Every year holds new challenges and opportunities for small and midsized businesses. To understand the ecommerce changes that 2014 is likely to bring for small businesses, we spoke with a couple of industry experts to get their predictions.
5 Small Business Ecommerce Trends for 2014
1. Personalized experiences gain traction
Many small businesses have both a brick-and-mortar and an online store. According to Kirsten Knipp, vice president of marketing at ecommerce platform provider Bigcommerce, this combination helps business owners address their customer's growing interest in shopping experiences that are tailored to their individual needs and preferences.
"We're seeing more and more retailers understanding that folks would like to engage with their brand," Knipp says. "People want to come back and have a personal experience, whether it's through Facebook, social media or on a website directly." Customer loyalty activities and other strategies will become more important in satisfying the craving consumers have for a personal touch. SMBs will put more focus on reaching out to customers with new ways to enjoy both online and off-line experiences that are specific to them.
2. Marketing will be more integrated
Historically, SMBs take orders through an ecommerce system, drive traffic to a Web content system, and send emails from yet a third system. Craig Vodnik, co-founder of Cleverbridge, an ecommerce company, sees this model evolving into a more integrated experience from the customer perspective.
"Small businesses need a much more integrated messaging platform that's intelligent enough to understand when a particular customer comes in, what he bought in the past, and that can continue to market to him in the future," says Vodnik. Many large retailers already have automated, integrated marketing campaigns, and Vodnik believes this approach is "filtering down to the smaller businesses." If a small business hasn't already launched something similar, it's time to take the plunge in 2014.
3. Accommodating mobile customers
"Mobile technology not only creates more opportunity for vendors to actually take their products out on the road—at farmers markets and the like—but more consumers use mobile devices to shop," Knipp says. Online transactions happen while consumers watch TV at home, take the bus to work and wait for a flight in a distant city.
Small business owners will make buy-from-anywhere shopping more appealing to customers by building out great mobile experiences, with responsive websites that "work on every device and resize in a way that's appealing to the end user," Knipp explains. This cycle will help small businesses increase the traffic they already see from mobile shoppers.
4. Alternative funding will displace venture capital
Move over, SBA and other conventional funding methodologies. Knipp says that avenues such as crowdfunding are already on the rise, and will become more mainstream in 2014. "Whether it's a Kickstarter, Prefundia, or Indiegogo campaign, all three of those sites are starting to produce a high volume of really interesting projects."
Small businesses are branching out from traditional bank and family loans. "We believe that crowdfunding will not only continue to grow, but that people have a better understanding of how to use crowds for all of their growth needs," Knipp says. And while social media alone isn't necessarily a monetary tool, SMBs are learning to leverage it as a massive crowd engagement tool that can help them grow big enough to get to that next step.
5. Sales tax issues could cause significant challenges
Huge companies like Amazon have already been hit with sales tax requirements in states where they don't have a physical presence, and Vodnik believes that trend will begin trickling down to the small business sector in 2014.
"From a sales tax perspective, there is a push in Washington to do more of a standardized online sales tax in some way, shape, or form," he explains. Unfortunately, the sales tax system is extremely complex as each jurisdiction—at the state, city, and often district levels—has its own tax rate. "It's just not very clear for small businesses what they need to charge, because there are different rates based on the type of product, and whether you're in a certain area," Vodnik says.
Julie Knudson is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in technology magazines including BizTech, Processor, and For the Record. She has covered technology issues for publications in other industries, from foodservice to insurance, and she also writes a recurring column in Integrated Systems Contractor magazine.
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