Is Brick and Mortar Retail Making a Rebound?

If you have been paying any attention to the headlines coming out of the retail industry over the last few months, you may think that off-line retail is going the way of the dinosaur. In the first half of 2016 alone, the industry has been flooded with unfavorable news, such as that poor sales are to blame for the closing of numerous Kmart, Macy’s, Target, Walmart and Sears stores throughout the country. Then there was Nordstrom’s embarrassing stock downgrade. Later, reports came out that Sports Authority and Aéropostale are filing for bankruptcy

Few would argue that the dismal performance of both big box and small, mom-and-pop retailers is not being affected by the growing prevalence and preference for ecommerce. Platforms such as Amazon, eBay, and Paypal, as well as the emergence of mobile technology has forever changed the way we make purchases. But that change need not be a death knell for brick and mortar retailers. In fact, over the past year or so, behind all the doom and gloom, the retail industry has actually been showing some signs of healthy growth and expansion.

According to Douglas Hope, of GlobalShop, in his session at the Microsoft Envision 2016 conference, some corners of the retail industry appear to be going strong. In 2015, retailers spent some $62 billion on in-store “shoppers’ experiences,” and it seems that at least some of this investment is making an impact. Even as several big box retailers began pairing down their operations, retail revenues hit $5 trillion last year- that represents a 72% increase in sales since the year 2000. Plus, there are currently 3.8 million storefronts in the U.S.- which represents an increase of 190,000 within two years. Perhaps the biggest eye-opener of all: about 90% of those storefronts are small, independent shops.

So, what could be driving this resurgence of off-line commerce? The retailers that are expanding in this age of digital commerce tend to have a couple of things in common:

1. They are very focused on providing a good customer experience. For example, consider the case of hunting and sporting goods chain Cabela’s. Stores feature in-door rock climbing, and an in-store cafe, animal and cave exhibits and a wide selection of products. The chain is now building two new 70,000-square-foot retail locations, one in Georgia and one in Missouri.

2. They don’t ignore their digital footprint. Successful retailers today work to seamlessly blend their online presence with their off-line one. In fact, many bring the two together. Some great examples of this in action include: Geo-Targeting and Proximity Marketing as well as in-store virtual dressing rooms.

While it may seem like the sky is falling when it comes to “real world” retail, the industry is going through an evolution and it is one that will likely include physical storefronts for a long time to come. Those who adapt now will be the ones in the best position to survive.

The Minimum Wage Increase Hurts Small Businesses and the Economy

This month the future cost of labor just went through the roof. Both California and New York have passed legislation that would gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022. After the 2022 deadline, wages would then rise with inflation, yet the governor of each state would have the option to delay these increases during periods of economic difficulty.

California and New York are not alone in their push to increase the minimum wage. Several other state and local governments have or are in the process of initiating their own legislation. As of 2013, more than a dozen states and local governments have increased their minimum wages. This includes Connecticut, Maryland, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Vermont, as well as Seattle that has committed to raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2018.

While in California and New York small businesses with fewer than 25 employees would have an extra year to figure out how they are going to deal with the increase in wage costs, it is going to be a big challenge. As an example, according to the Employment Policies Institute, a small business who has 20 employees making minimum wage will see a $10,000 annual increase in wage costs for every 25 cents the minimum pay is raised.

That’s a hefty cost to bear for a small business working with a tight profit margin. In fact, many experts, activists, academics, and politicians across the political spectrum have pointed out that sudden and significant increases to the minimum wage puts a strain on American employers, leading to widespread layoffs, budget cuts and business closures.

Moreover, an increase in minimum wage will also lead to an unpopular increase in consumer prices, since businesses will need some way to cover the significant increase in operating expenses. Trying to cut costs in other ways may render the business ineffective and uncompetitive. Yet, there may not be so many alternative options available to them.

Finally, for some smaller businesses there is also the issue of being competitive in a global market place. There are two main ways that an increase in wage costs will put American small businesses in a disadvantage. First, if the cost of American products or services are more expensive than the equivalent products and services found in other, less expensive countries, then there will be less demand for them abraod. At the same time, if Americans can get cheaper imported products, then there will be less demand for things that are Made in America.

