Snapshot: Trends in Small and Medium Retail Businesses

Time to read: 6 minutes

Retailers are beginning to see relief from the pandemic’s devastating effects, but the impacts from COVID have forever changed the industry. Not only have they dramatically shifted their present operations, they’ve altered their long-term strategies and direction.

It’s clear that tomorrow’s industry will look much different than when we entered this crisis. In fact, data from a survey conducted by the Harris Poll in the fifth edition of our “Small and Medium Business Trends Report” shows that growing retailers that stepped up to meet the challenges are emerging stronger. We dove deep into the fifth edition of the report’s numbers to identify several industry trends. Let’s take a look.

Trend #1: Retailers see the value in CRM and technology.

Like most industries, retail saw an acceleration in technology use. Fifty-nine percent of these retail businesses now rely on a customer relationship management (CRM) platform for their businesses. Forty-three percent have added a CRM platform since the pandemic started, while the remaining 16% have had their CRM systems in place for two or more years.

Thirty-three percent have accelerated their investment in technology, particularly for sales, marketing, and customer service.

Why did your company accelerate its investments in technology?

Technology and digitization truly kept many of these companies afloat. In fact, 73% of these retail leaders agree that their businesses survived the pandemic because of digitization.

Trend #2: Trust and support are top of mind for retailers.

After two long years of pandemic living, customers and employees alike want relationships built on trust; they’re looking for safety, security, and transparency. Employees want to trust the companies they work for, while customers want to know they’re buying from a company that acts with integrity, provides prompt personalized service, and prioritizes customer health and safety.

Among the retail business leaders we surveyed, 94% said they’re actively working to earn trust with their employees — 44% are responding to their personal needs, while 42% are asking for employee feedback.

94% said they’re actively working to earn trust with their employees

About two-thirds of business leaders across all sectors report that community support (67%) and government support (69%) have been important to their company’s survival in the last year. Given the nature of retail, it’s not surprising that retail industry data is significantly higher: 79% of retail leaders say that government support — like tax relief, stabilization packages, customer incentives, and easing regulations — was at least somewhat important to their pandemic survival. Seventy-nine percent say the same of community support, like donations, positive online reviews, and referrals.

Retailers are thinking ahead, too: 74% have created scenario plans in case of future crises. This acts as a layer of protection for the businesses, themselves, and also for the customers and employees who depend on the companies.

Trend #3: Evolving customer expectations are a major challenge.

Consumers have shopped online for years, but the pandemic brought with it a need to limit trips to stores. With many brick-and-mortar stores closed or restricted, retailers had to scramble to offer new options like online shopping and contactless service. This kept retailers afloat, but also created myriad new buying habits and expectations.

Eighty-five percent of these retail leaders said bringing innovative offerings to market is a challenge in meeting customer expectations, while 78% cited difficulty in personalizing customer engagement and 77% had difficulty in keeping up with customer demands. Shifting habits have created widespread change across the retail industry.

In every industry the customer is king, but nowhere is that truer than in retail. In fact, 89% of retailers have changed the way they interact with customers since the start of the pandemic.

Trend #4: Changes made during COVID will remain for retailers.

New buying habits forced retailers to add online shopping options, upgrade their customer service, and create seamless experiences — and most businesses made gains in productivity and reach. Sure, many Americans have returned to in-store shopping, but they’re not about to give up convenient purchasing options like contactless delivery and curbside pickup.

A whopping 98% of retailers at the businesses we surveyed have moved some portion of their businesses online since the start of the pandemic. Ninety-one percent of those businesses plan to offer contactless service permanently, while 90% are actively doing more to protect data and customer information.

Why did you move more of your company’s operations online over the past year?

Looking for more insights? Download the full “Small and Medium Business Trends Report” for a deeper look at the current perceptions of growing-business leaders and how they’ve changed.

About the survey:

The survey was conducted online by the Harris Poll on behalf of Salesforce between June 21 and July 12, 2021, among 2,534 SMB owners and leaders in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia Pacific. The sample included 389 SMBs in the retail industry. Respondents were 18 years of age or older, employed full time, part time, or self-employed, and owners or senior executives at businesses with 2–200 employees and annual revenue of less than $1 billion U.S. or the local equivalent. Data points were weighted by number of employees to bring them into line with actual company-size proportions in the population.

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