Fifth Tribe Goes to the “Small Business – Big Impact” Retail Summit: What We Learned & What You Need to Know as a Small Business Leader

Yesterday, Fifth Tribe’s Product Owner, Adam Motiwala, attended the first District of Columbia Retail Summit, “Small Business – Big Impact” (presented by Mayor Muriel Bowser @MayorBowser and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development in partnership with Think Local First D.C). The all-day event hosted a gathering of local business owners, entrepreneurs, and members of the small business community to discuss and discover ways to continue to grow and build D.C.’s retail economy.  Adam spent the day listening to and connecting with retailers in order to get a sense of the market’s current challenges, as well as the solutions that these local leaders are crafting to forge digital success.

When asked about the event’s themes, Adam recalled that a lot of the day’s dialogue revolved around how digital solutions – like e-commerce and social media – are transforming the way that small, brick-and-mortar businesses enter a highly-saturated digital market.  However, doing so isn’t as easy as it oftentimes is made to sound. Some of the challenges that are associated with going digital include: replicating quality, in-store customer service into offline platforms; choosing which channels to utilize; staying consistent and active on social media; providing inclusive and informative training to employees; and mitigating the anxiety and the culture shock that is inevitable when a brick-and-mortar store first goes digital.  Although these are only a handful of issues that small business owners and entrepreneurs are facing, they reveal many inevitable truths about the retail industry: customer expectations are high, significant upscaling is required when going online, and making this transformation is far from easy.

When migrating from brick-and-mortar stores to the digital space, it can be helpful to look to other companies of similar size and goals to identify effective (and ineffective) strategies.  During his day at “Small Business – Big Impact,” Adam learned how small D.C. brands are going digital and how they’re utilizing digital tools to leverage growth goals:

1. Going Global: Lettie Gooch Boutique

Theresa Watts of @LettieGoochBoutique spoke on the event’s morning panel, “Bricks & Clicks: Consumer Experience Re-Imagined.” Discussing the benefits and effects of online shopping and e-commerce retail, she discussed how going digital has helped to drive her business’ foot traffic.  However, she has found that while more people are migrating into their brick-and-mortar store, many are opting out of purchasing in-person, saying that they prefer to buy products online. The threat here is that the e-Commerce space is highly competitive, opening opportunities for other retail stores to reach a prospective customer (or a customer who has “promised” to go online) with ads.  This possibility might decentivize a store from expanding farther than their loyal customers and curious foot traffickers. However, Lettie Gooch Boutique’s online store and social media presence has allowed them to go global; they are now selling nationally and internationally. According to the owner, for this reason, “e-Commerce is a must.” Though there could be potential downfalls from this transition, the benefits greatly outweigh the costs.

Panelists from the “Bricks & Clicks” panel: Virginia Arrisueño from Steadfast Supply, Kendra Blackett-Dibinga from Bikram YogaWorks, Anika Hobb from Nubian Hueman, Stephanie Jacek from Le Bustiere, & Theresa Watts from Lettie Gooch Boutique, with moderator Kristen Barden from Adams Morgan Partnership BID.

2. Hosting Events for Community Connection & Brand Growth: Steadfast Supply

When entering the digital space, small businesses might feel as though they’re compromising on what reels their walk-in customers in and retains their loyalty: personal and high-quality service.  This anxiety is sensible, as you’re entering a space that completely eradicates face-to-face interactions and diminishes the value of a friendly smile and genuine greeting. Although it’s a retail store who has benefitted largely from its online and social media presence, @steadfastsupply has preserved the art of interaction in this time of screens by hosting events.  In addition to its retail offering, Steadfast Supply serves as a community incubator, providing event space for their brands, local entrepreneurs, incluences, and other small businesses to interact with the community and beyond.  By doing so, the company not only furthers their mission, but also strikes a balance between online and offline experiences. We recommend that, whatever your brand’s goal, you seek out this balance as well.

3. Bikram YogaWorks… & So Should Your Digital Strategy

During the “Bricks & Clicks” panel, the Chief Visionary Officer of Bikram YogaWorks, Kendra Blackett-Dibinga, stated that 70% of her the yoga competition has an online membership model.  Though daunting to a small business who might just be considering online migration, this number demonstrates just how drastically the digital world is overlapping with the retail world.  These two worlds intersect at many points, but the way in which a company decides to respond to their intersection is limited: you can either ride the wave and join the current, or be swept behind in the tide.  Considering the way that social media and digital capabilities have continued to evolve, we do not predict that the importance of having and optimizing an online presence will diminish. So, we recommend jumping on board.  Bikram YogaWorks did this by creating a branded application for customers that offers discounts via push notifications. They have also hired a videography on retainer and have invested in search engine optimization (SEO) in order to rise as the top hot yoga studio in the market.  In other words, they have chosen an area or two to finetune – the app and their SEO -, and have committed to improving those digital capabilities. Choosing one or two skills to perfect at a time, as opposed to trying to do them all at once (e.g. social media, an application, a website, etc.), can alleviate the stress and anxiety of entering the digital space.

Small business owners from the D.C. area share their experiences, offer pieces of advice, and take questions from the audience.

Topics & Tips to Tackle Other Challenges

These three small retail businesses are making a big impact in this space by utilizing social media to go global, finding a happy medium between online and offline customer service, and perfecting digital skills one at a time.  Other recommendations that Adam heard from entrepreneurs and business leaders during the day included:

  • If you are trying to improve e-commerce and marketing on social media:
    • Post consistently and frequently
    • Utilize Instagram! Check out our piece on Getting Started with E-Commerce on Instagram.  
    • Engage with followers in the comment sections and on Stories (Instagram)
    • Encourage followers to tag your brand in their posts (e.g. offer giveaways and discounts on social media)
  • If you are just beginning to migrate online and you are worried about how the transition will affect your employees and culture:
    • Check in on your employees consistently to make sure that they feel happy, encouraged, motivated, and incentivized. Consider hosting a happy hour or a fun, work-free event to boost morale and promote teamwork
    • Provide them with the resources, tools, training, etc. that they need to be successful
    • Remember that you don’t have to be omnichannel all at once! Start slow, and finetune each platform and capability before moving to the next.

As a small business, entering the digital space is overwhelming and intimidating.  But going online to grow your brand does not have to be as stressful and as challenging as your instincts might be telling you.  Look to those who have done so successfully – like Lettie Gooch Boutique, Steadfast Supply, and Bikram YogaWorks – and pull from them what might be applicable to your company.  The challenges that brands face in the retail industry are very similar, so solutions should be derivative as well. What is one way that your business is strengthening their digital muscle?

Khuram Zaman

Khuram Zaman is the CEO of Fifth Tribe, a leading digital agency serving the Washington DC Metropolitan Area based out of the 1776 Startup Co-working Space. In his professional capacity, he has provided digital marketing services to clients as diverse as the Department of Defense, Kaiser Permanente, Oxfam America, Ernst and Young, and The Hult Prize. His writing has been featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur.com, and Business2Community. Khuram is the host of the Campfire: Impact and Innovation live podcast on Youtube. In his free-time, Khuram serves as a mentor to startups through the Peace Tech Accelerator, the Halycon Incubator, and is also a Entrepreneur in Residence at Georgetown University