While an increase in the minimum wage may sound admirable in theory, in practice it may be doing much more harm than good, and it may only end up hurting the very ones it is trying to help.

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How to Use Facebook Search FYI to Promote Your Small Business

With over 1.5 billion active monthly users and a feature-rich platform, Facebook has continued to be a dominant part of the social networking landscape since its founding in 2004. All this activity has also attracted the attention of businesses big and small which have been trying to figure out how to capitalize on the social network’s user appeal and reach.

But the use of Facebook as a business marketing and customer relationship channel has been rocky at best. Over the past few years in particular, businesses have had to deal with significant changes to Facebook’s features, design, content algorithm and streaming. Most business users have seen their organic reach plummet, and this has been happening while they are simultaneously being encouraged by the social network to invest in Facebook’s advertising platform. Frustration over the lack of ROI and cries of foul play have caused many businesses to simply abandon the platform.

But, before you close the doors on your Facebook presence, you may want to think again. Facebook still offers lot of real potential for business marketing. The only catch: you have to dig a little to get at the information that will be the most helpful to your marketing promotional efforts.

The biggest opportunity lies in being able to access important information about your Facebook fans well as the fans of your competitors that you can use in your marketing campaigns and product or service development.

Facebook recently announced the creation of a search platform that makes all the public posts it has indexed (now a staggering 2+ trillion) more easily available. Dubbed Facebook Search FYI, the new feature allows you to search through users and posts and even get real-time information regarding what is happening in the world.

What You Can Do With Facebook Search FYI

Why is this important? For one, Facebook’s updated search feature allows you to:

– Identify your own fans

– Learn about their interests and likes

– Identify employees of a business who have liked a business’s Facebook Page

– Identify interests of competitors’ fans

– Identify potential business partnerships

This also means that all public posts will gain more visibility since they now appear in Facebook search results, and this happens in real time while the discussion is happening. It’s kind of like a screen shot of a Twitter stream.

So if you can post about a big story, event, or popular product or service that your current and potential customers are talking about, then your post will be included in the results. Just make sure your privacy settings for the post is set to “public.”

Another benefit is that you can now see what people are saying about your business even if the people making the comments are not part of your fan base.

Bottom line: Facebook isn’t going anywhere any time soon, and neither is its potential to help small businesses focus and refine their marketing efforts.

Geo-Targeting & Proximity Marketing are a Big Deal for Small Business

I have mentioned here before that small businesses in particular cannot afford to ignore mobile marketing and the enormous potential it has to reach consumers. Countless studies and surveys all point to the fact that consumers are spending more time on their mobile devices to access information and connect with others via the web. In fact, according to a recent Statista report, by 2017, over 63% of mobile phone users will be accessing the Internet through their mobile phones.

These devices are also playing an increasingly prominent role in the purchasing process. U.S. mobile commerce sales via smartphones and tablet computers are projected to surpass $142 billion dollars in 2016.

As consumers have become more confident and comfortable with their mobile devices there has been a rapid development of marketing techniques and tools directed at attracting the attention and purchasing dollars of mobile device users. While it is safe to say that the field of mobile marketing was in its infancy 5 years ago, today we are beginning to see some signs of maturity. Numerous low-cost, easy-to-use tools and platforms are springing up, making mobile marketing doable and approachable. Even social media giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have been scrambling to incorporate mobile marketing and commerce into their feature set.

Mobile is currently the fastest growing segment of digital advertising in the US. Research conducted by Business Insider has found that spending for mobile advertising will surpass $42 billion by 2018.

Why Geo-Targeting and Proximity Marketing are Important

All of this is good news for small business owners working with limited marketing budgets. With mobile marketing it is easier to ensure that marketing dollars are being directed at the right people and at the right times. Herein lies the greatest key to success. On mobile, the marketing race will be won by the businesses that truly understand their customer base and their purchasing habits.

If you are just getting started with mobile marketing then there are two key concepts that you need to be aware of:

The first is geo ad targeting. In the most basic sense geo targeting involves determining the geographic location of a mobile user and delivering customized content to that user. Location targeting helps you focus your marketing efforts on the places where you will find the right customers, while at the same time restricting it in locations that are not relevant. You can specify a location to target based on the user’s country, region, city, zip code, organization, IP address, or ISP, among other criteria.

