Using the Internet to Improve Small Businesses

Even brick-and-mortar retailers firmly rooted in the physical world must become expert navigators of the digital realm to stand out in an increasingly crowded market.




At this point, many pet specialty retailers have a store website and a Facebook page. They may have dabbled in Instagram or Twitter or started an email newsletter. Chances are, these efforts are already helping to grow the business by reaching new customers or bringing regulars through the door more often. But when it comes to using the power of the internet to take your store’s success to the next level, retailers need to go beyond these basics and explore the virtually limitless ways to build their business.


Thanks to the wide variety of free and low-cost tools available online, pet specialty retailers of all sizes can compete with larger competitors by making it easy for customers to find them and showing them why they should shop at their local pet store. However, for stores making the most of limited marketing budgets and staff time, those tools can seem more like another overwhelming endeavor rather than invaluable opportunities.


Britt Sturm, vice president at Agri Feed Pet Supply, a two-store retailer in Knoxville, Tenn., recommends retailers start with the simple task of searching for their own store and seeing what comes up.


“I would say start by Googling yourself, see what is out there, claim your business page if you have not, clean it up,and build out your presence from there,” he says. “Read what people are saying about your business, ask your customers what they would like to see from you. If you are trying to obtain new customers, online or in-stores, work on consistent and engaging content.”


Online reviews can seem like yet another problem in the life of independent retailers, but they also offer a valuable opportunity to put a personal face on your business and address any complaints people may have in the most public forum possible. Business owners who claim their page on sites like Yelp can individually respond to reviews, whether positive or negative. By striking the right tone in a personal response to a complaint left on Yelp, a store owner can undo the negative impression that review could have given many potential customers.


The reality of today’s market is that a new customer is most likely to find your store online and will do some research before making the effort to come in. According to the Local Consumer Review Survey 2018 by BrightLocal, which offers SEO tools for local businesses, 86 percent of consumers read reviews of local businesses online and 68 percent of those surveyed said positive reviews make them more likely to use a local business. Furthermore, these reviews have been shown to have a concrete impact on revenue. Results from a study on the restaurant industry published in a 2016 Harvard Business School Working Paper found that a one-star increase in Yelp ratings was linked to a 5 to 9 percent revenue increase. It is critical that potential customers be able to evaluate the quality of your business online just as easily as if they walked through your door.


“The Internet has and continues to play a very important role in our business strategy and in our customers’ lives. This is where the consumer makes one of their first impressions about your business,” Sturm says. “They analyze your Google reviews and ratings, Facebook likes and reviews, how many followers you may have on Twitter or Instagram, how easy your website is to use, etc.”


Retailers should also aim to have their own website and social media accounts appear in top results when Googling their own store name—although the statistics vary depending on a number of factors. One analysis by Chitika Insights found that sites listed on the first page of Google results received 92 percent of the traffic from that search. Using Google Analytics, which is free and easy to sign up for, store owners can better analyze how people are finding their website and adjust their SEO strategy or cultivate new paths to their website through social platforms and more.


“Track inbound traffic using free tools like Google Analytics,” says Phil Chang, a retail industry expert, speaker and consultant who helps retailers understand and adapt to the fast-changing retail landscape. “This will help you understand where your consumers are coming from, so you’ll be able target key sources and drive more traffic.”


For example, retailers can see whether visitors to their website are finding them through organic searches, through social media profiles or another unexpected source. Similarly, retailers should see whether they appear in the first page of results in a search for “pet store” and their respective city or town, to assess if a new pet owner in their area can easily find out about their store.


Choose Wisely

With so many outlets for online marketing, it can be difficult to assess which ones are right for your business and avoid spreading yourself too thin across every platform available. Sturm recommends focusing on maintaining quality content through a few platforms, rather than trying to do it all.


“I think it is important that as a small business, we pick a few to manage well instead of too many that can’t be managed properly,” he says. “Agri Feed Pet Supply utilizes Instagram and Facebook as our two primary platforms of social media marketing. We use Mailchimp to send out emails approximately twice a month, we have a mobile texting program which goes out weekly, and our website, which is both informational and an e-commerce site.”


Whether your business currently employs an e-commerce strategy or not, a strong website is essential for both informing new customers about your business, updating regulars on new products and services, advertising events and serving as a kind of central hub to connect all your online marketing efforts.


Many retailers have some kind of social media presence, but there are plenty of features and creative ways to actively engage with followers, rather than simply using these platforms as a running news feed of updates or advertisements for the business. For example, Chang points out that the polling features available on Instagram can be used as a quick and easy market research tool.


“Everyone has social media now, but one really great tool to mention, Instagram stories, is a great way to do consumer research,” Chang says. “Think of things like sliders and yes/no buttons to ask key questions and learn about your followers.”


Looking at social media as a way to actively connect with and respond to your community and customers is key to taking a store’s social presence to the next level. Giovanni Senafe, vice president of business development for Bentley’s Pet Stuff, emphasizes the importance of these personal connections, even for a retailer with more than 100 locations.


