The Future of Small Business Rests on the Shoulders of the Elusive Millennial

By Jill Puleri,

For retailers, brands and marketers, the millennials have created quite the conundrum. This segment makes up a large part of the consuming world — around 95 million consumers in the U.S. alone. And with $1.7 billion in spending muscle to flex, their influence is only going to increase as the years roll by. By 2030, they will outnumber the vaunted baby boomers by more than 20 million.

Millennials represent the first generation who practically sleep with their laptops and mobile devices — constantly stimulated, yet perpetually seeking more. Unlike previous generations, they display an insatiable desire and high comfort level with new technologies, celebrate cultural diversity, publically share personal thoughts and feelings, expect on-demand access to entertainment and instant gratification, and practice, no, are experts at extreme multitasking. 

With two teenage sons, I have found myself checking off their list to Santa this past year one electronic gadget at a time. From gaming systems to Bluetooth music streaming devices, my sons have taken me to the popular YouTube to show me the product reviews by consumers who are, guess what, millennials! As younger generations continue to influence markets, the time to secure their customer loyalty is now. For small businesses, how can they make a dent in a world where each millennial has the ability to connect with thousands of people with a click of a button? As we move full speed ahead in a world with virtually infinite options, small business retailers are finding that they aren’t too different from their digitally-savvy market base. To begin, entrepreneurship is a shared value. According to American Express Open Form, three-quarters of millennials say they want to work for themselves one day — meaning they see small businesses as somewhat of entrepreneurial kindred spirits. Especially when it comes to green business and grassroots campaigns, millennials are the biggest advocates of these initiatives, often considering business operators as their peers.

Similarly, younger populations place more value on businesses they trust, which in turn is largely influenced by the opinions of their social communities. In fact, they prefer knowing more about where their products and services come from and who’s behind them, making small businesses the ideal candidate to do business with.

In addition, these empowered consumers are extremely optimistic about the ability of business and government to influence global change. They are more likely than non-millennials to purchase products that support a cause, and when they make direct donations, they will likely donate through mobile devices. With these new emerging consumer needs — the desire to be recognized, share opinions and information and be part of groups that make a difference — is bringing a new dimension to brand loyalty. And as soon as these millennial consumers start engaging, the viral element of social means the reach extends from simple loyalty to the power of influencing. To capitalize on that influence, small businesses can use this social data to create better recommendations and promotions that enrich the user experience.  In addition, they need to make sure that their product information is seamlessly available in all forms — mobile, in-store, online — so that millennials can access it anytime, anywhere at the drop of a hat.

While many small businesses don't have the luxury of placing a large number of small bets across a wide variety of marketing activities to target this group, these retailers know they need to respond quickly — on their terms - and take the time to get to know them. Small businesses, in particular, can play up their connection with their local community by holding local events or producing local merchandise to get these consumers to keep returning. 

Understanding what resonates well with these consumers can help bring insight and impact into developing products, services and promotions, enabling retailers to break through this challenging and influential segment. 

Smaller businesses must keep pace with this new, highly engaged generation while they tweet while watching TV, text while shopping, Facebook while listening to music — all across a multitude of platforms. Things like offering free Wi-Fi are simply the norm nowadays, and it’s not what Millennials want, but rather, what they expect. Confronted with this millennial reality, retailers are in the midst of evolving the way they are serving these consumers — rethinking current practices and experimenting with new channels and tactics to grab and keep their attention. Simple “big retailer” practices, like launching a retailer’s homepage when customers log into Wi-Fi, are powerful, yet mighty tactics to engage customers and lock in their loyalty for a lifetime. It is new way of thinking, but if small businesses truly want to reach and connect with millennials, they need to engage in methods and media where millennials live every day, and they need to do it now.

Jill Puleri is VP and global retail industry Leader, IBM Global Business Services. She can be reached at

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