One popular area where geo ad targeting is taking off is pay per click advertising. These ads appear only to users who live in selected locations and are doing location-specific keyword searches. Google’s AdWords location targeting, for example, gives advertisers the ability to choose in which geographic locations their ads will appear. So, people who do a search for “coffee shop Boston free WiFi,” will see PPC ads in their search results for relevant local cafes and shops. Another example, a person living in Dallas, TX doing a search for “music lessons guitar,” may see ads for locally based music teachers and schools offering music courses.

The second technology that small businesses should be paying attention to is proximity marketing. Proximity marketing uses Bluetooth or WiFi technology to send real-time marketing messages to mobile-device users who are in close vicinity to a business.

In other words, with proximity marketing you can reach the right person with the right message at the right time. So, if you own a cafe, you could send a promotional message or coupon to a customer who happens to be near the location of your store during the lunch hours.

The benefits to both approaches in terms of ROI is self-evident. But more than this, mobile marketing enables a more intimate form of advertising that can not only generate more sales, but also more loyal customers. And, that’s something all small businesses can use.

Recognizing the Signs of Employee Burnout

One of the most costly and time-consuming expenses a business has to deal with is employee turnover. When the business is small and the departing employee was filling a vital role, then the loss is felt even more. The direct and indirect drain on resources that goes along with losing those key employees can seriously set a business back and undermine its operational stability.

While there are numerous reasons why employees choose to leave, sometimes they go simply because they are too stressed and over-worked to be productive. In this case, if you can recognize the symptoms of employee burnout early on you will be in a better position to address it and make any necessarily changes before anyone walks out the door.

Here are five of the biggest warning signs to watch out for:

1. Productivity declines. If you see a sudden drop in the productivity of one of your solid performers, then it could be a sign that this person is feeling a little stressed or distracted. We all have our off days, so if this happens once and while, it could mean nothing. But, where the drop in productivity is both significant and over the long-term, then it’s something that requires your attention.

2. Work quality declines. Sometimes you may notice that the overall level of productivity stays more or less the same, but the quality of their work diminishes. The number one sign that employees are overworked is when they repeatedly make simple mistakes. If your employee usually takes care of typos or produces clean code or calculations, then you should be paying attention.

3. Absenteeism increases. A key indicator of how happy your employees are on the job is how often they unexpectedly call in sick. Happy, productive employees typically want to show up for work; unhappy employees burn out and take many sick days. So, if your employees are starting to call in sick more than usual, it’s probably a sign that they’re overworked. Work-related stress is a factor that can lead to a number of health problems that ultimately prevent employees from showing up for work and having productive days.

4. There is tension in the air. When your employees seem irritable, stressed, and frustrated or on the other end, a little blue, then it’s a sign that you need to jump in and do something to help ease the tension and unwind.

5. Employees become despondent. Apathy is an innovation killer. If you notice that some of your employees seem apathetic and unconcerned with their work and the business as a whole, then it’s time to step in. When employees are stressed out, then enthusiasm is one of the first things to go. So, keep an eye out for employees who don’t seem to have the energy they once did, and be on top of it immediately. You don’t want their despondency and lack of enthusiasm to rub off onto others.

In short, employee burnout happens- even to the best of businesses. But it if you can learn how to recognize the warning signs and respond to them right away, then it doesn’t have to cost you a good employee.

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Small Businesses Only Somewhat Optimistic in 2016

Recent research indicates that the road ahead may still be a bit bumpy for America’s smallest businesses.

Most economic indicators suggest that the economy continues to slog on with a recovery that has been both slow and uneven. This comes at a time when the stock market has been under-performing, the presidential campaign has been both colorful and unpredictable, there is a new, imposing legal reality surrounding Obamacare, and we are facing a tight labor market in some vital sectors, as well as declining GDP and consumer confidence.

