Skip to main content
opinion

Jeff Guthrie is chief sales and marketing officer for Moneris

After doing some holiday shopping recently, I am delighted to report that the demise of small business in Canada has been greatly exaggerated. I was half expecting boarded-up windows and “going out of business” sales after reading so much about the Amazon effect in 2018, but no, it turns out that people still like to shop in bricks-and-mortar stores.

Like Walmart before it, Amazon has been made a convenient scapegoat for failed retailers in recent years, but the truth is, many have only themselves to blame.

In a recent survey my company conducted, just over one in three (36%) small and medium-sized businesses said they had a website: An egregious error in a world where almost every shopping trip starts on a digital device.

Ask yourself, would you trust a store you couldn’t find on your phone? Not to mention the rising popularity of voice activation. How exactly is Alexa or Siri supposed to recommend a business that it can’t find?

So, while it’s easy to feel sorry for entrepreneurs who are forced to square off against a 5,000-pound gorilla with an insatiable appetite, you can’t blame Amazon for making small businesses disappear if they were invisible in the first place.

An obvious first step for any merchant today is to get online immediately. This isn’t about competing with Amazon with a fully stocked online storefront. It’s about developing a simple online presence that lets potential customers know who they are, where they are, what they sell and their hours of operation. Considering the ease and affordability of a template e-commerce site such as Shopify, entrepreneurs have no excuse not to extend their brand online.

Small retailers also tend to worry too much about Amazon’s analytics advantage. Yes, Amazon is a data machine. They know what customers are searching for, what they add to their carts and what they don’t. However, don’t confuse customer data with customer service. Data can be used to predict a future purchase, but a mathematical formula can’t replace a personalized in-store experience.

To offer an example, I happily make the drive from Toronto to an Oakville men’s wear shop even though I could find the exact same items in 10 different places along the way. The store knows my body shape, what has worked for me in the past and what I tend to like. While going there isn’t exactly convenient, I’m a deeply loyal customer because they create an intimate experience that I can’t get anywhere else.

Again, this isn’t about replacing Amazon. Amazon is great if you’re a busy parent who’s looking for a fast, cheap way to buy diapers, detergent and other household staples. But what about all the unique products we really want: The items we buy to define and differentiate ourselves as individuals.

As Amazon gets bigger and bigger, and it becomes easier and easier to shop, I believe Canadian small businesses are in a unique position to deliver the bespoke products and curated experiences that today’s consumers are looking for.

A cosmetics store that allows people to go in and mix their own shade of lipstick while enjoying an espresso; a jewellery boutique where goldsmiths design custom pieces and teach classes on the weekend and evenings; a sustainable clothing shop that creates its own unique lifestyle brand by carefully curating every item in their store so customers can wear their logo with pride.

These are examples of entrepreneurs taking a commodity and turning it into a complete customer experience. Merchants who are building a business by building affinity around their brand.

By taking a page from the 19th century – when main street was a collection of cobblers, tailors and dressmakers – and focusing on delivering one-of-a-kind products and experiences, Canada’s small retailers cannot only survive in a world with Amazon, but thrive.

At the same time, merchants must also embrace new technology so they’re not hopelessly stuck in the past. This means having a website, setting up a simple online store, accurately tracking inventory and generally becoming visible in a world where every customer journey begins on a mobile device.

For smart entrepreneurs, it’s entirely possible that Amazon will have no effect.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe