Trends come and go. But for small businesses the importance of staying up to date with consumer changes is ever-present. If you want your small business to thrive during challenging times, having a finger on the pulse of emerging trends is the key to success.

2020 brought major changes to our world. Dealing with COVID-19 has been difficult for everyone, and economies globally have been hit hard by the pandemic. 

Some industries, like tourism and hospitality, are crippled—possibly permanently—while others have had to adapt to survive. Owners of small businesses, especially, have faced the hard task of competing with big companies in a time of extreme uncertainty. In general, small businesses have smaller reserves, limited cash flow, and fewer resources, making them extremely vulnerable.

While many communities have attempted to encourage supporting local (and smaller) companies, businesses themselves have to follow trends if they want to keep up with the times.

Overall Emerging Trends

2021 has been a bit of a roller coaster so far. Economies are still in a state of flux, leaving everyone unsure about the future. For small business owners, that uncertainty is even more troubling. That’s why paying attention to emerging trends is so important. 

We’ve taken a look at five emerging trends and what they might mean for small business owners and consumers. Let’s see what they are.

1. Cater to Generation Z

Generation Z—those born roughly between 1996 and 2012—are fast becoming the most powerful consumer group, even if some are only nine or ten years old. 

Previous generations seem to perceive Gen Zers as distractible and lazy. But in reality, they’re socially conscious and know exactly what they want in life. In the coming years, this generation will become one of the largest consumer groups—in the USA, at least. 

Some companies have started to cater more for Gen Z, but many are still lagging behind. This consumer group is most at home online, making it imperative for businesses to have an online presence that goes beyond a website. Apart from technology, the biggest priorities of Gen Zers are factors like social justice, adaptability, and living authentically. While they live online, they also desire personalized service.

Action tips: The main priority when it comes to attracting Gen Zers is open-mindedness. Gen Z values honesty and integrity, and would rather shop ethically if possible. To appeal to the youngest consumer group, business owners must be willing to operate ethically and transparently.

2. Adaptable Business Models 

One thing we all learned in 2020 was that adaptability is valuable—even essential. From our private lives to the business world, the sudden change forced society to give up certain behaviors and add new ones. For many industries, this proved fatal, as they’d never had to contend with such rigid restrictions before. Lockdowns caused non-essential businesses to close, at least temporarily, and those that remained open reported to remote working

When it came to reaching consumers, businesses had to adapt quickly and radically. Now, more than a year later, it’s clear that business isn’t back to “normal” (and may never be). Many people are more cautious about going out and spending time in shops or spaces where they’ll mingle with strangers. 

Businesses that have managed to survive, or even thrive, have turned to new ways, such as combining online and offline elements, contactless delivery, and offering services online instead of in person. 

As a business owner, the challenge now is to reach your target market and reassure them that you’re still there. While making sure that everyone is safe and healthy. Flexibility is the goal. And once again, open-mindedness is the way to achieve it. 

Action tips: A business continuity plan (BCP) has emerged as an essential tool to help businesses survive in these uncertain times. BCPs help business owners prepare for the unknown and formulate plans to ensure their survival in the face of unprecedented hardships—like the events of the past year or so. 

To formulate your own BCP, it’s best to get advice from a professional. But to start with, it’s a good idea to record a comprehensive list of your assets, equipment, data systems, etc. 

Hybrid shopping has also gained popularity over the past 18 months: paying online and picking up in person. The form this takes depends on what you’re selling. But it’s guaranteed that customers will appreciate this service. It can also give the impression that you’re willing to tailor your approach to individual preferences.

3. Growth of eCommerce

Shopping online isn’t new by any means. But over the past 18 or so months, it has become the norm. Before 2020, it would be safe to say that some consumers, mostly young, felt at home shopping online. Now, businesses that don’t have an online presence stand little chance of surviving, let alone thriving. It’s tricky trying to pin down the exact statistics, but what is clear is that eCommerce has become a permanent fixture. Some sources estimate that 2020 saw a 30% increase in eCommerce.

Tapping into the online market is something all businesses must aim for. Having an online presence is non-negotiable, but many smaller businesses are lagging behind in this aspect. One 2020 study looking at small businesses in the US found that more than one-third did not have a website—only a little better than the 40% recorded in 2019.

When it comes to surviving COVID, small businesses took the biggest hit. Between February and April 2020, the number of active small businesses dropped by 22%. Business analyst Charlie O’Shea suggests that this devastation wasn’t caused by the pandemic but rather accelerated. That is, small business was already at a disadvantage, one of the problems being that they had a very meager financial buffer against bankruptcy. 

The solution? Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear answer to this, but what is obvious is the necessity of reaching your consumers both online and offline.  

Action tips: Keeping up in these economic times demands an innovative approach. The over-65s still tend to prefer brick-and-mortar shops. But in the coming years, the buying power will increasingly sit with people who’ve grown up online to some degree. 

There isn’t one specific solution to the conundrum (online, offline, hybrid), but potential customers definitely prefer clarity. Your website should be easy enough to navigate for the older population. Even if you don’t have physical business premises, stating your central location (the city, for example) can give a sense of stability. Show that you’re a real person rather than a nebulous internet presence.

4. Social Media Marketing

The growth of eCommerce is closely linked to the ways small businesses advertise and promote their services. 2020 meant that people stayed home much more than usual, which meant they were online more than usual (especially those working and studying remotely). This typically meant that they spent a lot more time on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. In 2019 there were already around 3.484 billion people active on social media; in 2021, that number has risen to a whopping 4.48 billion.

These statistics make it obvious that going online, and especially on social media, is the only way businesses have of reaching their target market. We already know that Generation Z is fast becoming the most powerful consumer group, and they, more than any other population, live online.

Under 30s are more drawn to Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. At the same time, more research has shown the different social media trends in various demographics —in terms of race, gender, level of education, and living situation. 

Action tips: Stay on top of research and follow the trends. Go online and interact with customers, find out what they like and don’t like, and try to understand the importance of being available 24/7. Part of social media’s power is its ability to connect people in real-time.

5. Socially Responsible Shopping

Gen Zers are not only becoming the largest consumer group; their approach to life is overturning the status quo. Previous generations have largely got away with ignoring issues such as global warming and massive social inequalities. But Gen Z, now faced with those realities, is determined not to stand back and accept the status quo. 

Consumers are beginning to have an opinion about where products come from and how they’re manufactured and distributed. In April 2020, a study showed that 60% of survey respondents were consciously trying to “do their bit” in terms of the environment and wider society. Avoiding purchases that could damage the environment and choosing more sustainable, ethical options. 

Action tips: It’s hard to pin down one approach to the changing social and economic climate. But, once again, business owners need to be willing to change and adapt. 

Making a gradual switchover to more eco-friendly practices is something you can plan for strategically. Whether this means cutting down on printing or avoiding plastic packaging, you can implement your strategy step-by-step. 

The Takeaway

It’s clear that the world is changing and is likely to remain uncertain for some time to come. For small businesses looking to thrive, the best preparation is a flexible approach and a willingness to monitor trends and adapt. 

Author Bio

Nina Sharpe is a content champion for various outlets, covering various business topics from finance for startups to small business accounting tips.