If the retail industry were an ocean, the corporations would be the sharks and the small businesses would be the minnows.
Chain stores like Walmart, Costco, etc. are towering figures, but as small business owners, let this not dishearten you. We can discuss how by making small changes to the way you do business and by learning from the best practices of other businesses you can actually push your own to be ready for the future.
And future small business trends look pretty wacky. Let's take a look at what exists and what's about to exist in retail and restaurants.
Widen the scope of creativity
There is no shortage of people with great and unique ideas that can be implemented to create a buzz about your business. A lot of it also borrows from technology.
Bagger's, a restaurant in Nuremburg, has an automated touch screen at every table where patrons can place their orders. The screen also displays the ETA for food and ensures an early check out. Uno's Pizzeria has the same system.
Then there is C&A, a Brazilian clothing store, where apparels are hung on digital cloth hangars that display in real time the number of 'likes' that piece of clothing has received so far on the social networking page of the store. This way, the buyers can figure out how popular or avant-garde an apparel is. Depending on whether they want to follow current fashion trends or if they want to stand out, they can make an educated decision before making the purchase.
Yo! Sushi has started to deliver food to its customers on little helicopters, at 25mph.
Janice Henry, VP of Design at Superior Uniform Group says that uniforms of the future will actually smell different. They can make you smell like french fries or apple pie, or anything you want to inspire the customer to order. Or, the uniforms can be infused with pheromones that can relax stressed workers. They say that uniforms of the future will also be stain-proof and free of body odor.
One super wacky prediction, by Garth Chouteau, senior director of public relations for PopCap Games, is that the ordering experience at a fast-food restaurant will become more like a video game, even funded by virtual money. “In that environment you will be doing everything from walking (via your avatar) up to the virtual counter at which you place your order and at the same time experiencing various types of video games. You might want to join people at another table in their virtual adventure, or you might want to challenge someone at your table to a match of virtual tennis or football.”
According to QSR, "Rickey Yada, PhD, a nanotechnology expert and professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, envisions restaurant costumers placing a finger into a machine that immediately analyzes their individual nutritional needs and makes appropriate menu recommendations."
Even large retail outlets have inculcated some innovations that can be used by their smaller counterparts.
Lego came up with a concept called Lego Digital Box which is basically a mirror-like screen. If you hold up your Lego toy box against it, the screen shows how the final figurine looks like, thereby letting you make a well-informed decision about buying that toy. More importantly, such creative solutions help create a much needed buzz, online and offline, about your store.
Tablet monetization and transactional tagging
Just like you can use Google Maps to view any part of the world on your mobile device, the future technology will allow users to browse the shelves of stores in real time, thanks to eye level cameras installed in stores.
This way, you can actually check for availability, crowd level, etc. without even entering the store.
You can even make the purchase through your tablets and Smartphone and then visit the store later to pick up the merchandise. Another concept in the works is transactional tagging on pictures available online, where products can actually be bought from any web page that displays them, not necessarily from the official site. Say you see a picture of a celebrity online and then click on the sweater he or she's wearing, the hyperlink will directly lead you to the point of sale.
Leverage the benefits of being small
We have already discussed the analogy of the retail industry with the ocean. Realize that sometimes the small fish escape the net, but the big fish get caught.
What I mean is, know that there are certain things that are difficult for big retail houses to achieve but not so much for smaller businesses.
One of the prime ones in that category would be gathering customer feedback, especially in real time. Thanks to concepts like tablet monetization, wherein people can make purchases and leave reviews on their mobile devices can help small business owners make changes or upgrades to their inventory at a quicker rate than what is possible for larger chains.
Not Your Average Joe's gives customers a clipboard with an attached iPhone that has a survey loaded at the end of every meal so that customers can leave real-time feedback.
During the economic turndown of 2008, Henrybuilt Corp., a maker of custom cabinetry, cut costs for their customers by creating a side business, Viola Park, which eliminates consultation with architects through an online interface that allows customers to build their kitchens online instead. Viola Park now accounts for 20% of the company's revenue. "We listened to the market, rather than waiting to get back to the old days," said their Chief Executive, Scott Hudson.
Facing money struggles, a small NYC restaurant, Sanctuary T decided to come up with their own line of seasonings that were uniquely tea-infused. The seasonings, Dus-T took off around 2011 and could be found in grocery stores around the country. Sanctuary T decided to hone in on teas in general after that, and open a big online store where customers can stock up.
Maybe future small business trends amplify the ability for any small business to create their own product lines through alternative business financing, like Kickstarter?
See? Even a small business can innovate and grow, even in the face of economic downturn or money struggles.
As small business owners running brick and mortar stores, attune your business with technologies such as these to stay ahead of the curve and be ready for a future where connectivity and retail will be intertwined. For starters, a mobile, non-flash website. Next, helicopter servers!