth in a move towards this, and there are definitely benefits to running an online only business (lower overheads for a start), there are potentially more opportunities for ALL businesses to take an integrated approach to trading; the so-called ‘clicks and mortar' business model.

You've probably seen more and more websites using traditional forms of advertising over the last year and, most recently, Google announced it was contemplating retail stores for its laptops, tablets and smartphones (though only in the US so far). It seems that online businesses are realising the potential of cross-channel selling and promotion far quicker than their traditional counterparts.

So how can our high streets and, more importantly, the small, independent businesses that benefit from their footfall learn from internet businesses and use it to their advantage? Here are a few ideas. 

Click and collect

Delivery charges and waiting times are the main bugbears of the online shopper. Unlike some online services, which can be downloaded instantly, shopping online doesn't always give that instant gratification that shoppers long for.

Offer customers the convenience of browsing and ordering online, but also give them the option of popping into the store to collect their goods. You could also offer local delivery, if the demand was great enough to justify the cost.

Generate leads

77% of consumers will research a product or service online, even if they plan to go and purchase it or use that service away from the internet (Web Loyalty, 2012) – a reminder, if you needed one, of why even a basic web presence is a must for any business.

If someone is interested in what you sell AND they're on your website, then you're half way to closing the deal. The clincher is getting them to either a) make a purchase or b) register their interest in your services. You can do this by having an easy-to-use online shop or including a prominent call back, request a quote or online appointment booking facilities on your website. 

Offer an experience and exceptional service 

Whilst the internet offers convenience and lower prices, there are some things it just cannot do. Top of that list is the face-to-face contact and the best quality service. Make the most of these strengths by going the extra mile for customers and offering them a service they just can't get online or from a large company.    

The long lasting relationships that small business owners are able to create and sustain with their customers are something that big companies can only dream of, so use this to your advantage in order to create brand loyalty.  Stay in touch and encourage word of mouth online  Once customers have experienced your excellent service or happily bought your products, make sure you stay in touch with them.

You can do this by getting them to sign up to your mailing list so you can keep them updated regularly with the latest news and special offers from your business.    

Also encourage happy and loyal customers to spread the word about your business using the internet, for example on social media or online review sites. 

Innovation

Online businesses, by their very nature, have a different culture to businesses that are truly ‘bricks and mortar'. Perhaps the best example of this is their use of innovation.

Online only businesses have developed to be more flexible and take chances. They're not afraid to empower their employees, try new things and – most importantly – they're constantly testing and listening to feedback from their customers to improve their offer. 

Get social 

Social media has really levelled the playing field for smaller businesses when it comes to marketing your business. Whether you choose to use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or another social network, you have exactly the same tools at your disposal as larger and online businesses.    

It even works for small local businesses too. Facebook and LinkedIn business pages come with a built in map, so people can find the exact location of your business. Update pages regularly with news and special offers to keep your customers up to date and build a loyal local customer base.    

The internet can never replace the experience of local independents but, used in the right way, it can help small businesses to find new customers and add something extra to their service that customers can't find online.

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