How Smaller Businesses Can Beat Big E-Commerce Brands

As a startup or small business, competing with larger corporations, whose monthly marketing spend exceeds your annual revenue, can be downright scary.

Photo: Thomas Pruchinski | Credit: Courtesy Photo

As a startup or small business, competing with larger corporations, whose monthly marketing spend exceeds your annual revenue, can be downright scary.

Still, it’s not an impossible battle to win, as long as you adjust your strategy and know where to focus your attention. Among smaller operations comes greater flexibility, more control, and the potential for swifter execution. By leveraging these advantages, you can set your business up for sustainable and continuous growth. By streamlining operations, you’ll establish the foundation to thrive once you’ve joined the big leagues.


Relate to your target audience

“Millennials are a group of people who were born between 1981 and 1996,” and they represent the largest group of consumers. “Millennial spending will grow from USD 1.2 trillion to USD 2.1 trillion over 15 years.” As a result, businesses will need to position themselves to capture this consumer spending growth and rethink their standard business approach.

Millennials care less for brands, and more about what those brands represent. They want to spend their money with companies who give back, are trustworthy, authentic, and prioritize the customer experience.

As a small business owner, you’re in the ideal position to embody these ideals. For example, big brands find it hard to be relatable. After all, how are consumers supposed to identify with a faceless corporation? Yet, smaller companies can build their entire business on their brand identity and personality.

Engage with your audience via email, social media, and offline channels. Communicate and reinforce your mission and values. And most importantly, listen to your customers to further understand and meet their needs. For instance, Gymshark achieves this by actively engaging and following up with consumers on their social media channels.


Focus on quality

What is your point of differentiation? If you plan to compete with big e-commerce brands, look for ways to do so other than price. You can shift your focus toward quality, for example. Focus on a specific niche and invest in research and development. Become the go-to resource in your area of expertise. Plus, you’ll find it easier to market your business online using SEO and content marketing strategies.


Engage multiple sales channels with agility

Startups and small businesses are naturally more agile than larger corporations. There’s less red tape to navigate, fewer bottlenecks, and faster iteration. A small business can review search trends data to develop new products and execute quickly to stay on the cutting-edge of what’s working.

Furthermore, small businesses that establish a website and e-commerce presence take advantage of the digital potential in terms of increased organic SERP rankings, brand recognition, and reach. For example, PPC campaigns can direct traffic to different landing pages to maximize conversions and overall performance. This also ensures new revenue streams in case of a crisis or if other sales channels dry up.


Develop an unbeatable customer experience

Beat big brands by offering personalized customer experiences. This can improve conversion rates, win repeat customers, and establish authority.

Meanwhile, e-commerce brands that streamline their web presence with fewer products and a user-friendly interface can focus on offering engaging content and an aesthetically pleasing design. A renewed effort to focus on best-selling products, like this example from mattress company Zoma, by using hero images (i.e., a large web banner image, prominently placed on a web page, generally in the front and center) can also serve as a direct conversion tool.

Go above and beyond by offering an in-depth ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ section, verified customer reviews, and multimedia such as infographics. Do the things that big brands find hard to do. Offer free shipping, loyalty programs, free returns, and compelling customer service. For example, services like Handwrytten help you easily send out customized handwritten notes to customers. This is something major brands are almost certainly not doing.


Play a different game

Bootstrapped, smaller companies have an advantage of optionality over large corporations and heavily funded, venture-backed startups. Smaller e-commerce companies can focus on profit rather than needing to meet ambitious growth targets to please investors and stockholders. They don’t need massive, unicorn-type exits to win. They can be profitable much quicker, and maintain steady growth while providing a great product and cultivating company culture. In short, they can beat the established competitors by playing a different game.


Become a culture-first company

Time and again, research suggests that happy employees drive exceptional business results. Smaller companies are better positioned to shape company culture to satisfy this goal. For example, communication easily flows top-down and across functional teams. As a result, organizational goals and values are clear and cohesive. The needs and concerns of all employees can be heard and accounted for by committing to actionable core values.

Company culture has always been important, but even more so amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As a smaller company, with less red tape and more freedom (e.g., choosing profit-over-growth), the downsides to making sweeping cultural changes are more modest.

  • The agility to adopt a work-from-home policy and reset operations quicker can prove beneficial.
  • Communicating a priority on physical and mental health can also make the workplace more enjoyable.

Invest in your team to boost productivity and efficiency. Popular project management company Basecamp, for example, is known for providing an employee-friendly work from home policy and offering a slew of industry-leading benefits; which quite likely creates a more dedicated workforce and higher employee satisfaction.


Standing out from the (much larger) competition

Despite the obvious difficulties of running a small business, recognize the advantages over big brands such as flexibility, agility, personality, and optionality. Experiment and navigate changes with less red tape. Carve out your niche and make your team happy by focusing on what makes your company unique.

The road to success won’t be easy. However, by mitigating your weaknesses and leveraging your strengths, you can make the necessary decisions to stand out and above the crowd.


Thomas Pruchinski is e-commerce marketing consultant. He helps small brands grow sales on and off Amazon. 


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