Not a pretty picture…

Caught in the middle are the nation’s small businesses- many of which have been struggling to stay afloat ever since the Recession hit seven years ago. According to the new State of Small Business Report by software solutions provider, Wasp Barcode, the top three challenges facing small businesses in 2016 are: hiring new employees (50%), increasing profit (45%), and providing health care to employees (43%). Small business sentiment is also down, according to the monthly NFIB Small Business Economic Trends report. The NFIB reports that expectations for future business conditions are low as are expected sales volumes. More business owners also responded that they are cutting average prices as opposed to raising them.

Not everything is doom and gloom, however. On the positive side, small businesses are looking forward to an increase in revenue in the coming months. According to the Wasp Barcode study, 71 percent of small businesses expect some increase in revenue this year. According to the NFIB study, for all the struggles, actual spending and hiring numbers have remained at average levels as compared to the previous years.

But, much also depends on the outcome of the Presidential election as well as the buoyancy of the global markets. While the year ahead may not be smooth sailing, there may at least be some pockets of light to look forward to.

6 LinkedIn Tools for Small Business

Ever since social networks became popular several years ago, small businesses have been told to spend their limited time and money there in order to remain competitive and relevant. Yet, while the number of active social networks have multiplied, the real ROI of spending that time and money maintaining a presence on these platforms remains fuzzy at best.

There is, however, one robust platform that presents a more convincing case for small business involvement: LinkedIn. While LinkedIn may not be perfect, it offers a powerful set of tools to help small businesses network, build their brand, close sales, and even recruit talented professionals. Plus, it claims to have the biggest network of professionals and business owners on the Internet. So, this platform is great if targeting these people or businesses they work for, and it is certainly a place where you should be directing your resources.

That said, here are 6 of the most powerful and useful tools for small businesses that LinkedIn has to offer:

1. Showcase Pages

As the name suggests, Showcase Pages are used to highlight the various products and services your business offers. They are extensions of your many company page on LinkedIn. Why is this so important or unique? When done right, your company page and showcase pages work together to create a dynamic mini website. Instead of listing all of your company’s products and services on one profile page, LinkedIn is the only major social media platform that gives you the ability to richly convey what your company does and offers

2. LinkedIn Pulse

Content marketing certainly isn’t new. But, with LinkedIn’s native publishing platform, Linkedin Pulse,  you can potentially get your content in front of a massive professional audience. Moreover, as your content gets more popular, anyone who looks at your LinkedIn profile will have greater reason to believe that you are an authority on those topics. They don’t need to head offsite to your website or personal blog.

3. LinkedIn Recruiter

If you are looking for top talent in your industry, then LinkedIn Recruiter is definitely a tool to consider. Recruiter allows you to search through a vast pool of candidates by location, industry, profile key words, and more. Plus, you can include people in your search who will entertain job offers even though they aren’t actively searching. Once you have located potential candidates, you can reach out to them via LinkedIn’s InMail messaging feature.

4. Targeted Updates

Like every other social network out there, we are being bombarded with an overwhelming amount of information, and the worst part of it is that , most of this noise is not even relevant to us. With targeted status updates you are able to deliver relevant content to your contacts rather than bombarding your entire network. You can sort your list of contacts and connections into groups of 100 people or more.

5. Paid Advertisements

The last few years has seen a shift to paid advertising among social networks looking to capitalize on the user traffic they are generating. Most of this is due to a number of high-profile public offerings from Facebook, Twitter, and, you guessed it, LinkedIn. What makes LinkedIn’s paid advertisement platform unique, however, is that it supports the world’s largest online community of professionals. If your customer base involves college-educated professionals, or if you are a B2B business, then you almost cannot afford to overlook LinkedIn’s robust paid advertisement feature that allows you to micro-target media-rich ads to groups of people based on job title, industry, age, location, etc.

6. Sponsored Updates

The last important LinkedIn tool to make the list is also part of the advertising features. With sponsored updates, you can easily get your brand in front of current and potential customers in a way that is less distracting and annoying. Another benefit to this method is that you can let your content do the marketing for you without having to set up and tweak a formal advertising campaign that involves banner and text ads.

