Note: This is the English translation of a blog, which I originally published on April 16, 2016, in German language: https://kubraconsult.blog/2017/01/18/was-wir-von-einem-brotschrank-ueber-die-bedeutung-des-ebusiness-fuer-kleine-und-kleinste-unternehmen-lernen-koennen/.
I come from a small town with approx. 2,000 inhabitants in the former Principality of Waldeck (https://www.facebook.com/MeinRhoden/).
In the 1950s and 1960s there were 7 bakeries, 4 butchers, 8 carpenters and 10 shops selling food (milk, fish or colonial goods) in this small town – a total of more than 180 small and micro enterprises which, with a few exceptions, were either trades, crafts or commerce and provided most of the inhabitants of my home town with bread and work.
The triumphal march of discounters, such as ALDI (see: https://www.aldi.us/), and wholesale markets, such as REWE (see: https://www.rewe.de/), in the 1970s and 1980s and the increasing spread of the Internet with its eBusiness platforms (Amazon, eBay) from the second half of the 1990s caused the death blow to most of these small businesses. The inhabitants no longer bought from the more expensive corner shops in town, but drove to the neighboring town to ALDI – not only to buy food, but also meat, sausage and bread. From the 2000s eBay and Amazon offered not only an ever larger selection of products but also favorable prices with which most local family businesses could no longer compete.
Today in my home town there is only one REWE market with butcher’s shop and two small bakeries; almost all the other businesses had to close. Many inhabitants of my hometown accept long journeys to get to their jobs in other cities or relocate their centre of life (like me) directly to the big cities, where there are interesting jobs as well as more attractive possibilities for shopping or leisure activities.
The decline of small businesses in my home town may be an example of the change that has taken place in most German small towns and villages over the last 40 years – and that is regrettable at first. The crucial question is what can we learn from this development?
A Chinese proverb which I greatly appreciate says: „When the wind of change blows, some people build walls and other windmills“.
In the spirit of this proverb, a bread cupboard that I wanted to buy for my apartment a few years ago taught me that the Internet can also open up opportunities and potential for small and micro enterprises in the countryside to win new customers and expand their sales.
While looking for a suitable bread cupboard for my new apartment, I came across the website of a joinery in Baden-Wuerttemberg in 2005. On their „hand-carved“ website (http://antik-moebel-markt.de), which has hardly changed to this day (although a professional web designer would probably smile at the layout), this joinery offered a large selection of farmhouse furniture at comparatively low prices. On the phone, the joiner told me that some of the furniture was centuries-old originals he bought from farms in southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland, then had it restored and refurbished at low cost in the Czech Republic and finally sold via his website – some of it even to the USA and Korea. Since I liked the offered furniture very much, I bought not only a bread cupboard, but also four farmhouse cupboards, which he delivered to me personally a few days after the order and professionally assembled on site.
For me, this carpenter from Baden-Wuerttemberg is one of the most impressive examples of eBusiness and near shoring I have seen during my more than 25-year career as a manager. This example shows that even small and micro enterprises can benefit from the possibilities of the Internet with little effort if they are prepared to open up innovations and digitalize some of their processes.
Small and micro enterprises in particular, which produce particularly rare or handcrafted products, can gain access to national or even international customers via the Internet and thus significantly expand their business. For example, there are now a number of small butcher’s shops in North Hesse, East Westphalia and Southern Lower Saxony that sell their famous „Ahle Wurscht“, a very tasty regional sausage speciality, with great success to customers from all over the world via the Internet (see: http://www.ahle-wurscht.de). Another example that I like to take advantage of myself is the purchase of good wines from regional winemakers, who normally do not have the opportunity to market their high-quality products outside their local sphere of activity (my personal recommendation for you is: https://www.remstalkellerei.de/).
If a small or micro enterprise cannot or does not want to build its own website, then it can also offer its products via Amazon, Ebay or specialized platforms such as Manufactum (see: http://www.manufactum.de). In addition to a user-friendly website that allows customers to place their orders in a simple manner, I consider short response times in the confirmation and delivery of the goods to be a key success factor. In addition, high-quality packaging or small gifts (and if it’s just a small bag of jelly babies) can help retain customers and motivate them to place follow-up orders.
Conclusion: eBusiness and digitization are not only of decisive importance for international high-tech companies, but also offer considerable opportunities for small and micro enterprises. Perhaps it will even be possible to use these opportunities to make small towns and villages in Germany more attractive again and to counteract rural exodus by creating jobs in the regions.
P.S.: „The ultimate reading list for Chief Information Officer“ of 18 May 2018 contains a selection of links to further blogs on topics such as „The socio-economic consequences of digitalization“, „Digital business models and platform economy“ and the question „What tomorrow’s digital champions can learn from Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook & Co.“ – see: https://kubraconsult.blog/2018/05/18/the-chief-information-officers-ultimate-reading-list/.