CNBC | SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey

Op-Ed: How Main Street USA can survive in the Amazon Age

Main Street
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

It's no secret that Amazon is the master of customer convenience and (almost) instant gratification. But with their most recent initiative that allows customers to order online and pick up in stores (within an hour), the company continues to force small businesses to rethink the local shopping experience. Local businesses must continually reevaluate how they can attract and retain customers with Amazon encroaching on some of their space.

So what's the answer for small businesses trying to survive in the Age of Amazon? Focus on coexisting with the online retail giant instead of competing. After all, with 92 percent of retail sales still happening in brick-and-mortar stores, these small and local retailers have a huge opportunity to maintain and grow their business by keeping shoppers buying local.

To do this, they need to understand that buying patterns and customer preferences have changed. Buying ads in the Sunday paper or purchasing a local TV spot simply aren't going to drive the same results they did 10 years ago. To coexist with Amazon, small businesses need to get more creative in reaching customers, starting with the basics. Here are some key ways to welcome new customers and keep them coming back.

Forget the printed yellow pages — own your online voice

In today's largely digital world, it's shocking that almost half (45 percent) of small-business owners say they still don't even have a website, according to the CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey. Years ago, if a company wasn't listed in the yellow pages, you'd assume they didn't exist or that they'd gone out of business. Today's digitally-savvy customers are researching options online and using search, various content sites and social media to direct them to a storefront. Small businesses should think of the company's presence across this local ecosystem, combined with their own website, as their "digital door," and they need to ensure that their messaging, products and company details are clearly accessible to shoppers.

Today most buyers will never come through your physical door unless they've first gone through your digital door and judged you worthy of a visit.

Use reviews and location to your advantage

Once you've conquered your online listing, the next step is modernizing your digital presence by paying attention to online listings and nurturing your reputation in reviews. According to a survey done by BrightLocal, "74 percent of consumers say that positive reviews make them trust a local business more." As such, local businesses need to cultivate a strong review network, ensuring happy customers share their experience and any negative reviews are addressed in a timely manner. Minimally, just being aware of what customers are saying about you can make a world of difference in what changes you make to your business.

Local businesses also have a huge opportunity to capture "on-the-go" shoppers. "Near Me" searches on the top search engines are becoming more popular (up 146 percent year-over-year, according to GeoMarketing) when mobile shoppers are looking for a product or service locally. As a first step, business owners can invest in capabilities like search marketing — activating functions like Google Location Extensions and geo-targeting to ensure they appear in these searches and capturing high-intent, mobile shoppers.

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Surprising survey findings on the Amazon threat
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Understand your potential allies

Ever heard the phrase, "If you can't beat them, join them?" If your products are the types of things that are sellable in Amazon's environment (i.e. consumer products, more modes price points, easy to understand and merchandise digitally), joining the Amazon marketplace can be extremely helpful for growing your business and getting your feet wet in e-commerce. However, online selling means that your business will be very different. You will need to take a hard look at the complete financial impact of selling through a third party like Amazon, adopt shipping and return procedures and plan for the changes among staff and business process that go along with it. Is your business prepared to take on these initiatives? If so, this is something to think about as you look to attract more digital shoppers.

Additionally, many retailers don't realize that their brand partners often set aside a significant amount of marketing dollars for co-op marketing subsidies with their retailer networks. You can work with your product brand partners to determine if these subsidies are available and, if so, use them to help pay for any marketing efforts where that brand is present. Just ensure you account for all of their brand guidelines in the marketing execution so that you maximize the financial benefit and don't get caught expecting a reimbursement for which you aren't eligible.

While Amazon is clearly an 800-pound gorilla in the retail space, small businesses have an advantage they'll never have. Many small retailers have been a part of their communities for generations and are a key pillar of the local economy. People have a desire to support businesses in their own communities, and you have an opportunity to connect with them in a different way by getting that message out.

Amazon has undoubtedly thrown a curve ball into traditional buying models, but the company is here to stay, so it's time for small businesses to learn how to coexist. With a larger focus on aligning online and offline initiatives to meet the needs and preferences of today's consumers, small businesses will be positioned to thrive in this new era of retail.

— By Brendan Morrissey, CEO and co-founder of Netsertive