While the previous 6 tools can be extremely useful for a large population of small businesses, this really doesn’t even scratch the surface. There are countless Linkedin tools and third party apps and services that can enhance the user experience on LinkedIn. It just takes a little research coupled with a bit of experimentation to find the most useful and profitable combination for your business.

7 Bad Habits That Will Prevent You From Being More Productive in 2016

Now that the new year is upon us, it’s a good time to reflect on the way we work (and live) and resolve to uproot the negative habits that may be preventing us from maximizing our potential. Some of these bad behaviors are keeping us from being productive; others cause us to work harder than we need to, resulting in unnecessary stress.

You don’t have to re-invent the wheel or totally re-design your life to reach the kind of real, lasting change that will make a significant impact. Sometimes the biggest positive difference can come from a few small tweaks to the way you approach your daily routine.

Below are seven such tweaks that can make you significantly more productive and happy in 2016:

1. Don’t sleep next to your phone. Studies have shown that the blue LED light that electrical devices emit interferes with the body’s internal clock, making it harder to settle down and fall asleep at night and exposing you to a whole host of adverse health effects. Instead, keep those devices far away or shut off and make your room as dark as possible.

2. Don’t go to bed too late. While we are on the topic of sleep, research also suggests that if you want to maximize those sleeping hours, then you really need to be asleep by 12:00. After this point, the quality of your sleep gets increasingly poor no matter how many actual hours you are sleeping.

3. Don’t let yourself be easily distracted. Create blocks of time during the day when you turn off that cell phone, close your browser, and leave social media till later. These kinds of distractions not only whittle away at your energy level and your ability to focus, but they can quickly eat away your precious time, putting pressure on your daily to-do list.

4. Don’t multi-task too much. While multi-tasking may seem like a great way to “cheat” father time by getting several things done at once, research reveals that multi-tasking can have adverse effects not only on your health but also on your productivity.

5. Don’t take your work with you. Not so long ago it used to be that when you left the office your work for the day was done. Now that mobile technology allows us to be constantly connected, it’s much harder to resist the impulse to check email or make work-related phone calls and chat sessions.

6. Don’t check your email too often. And, this brings me to the next bad habit. Even with all the options out there, email is still one of the primary forms of online business communication. It is also a place that can quickly get inundated with unwanted solicitations and other forms of spam. Have set times during the day when you check into your email account. The rest of the time, keep the account (or window tab) closed and turn off email notifications.

7. Don’t live an unhealthy lifestyle. Routinely skipping meals and eating unhealthy food is a recipie for disaster. The same is true for not regularly exercising. While you don’t have to totally overhaul your diet, nor start training for marathons, even small changes, such as reducing the amount of processed foods you consume and taking a 20 minute walk a few times a week, can go a very long way. Taking care of your body will not only improve the quality of your life, it will also help you to better focus and maximize work performance.

So, what are you waiting for? Start the new year with the energy and motivation to climb the mountains you need to advance your business and career.

5 Social Commerce Trends to Watch Out For in 2016

While social media may currently be driving only a small percentage of online retail sales, all indications suggest that these channels will continue to expand in the future. In fact, social-driven retail sales and referral traffic are rising at a faster pace than all other forms of eCommerce.

According to the Business Insider Internet Retailer’s Social Media 500 report, the top 500 retailers earned a total of $3.3 billion from social commerce in 2014. That represents a 26% increase from 2013. The overall growth rate for eCommerce in the US, however, only rose by about 16%. Moreover, between the first quarters of 2014 and 2015, social platforms increased the number of eCommerce referrals by almost 200%.  Analysts are predicting an even greater surge in social commerce in 2016.

As I mentioned in my previous post, a number of major social networks including, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, have all recently introduced “buy” or “shop now” buttons to their platforms. The goal behind this move has been to significantly simplify and streamline the purchasing process from these networks.

Aside from direct commerce, social networks are also being used to engage consumers in the beginning stages of the purchasing process. In this case, strategies are designed to bring highly targeted traffic from social media to retailers’ websites and mobile apps.