“Engagement and being responsive to it is our main focus,” says Senafe. “Always, always respond. Don’t ever think you’re too busy to personally respond to each and every message.”


Email marketing is another great tool to directly reach out to customers, but retailers may not be using this tool to its full potential. A regular email blast to your mailing list advertising a new product or store event is a great first step, but email marketing tools like Mailchimp allow businesses to do much more targeted marketing, such as customized recommendations and automated follow-up emails based on a customer’s activity on your website.


“Email is still the best for us as we can personalize offers, events and needs based on the customer’s habits in our stores,” Senafe says “We try to code every offer or coupon so we can see redemption rates.”


Since Mailchimp is free to use up to a certain number of subscribers, retailers can test out the platform’s features and see concrete results, in terms of opens, link clicks and online sales. Agri Feed Pet Supply uses the service for their email marketing, and Chang recommends it as well.


Although many online marketing and e-commerce tools are available for free or relatively low costs, the time investment to both launch and evaluate these practices is unavoidable.


“You’ll need to put in at least a couple hours a week over and above your social media to track what is happening to your business,” Chang says. “There’s no way around it. In the same way that you spend time putting products back and dusting off shelves, you’re going to need to spend time doing housekeeping on your digital store too.”


A Measure of Success

Once you’ve implemented some new strategies for marketing and growing your business online, the next step is evaluating how well these practices are working. According to Chang, checking in with your return on investment is just as important as spending time on using these web-based tools to begin with.


“Always measure your efforts,” he says. “Never do anything for the sake of doing it. When you put in measures like Google Analytics, or Optimizely, it should help you learn something new about your business that you can leverage.”


Both Google Analytics and Optimizely offer almost endless metrics to quantify and compare website and digital marketing performance. To make these versatile but perhaps overwhelming tools more manageable, retailers might start by setting a specific, measurable goal, such as seeing a certain percentage increase in traffic after revamping their websites, or generating a certain amount in sales through email marketing campaigns. Before starting a new campaign or making major changes to a website, it’s essential that retailers first assess their current digital status to get an accurate picture of the impact of their new investment.


“Always track where you were before you started your new tool and measure after,” Chang says. “You’ll surely see progress and improvement.”


One great advantage to engaging customers through emails, social media and a store website is how easy it is to quantify how successful your efforts have been and whether they’re making an impact on your business. Mailchimp allows users to experiment with different subject lines, delivery times and more to see what produces the best possible open rate for emails. With website analytics tools, retailers can evaluate specific performance measures, such as the site’s bounce rate, and then try out different solutions.


“If you’re wondering why your website isn’t producing enough, or you’re getting a lot of website bounces, use Optimizely to see what your customer’s journey is,” Chang says. “It’ll help you figure out what they’re searching for, and where your website isn’t delivering.”


Sturm emphasizes that the flexibility and quantifiable nature of online marketing tools allows retailers to be efficient and responsive in the increasingly competitive pet specialty market.


“Having measurable forms of marketing is important in my opinion because it allows you to see if you are putting your dollars in the right places, which allows you to adjust quickly if something might not be working,” Sturm says. “We live in such a fast-paced world today, and it is important to be able to make quick decisions when it comes to our marketing efforts.”


With some time and resources dedicated to it, there is almost no limit to the variety of new strategies retailers can try out in finding the best ways to use the internet to grow their business. Chang recommends seeking out educational opportunities whenever possible, or even bringing on some more experienced help for storeowners who want to take their efforts to the next level.


“Google offers a lot of free courses that will teach you how to use analytics,” he says. “The other thing to do is head to your local college and hire an emerging digital marketing student. They’re always looking for experience, and you’ll benefit from the extra pair of hands.”


Sturm recommends that retailers always be on the lookout for new approaches to try in digital marketing and e-commerce, such as using “live” features on Facebook or Instagram to engage with customers in real-time, or starting giveaways on social media. A regular giveaway can be a great tool to keep growing your audience, such as offering an entry for each new follower, email subscriber or everyone who shares the giveaway. For retailers looking to invest a portion of their budget, a small amount can go a long way in targeted advertising on social media.


“There are plenty of tools out there, it’s just [a matter of] learning how to optimize them to your needs,” says Sturm.


While stellar customer service, community involvement and genuine love for pets will always be hallmarks of successful pet specialty retailers, the reality of today’s market is that effective use of the internet is an absolute essential. Senafe notes that for Bentley’s Pet Stuff, internet-based tools and e-commerce will be the business’ biggest investment this year, and Sturm is looking to expand Agri Feed Pet Supply’s efforts across multiple channels as well. Whether it means starting or expanding e-commerce efforts, delving into a robust digital marketing campaign or building an engaging and creative social media presence, pet specialty retailers of all sizes can take advantage of the internet to expand their customer base and generate more revenue.


“It is also important to understand that not everything might work, some things may take longer than others, but at least get out there and try,” Sturm says. “You can’t be afraid to take risks as a business owner, and I would encourage people to try new ways to reach their audiences.” PB


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