8 ways independent businesses can compete with big & online brands

Phil Kendall

Oct 2018 ⋅ 9 min read

Cartoon image of a person leaping over a hurdle

It's tough being an independent business owner. Chain stores and online brands and have a number of big advantages over the little guys, able to lure customers in with vast inventories, the promise of free or next-day delivery, and prices that are hard to beat.  

But it's not all doom and gloom for small businesses. In fact, with a little creativity, there are a number of ways that indies can outshine their behemoth brethren.

In this blog post, we'll be discussing eight ways that small businesses can compete with big and online brands in order to boost sales, foster loyalty, and use your small size into a big advantage.

Ready to give the big guys a black eye? Let's go!

1. Build an online presence
2. Get active on social media
3. Target local Google searches
4. Set up click and collect
5. Chase positive reviews
6. Add value to store visits
7. Work with your neighbours
8. Find a 'hero' product

#1 Build an online presence

"Wait. So, the only way to beat online businesses is to be online myself?"

Well, not entirely. But it helps.

You might pride yourself on being an old-school, bricks-and-mortar store, but even the most down-to-earth business should consider having some kind of presence online.

In fact, businesses not having an online presence is a often big turnoff for many would-be customers, who come to view the brands as stuffy or out-of-touch, so don't shy away from social media or taking steps to boost your website's search engine ranking.

Regardless of whether you own a restaurant, swimming school, or plumbing firm, you should at the very least have the following points checked off:

  1. Claim your business on Google. Whether or not you intend to do business online, Google will probably already know about you, be displaying your business' location on Google Maps, and inviting people to rate it and write reviews.

    For this reason, you need to make sure you tell them the business is yours, or you'll have no say in what information is displayed about it, or what customers say or read about you.
  2. Have a functional, mobile-friendly website. Every business needs a website, and it needs to be easy to navigate on smartphones and tablets, not just desktop computers, or else it will have zero chance of appearing on the first page of relevant search results.

    The good news is that you don't have to be a coding wizard to build a functional website anymore, as there are a number of beginner-friendly site-builder tools out there (for example, Wix and Squarespace) that will help you get up and running in no time.
  3. Be present on social media. Not all social media platforms are equal, and you'll need to spend some time deciding which platform is right for you. But without at least one social media account to your business' name, you could be missing praise, feedback, complaints and even compliments about you every single day.

Establishing an online presence will give you the foundation to compete with big businesses in other ways, too.

#2 Get active on social media

The next step up from being present on social media is to be active on social media!

Customers are increasingly turning to social media when they have questions, complaints or comments to make to or about a business. Use this to your advantage to show people the kind of hands-on customer service they can expect from a smaller business like yours.

Plus, as well as being a great way promote your business for free, social networks provide customers (and would-be customers!) with a direct line to your business on a platform that they're already familiar with, allowing them to ask questions, make comments, and maybe even share the content you produce with their own followers.

Need some tips on getting started with social media? Check out our beginner's guide to using social media for business.

#3 Target local searches on Google

Generally speaking, big businesses will always have the upper hand when it comes to ranking highly in Google search results. They have entire teams dedicated to ensuring that their websites get to the top of search results pages, and will often spend large sums of money snapping up the promoted links right at the start of results pages.

The good news is that smaller, independent businesses have the home advantage when it comes to more specific, local searches - like 'gift shop in central York' or 'vegan cafe in Harrogate'.

Here's how to do it:

  • Claim your business on Google (as described above)
  • Make a list of relevant keywords and phrases that potential customers will Google when searching for businesses like yours
  • Adjust content on your website and social media to reflect these keywords

Remember: as a local business, you have the home advantage, so be sure to take advantage of it.

#4 Set up a click-and-collect service

One of the reasons many people choose to shop online rather than off is convenience — as well as being able to make purchases from the comfort of their homes, they know that they'll never have a wasted journey.

If you don't want to offer customers a full online delivery service, you can still offer similar convenience with click-and-collect.

A click-and-collect or reservation service for your customers (managed either over phone or, ideally, via your website or social media accounts), you take the element of chance out of the equation; your customers know that the item they want is waiting for them in-store — and you'll hold it for a couple of days, so they can pick it up whenever's convenient.

Sure, collecting purchases in person requires more effort than having it delivered to your door. But if you stress the fact that your customers can get their hands on the items the same day or next day — far sooner than the standard 3–5 days delivery for online purchases — many people will be prepared to make the effort.

#5 Chase positive reviews

When was the last time you left a five-star review for a business that you regularly patronise? Sure, you might take the time to write a positive review if you've been especially bowled over by the level of quality or service you've received, but chances are, it wouldn't even occur to you to take to Facebook, Google, or TripAdvisor unless you've had a particularly bad experience.

That's only natural, of course. As paying customers, we feel far more compelled to speak up when we've had a negative experience with a business, either because we feel that we are entitled to some kind form of compensation or simply because we want to warn others.

From a business owner's perspective, this is obviously a problem. It's important that you deal with any negative reviews properly, but just as important is that you encourage your happy, satisfied customers to take to their keyboards and say so.

There are a number of ways you can go about this:

  • Ask them! At checkout or as they're paying their bill, simply ask your happy, smiling customers if they'd mind leaving you a review online if they enjoyed their experience with you. There's nothing wrong with being direct, so long as you're not pushy.
  • Get some TripAdvisor review cards. TripAdvisor will supply registered businesses with cards that they can pass to their guests, prompting them to leave a review.
  • Put reminders on receipts. Include a review reminder on any receipts, invoices, and other official documentation you hand to your customer at the end of their journey
  • Use your mailing list. If you've set up a loyalty scheme and have your members' permission, shoot them a quick email containing a link to the various review sites you use (or even just your Google listing) asking them to provide you with feedback.  

Remember: customers are likely to spend as much as 31% more with a business rated 'excellent' by its users. It pays to be proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to reviews.

#6 Add value to store visits

To gain these positive reviews, you have to provide exceptional service that sets you apart from bigger brands.

People can buy things quicker, more easily, and often for less online. There's no getting away from that.

But scrolling through a list of bestsellers on Amazon doesn't even compare to browsing books in a warm, softly lit shop filled with comfy armchairs, helpful staff, and the aroma of freshly ground coffee teasing your nostrils.

In short, in order to be successful, offline and independent brands need to evolve beyond being just another place for people to exchange money for goods and services — they need to provide a complete buyer experience.

Not only should your shop be a welcoming place to be, but you should strive to offer the level of customer support that online brands can only dream of, giving advice, offering a great returns policy, providing free gift-wrapping services with purchases over a certain amount, and more.

If you're not sure where to start, think about your favourite bricks-and-mortar stores to visit. Why do you give them your custom, even if an online competitor is cheaper?

#7 Work with your neighbours

Yours might be a small business, but by working with other independent businesses in your neighbourhood, you'll immediately have much more clout. Use this to your advantage to make shopping local a more appealing prospect.

There are a number of ways you might go about this:

  • Form an alliance. First off, you'll need to get some of your neighbours onboard. Talk to your local indie brethren and discuss your common goals and struggles. Form a support network (Facebook and WhatsApp groups are great places to start, as are regular group meetings in the local pub!), and agree on how you can complement and support one-another's businesses.
  • Reward local loyalty. Get into the habit of offering your customers discounts down the street after they visit you. This could be in the form of coupons printed on your till receipts or a membership card that entitles customers to regular discounts at other local businesses.
  • Create a badge of honour. Get some signs or fancy Michelin-style stickers made up for you and your partners and display them in your respective windows. As well as advertising the fact that you're a independent business supporting one another and the local economy, these stickers will make it easier for people to tell where they can potentially get discounts. It's best to avoid getting too political, but subtly reminding people in this way that you employ local people and pay your fair share of taxes will usually play in your favour.

It doesn't matter if you end up partnering with businesses that are similar to yours — there's room for more than one cafe, restaurant, dentistry, or repair garage, and there will always be more strength in numbers than going it alone, so celebrate what you have in common.

#8 Have a 'hero product' that's uniquely yours

One way to stand out from the crowd and give people a reason to choose you over your online competitors is to offer something that no one else can — a 'hero product'.

The York Roast Company shot to fame in late 2017 when its "Yorkie Pud Wrap", a sort of roast-dinner-meets-burrito roll of deliciousness, caught the eye of food bloggers and news outlets alike, prompting people to queue for up to an hour to try one for themselves.

Headline-grabbing products like these don't come along everyday (and, let's be honest, there's a degree of luck involved too), but that doesn't mean you can't have your own hero product to give people a reason to choose you over a big-name brand.

Yorkshire Pudding Wrap

Yorkshire pudding? As a wrap? Really? (Via BBC Radio York)

Geplaatst door BBC News op Donderdag 21 september 2017

Harrogate-based independent cafe Baltzersen's, for example, might not be a household name up and down the land, but there's no denying that its name has become synonymous with cinnamon buns for people in the local area — they even give them away for free when people sign up to their loyalty programme.

What do you do that's better than your competitors? Whatever it is, be sure to put it front-and-centre of your store, advertising, and social media content to make it uniquely yours.

Final Thoughts

There's no point trying to go up against big-name brands on their terms. No matter how passionate you are about your business, you'd be fighting a losing battle by trying to match them on price or inventory.

The key to standing up to big and online brands is to carve out a niche for your products of services. Their weaknesses — very often subpar customer service and an uninspired, cookie-cutter shopping experience — are your strengths, so it's important to play to them.