How Small Businesses Can Take Advantage of Consumers’ Shift From Big Brands

Pamela Hazelton

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With most of 2020's retail operations being dictated by the coronavirus, we're learning more about shifts in shopping behaviors. A reported 75% of US consumers switched product brands over the past nine months, and many of those changes will be permanent. That can be good or bad news for affected companies. Still, the shakeup can have long term positive effects on smaller businesses.

Why the brand shift?

Since March 2020, consumers bought alternative brands for a variety of reasons:

  • Lack of product availability at most or all preferred retailers. When Amazon restricted purchases of certain products to healthcare workers, the general public was left with two choices: go without or find the goods elsewhere. Even today, many retailers' shelves are void of basic cleaning supplies, toiletries, and well-being products.
  • The need to reduce spending. From price gouging to the elimination of typical BOGO cycles, the costs of sanitizing the home have gone up. Cape Coral, FL Publix stores used to feature Lysol wipes on a six- to eight-week BOGO cycle. At $3.29 a container, it was a deal worth the wait (many companies circulate the same deals over and over). Today, the same canister of wipes costs over $4. There hasn't been a deal in months. Yet, they fly off the shelves as quickly as they're restocked. Those not prepared to purchase a high-yield bucket of sanitizing wipes are finding other solutions, including DIY methods. Savvy brands embraced the notion; Clorox provides instructions on making cleaning wipes with bleach.
  • A reduction in discretionary spending. For many, brand-name products are a luxury. COVID-19's effect on local economies prompted plenty to change from popular brands to store brands on many grocery items. Off-brands also took the lead in health and wellness and clothing categories in many localities.
  • A desire to make a difference. Whether to support smaller businesses or those who give back to important causes, many consumers dropped brand loyalty because they wanted to be part of a solution. During 2020 we saw the rank of many underdogs rise in their categories. Several creators on Etsy also reported increased visibility and sales.

But, brand shifting doesn't stop there. The year's lessons also included the increased need to create and use more sustainable products, support businesses with aligned priorities, and measure the actual value of a purchase. To create a more comfortable at-home experience, millions of consumers sought to replace existing appliances with more expensive counterparts. Armed with more time to research features and energy consumption, shoppers put more weight on long-term value due to future affordability concerns. 

Capturing local shoppers' attention

With US COVID-19 cases increasing, consumers are again feeling unsafe about out-of-home activities. Home improvement supplies, exercise equipment, and digital subscriptions continue to trend. It translates to a holiday shopping season, whereas more than half of gift buying happens online. Businesses without an online presence or strong following will find it difficult to wind up in the black by the end of the year. On the flip side, with fewer people traveling for the holidays, local places can fill the void left by spending the entire season at home.

Google My Business, social media networks, and simple online campaigns can help spark interest and increase sales immediately before and well after the holidays. Businesses offering ease-of-ordering and delivery or curbside pickup options will fare better than those requiring in-person shopping. 

Building trust to create long-term relationships

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, a third of global consumers have punished brands they think mishandled pandemic responses. How companies have managed operations and statements by CEOs determine whether or not consumers open their wallets. Brands that place profits before people are most apt to lose consumer trust forever. 

As much as small businesses struggle to make ends meet, they have unique opportunities to build trust and a loyal following, even now. Today's shoppers pay more attention to how businesses react to current situations; it's not always about the best price, but rather which purchase costs less over time while also having a more positive impact on the environment, economy, and necessary programs.

A personalized experience is vital, but so is honesty, humility, and generosity. Businesses that give back in some way will earn higher marks, even if the method isn't by writing a check. Volunteer efforts and donation collection also send clear messages of support. 

Finding ways to get customers involved with charitable efforts can also help, especially during a time when people need to do more with less. Wicked Dolphin, a nationally-recognized rum distillery in Cape Coral, switched its operations to making hand and surface sanitizer during Florida's safer-at-home order. Still available for purchase, the company also donates sanitizer to various organizations. Consumer purchases help offset the costs of getting the essential product in the hands of healthcare workers, law enforcement officers, and more. An alternative solution would be donating a certain percentage of sales or a flat amount per order to a local charity.

Trust is built in many different ways, but the most important goals should be proving a business honors its policies and supporting local improvement.

Branding isn't just about products

Every business, no matter the size, is a brand. And it's about way more than the items stocked on shelves. A brand stands for something that resonates with its customers. While branded products may be of a certain quality, such as durable, sustainable, or fashionable, business branding calls attention to what it creates, how it creates, and what it does once it puts the product in peoples' hands. How businesses spend their earned money matters to those from whom they made it.

As much as 2020's events wreaked havoc on the small business sector, it also opened doors that were locked years ago by large corporations who could continually beat them on price. The majority of consumers are now realizing the true value of quality products, along with the businesses that build and sell them. It's a realization that can catapult deserving entrepreneurs beyond where they were pre-pandemic. 

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Avid writer, marketer and business consultant. Author of official Miva shopping cart guides; senior contributing editor to Practical Ecommerce. Ghost writer for owners and execs. Focused on local and online business growth. #SmallBusinessStrong

Cape Coral, FL
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