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For Small Businesses, Going Digital Is No Longer Optional

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With everything you're juggling as a small business owner, keeping up with an increasingly digital world can feel overwhelming -- and making changes to embrace new technology can sometimes be last on your list. If you're in retail, however, this shift is simply no longer optional.

Even mom-and-pop businesses can't get away with having zero web presence (or having a weak one). Offering online shopping is quickly becoming table stakes and contactless payment options are expected in-store.

This is especially true if you're looking to attract millennials. And you should be, since this demographic is only growing their spending power. There's a lot of talk about the elusive millennial. We read that they value experiences more than things. They're entitled, yet into giving back. They live online, yet crave unique, local-made goods.

There's no time like the present to give yourself a digital edge.

So, are they really that different from the rest of us? Well, yes and no. Based on research we recently fielded at Mastercard, millennials have at least one thing in common with their older counterparts -- they believe in supporting their local businesses. Consistent across generations, nine out of 10 Canadians said supporting small merchants in their community is close to their hearts.

Canadians of all ages love to shop local, but how and why millennials do it is a little different. They are less likely to shop frequently at local brick and mortar stores but more likely to order online from independent merchants. They're less likely than Canadians over 35 to shop local because of emotional ties to the community and more likely to do it because of the unique products on offer.

That all means there's no time like the present to give yourself a digital edge. I spend a lot of time with small business owners and I know that change can be scary. I know how easy it is to put it off until next year. I also know how vital your success is to fueling the economy. Here are some important steps you can take.

Go online to grow

Offer eCommerce as soon as you can. Availability of online shopping from independent merchants is relatively new, but so far Canadians are embracing it. While it hasn't caught up to the popularity of in-store shopping, there's an important generational trend. Half of all millennials are shopping online from local merchants. You need to capture this market for future success. And you can bet this trend won't be reversing with Generation Z.

Recognize that your website is part of curb appeal

A third of retailers in Canada still don't have a website. Even if you can't offer eCommerce right now, make sure you have a website and that it looks sharp. Your online presence has a direct impact on your in-store sales as 85 per cent of buyers want to do research online before buying.

Make big data small

Since you can't rely on loyalty alone from younger shoppers, you need to sell what they want. Going with your gut on decisions has got you this far, but there are more tools available now. Using big data at the local level can tell you more about who lives in your neighbourhood and how your competitors are doing.

Don't go it alone

There are resources to help and you should seek these out in your local market. For example, in Toronto, Mastercard is partnering with the City on Digital Main Street, a first-of-its kind initiative, giving local businesses access to digital tools and education including access to an easy website builder and big data resources.

Jennifer M. Sloan is the Vice President of Public Policy for Mastercard in Canada, responsible for working with all levels of government and stakeholder groups to ensure enduring viability of Canada's payment ecosystem.

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