In this eCommerce landscape, here are five of the most significant social commerce trends to watch out for in 2016:

1. Increased spending in mobile advertising. Now that the biggest social networks have all jumped into the mobile commerce fray, and the media has been generating plenty of hype around it, we can expect more businesses to pump money and other resources into their social commerce efforts. Jumping in feet first is not necessarily a good thing, though. If you are running a small business with limited marketing dollars, then it definitely pays to research the most effective platforms and strategies before committing to any one promotion.

2. More integration between online and off-line, in-store experience. Perhaps one of the coolest things about social commerce, is that it allows retailers to merge the online and off-line shopping experience. Some examples of this in action include:

  • Offering product-specific, in-store discounts to customers while they are standing in the store and researching these products via their mobile phones.
  • Allowing customers to create a “favorite product” list of items they may want to purchase in the future
  • Offering customers recommendations for products that compliment what they are purchasing

3. Re-aligning the business around omni-channel experiences. This is not just about revamping marketing, but restructuring the business to have the flexibility to respond to changes in consumer behavior and preferences. This means a few things. First, you may have to re-organize your operational teams internally to maximize your business’ ability to recognize and respond to customer buying habits. Then, you should take advantage of the fact that people are often researching products on their mobile devices before they come into a store. This means your mobile and social presence are essentially the digital entrances to your physical store.

4. Greater reliance on local targeting. Social and mobile commerce often revolves around instant, real-time impressions and decisions. You want to make sure your business and its products are properly positioned at the time when your potential customers need them the most. So, locally-based mobile searches for the products you carry, for example, could trigger a targeted ad offering a promotion on those products.

5. Making intimate, data driven decisions. While big data has been a buzz word for some time now, the goal for business owners is to understand in a more “intimate” way what makes their customers tick. How do customers make decisions, where are they going for answers, and what are they feeling as they are doing it? As consumer attention is increasingly drawn to mobile devices and social media platforms, the vast amounts of audience data and information available can be used to give businesses a leg up on their competitors.

In short, social commerce, like mobile commerce, is set for explosive growth over the next few years, and businesses need to make sure that they are ready for it. Their customers already are.

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Is Your Business Tapping into Mobile Commerce?

With the end of the holiday season just around the corner, one emerging retail trend has been impossible to miss: the explosive growth of mobile-based commerce (or mCommerce) among consumers.

According to the Adobe Digital Index, online sales for Thanksgiving Day through Cyber Monday (November 26th-30th) totaled $11 billion this year. This represents a significant sales increase from 2014. Adobe’s statistics indicate that sales were 25% higher on Thanksgiving ($1.7 billion), 14.3% higher on Black Friday ($2.7 billion), and 12% higher on Cyber Monday ($2.98 billion) as compared to the previous year.

One of the big drivers of this growth in sales has been the increasing prevalence and reliance on mobile devices in the shopping process. According to the Adobe Digital Index, mobile purchases accounted for approximately one third of all holiday buying, with 37% of online sales coming from mobile on Thanksgiving, 33% on Black Friday, and 28% on Cyber Monday.

This trend doesn’t look like it will be slowing down any time soon. In fact, a recent study by eMarketer, predicts that 25% of all retail eCommerce sales in the U.S. will take place on mobile devices by the end of 2016.

Fueling the trend further, this holiday season also saw the rise of “social commerce.” Over the past few months, some of the major social networks including, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, have introduced “buy” or “shop now” buttons to their platforms. The goal behind this move has been to significantly simplify and streamline the purchasing process from these networks particularly for consumers on mobile devices.

It’s important to note that much of this increase in mCommerce is originating from smartphone users, and it is affecting even offline sales. According to research conducted at Google, over 80% of smartphone users say they consult their phones about the purchases they are considering while in a physical retail location. Moreover, the majority of purchases following a mobile search (73%) are actually taking place in a physical store.

So what does this all mean?

It’s not just about online sales anymore, and it’s not enough to just maintain a mobile friendly website. Consumers are increasingly looking for integrated, interactive buying experiences, and all indications point to the fact that the digital experience often precedes the physical one. So, just as you put in the time, money, and other resources into the physical experience of buying from your business- regardless of whether you offer products or services- you need to be investing in your digital experience as well. In this face-paced, noisy world, it’s the one area where your customers are directing their attention. You’ll have a better chance of being successful if you meet your customers there.

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