The SMB Loyalty Scene In Australia Will Never Be The Same – And That’s A Good Thing

Small businesses worldwide were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Australia was no exception. Derailed by physical location closures and the trepidations of consumers, shopkeepers and entrepreneurs nationwide were forced nearly overnight to rewrite and recreate their business models to meet the rarified needs of the time.

Some firms have done better than others at bridging the digital divide and upgrading their services to be more accessible to consumers. The Australian digital commerce landscape, PYMNTS' panel of experts agreed, has advanced about 10 years over the last 18 months.

‘We’ve seen this absolute turbocharging of the transition to digital, and businesses that weren't really ready were left scrambling. And they've undergone a decade of transformation in an incredibly short period of time. For many of them, it felt like there was this digital revolution that arrived overnight,” Ana Marinkovic, executive general manager, business direct and small business at NAB, noted in the recent PYMNTS panel discussion.

Other commentators included Linda Minassian, managing director APAC at Pollinate; Joshua Harrison, VP of hospitality, APAC at Lightspeed HQ; and ​​Simone Joyce, CEO and founder at Paypa Plane and chairperson of FinTech Australia.

This rapid shift to digital, Pollinate’s Minassian noted, isn’t the only big shift in the Australian environment. As central business districts have shut down, city high streets have become ghost towns as homebound consumers have shifted to their local shops and become quite loyal to them. Some 51 percent now report that “they are more likely to shop local as a result of the pandemic, which is driving further loyalty in their local community. And that's more true in Australia than in any of the other areas [PYMNTS] surveyed.”

The landscape for small businesses Down Under is a challenging one, the panel agreed, but it is also one that is laden with opportunity – particularly for small firms that, after a year-plus of scrambling, are ready to carry on in their digital journeys and “think big” about how they want to connect with consumers going forward.

The New Checklist 

The progress in the Australian market is remarkable in many ways, the panel agreed, with some nine out of 10 small businesses now having some sort of web presence, with the progress being unevenly distributed. While many SMBs have taken the great digital dive and are growing and thriving as a result, sadly, just as many are still struggling in survival mode. It’s almost like there is a two-speed economy in place, Marinkovic noted, with the challenge being to bring everyone up to speed.

The good news, Joyce observed, is that the ball is definitely rolling, and the opportunity to do more is rapidly rising. “The majority of our businesses are getting a website now, and we're starting to have an online shopping cart, but just around the corner, we've also got the consumer data,” Joyce said. “That's going to bring more tools to the arsenal to help understand loyalty and how a business can connect with its customers.”

But more tools are not enough to rebuild small merchants' approach to the digital economy – the merchants themselves must be ready for those incoming tools.

And as Lightspeed's Harrison noted, merchants have a lot going on at present, as they are plagued by labor shortages as so many of their former workers have departed the market just as they are looking to reopen their physical operations. They don’t have the time or bandwidth to take on heavy tech integrations, no matter how much they might eventually improve their businesses. What small merchants need from their high-tech solutions, he noted, are “plug and play” options that are ready to go on day one, or close to it.

“It's about how we build that emerging technology into the business. Because there is now a huge reliance on technology, and you can't just throw people at it,” Harrison said, noting that merchants have had the “lightbulb moment” when it comes to technology's power to unlock new connections and opportunities. They need tech products that sync smoothly and simply into their operations, he noted.

Diving Into The Data 

As Pollinate’s Minassian noted, merchants aren't inherently interested in data – they’re interested in making coffee, or selling pants, or baking, or whatever they went into business to do. For them, managing data has not been so much a business growth priority as a “hygiene issue.”

“Data is another example of where, as a community ecosystem, we really need to support those businesses from a policy perspective and help them understand how they can harness those technologies to make data work for them,” she said.

That’s where the next big opportunity exists in the SMB digital journey, Marinkovic noted, as they attempt to bridge the gap between the firms that are thriving and those that are merely surviving. Because data is life for SMBs, she said, in myriad ways – from cash flow management to inventory to customer outreach.

That doesn’t mean they need to take on becoming data scientists, but it does mean they will need to work with trusted third-party organizations like banks to get the clearer perspective that strong data reserves can provide.

“I think that with so many businesses having an online presence, cybersecurity also comes into that conversation,” Marinkovic said. “So there are a lot of opportunities in the data space and in the SMB sector that will benefit the strongest players.”

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