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The Agurban

#620 – Top Small Town and Rural Small Business Trends for 2017

Jan 31, 2017


Our good friend Becky McCray, along with Deb Brown, recently posted their Top Small Town and Rural Small Business Trends for 2017. We couldn’t agree more!

Top Small Town and Rural Small Business Trends for 2017

Rural business trends are always different from the urban trends. Those urban trends influence, but don’t exactly match, small town trends.

This year, there is a distinct pattern, as the individual trends line up to create much broader mega-trends. We’re redefining the meaning of distance and geography, reshaping retail business, and rethinking what kind of life we want to live.

  1. So much for geographic limits

Lines on a map used to define small towns. Your business couldn’t reach much beyond the city limits. Small towns felt isolated from the world of big cities as information was slow to penetrate.

Lines on a map don’t mean anything anymore. Think about all that went into getting to this point: rural electrification, telephone cooperatives, global shipping and delivery, internet access, cell phone service and smartphones. Looking ahead, automation, self-driving vehicles, delivery drones, 3-D printing, augmented and virtual reality, and telepresence robots will all completely reshape the cost of moving people, goods and information.

Here’s how rural businesses are capitalizing right now:

RuralSourcing: Rural people are finding work as independent professionals or contingent workers, connecting them to the larger economy, often at better pay rates than strictly local jobs.

RuralOmniLocal: More local businesses are selling online and going omni-channel using their own websites, platforms like Amazon or Etsy, social channels, apps and even monthly subscription boxes to reach customers more deeply.

Innovative Business Models: Old business structures aren’t the only way to go into business anymore. Smaller, shared, temporary, and mobile businesses are all increasing. Community and cooperative ownership structures are replacing traditional ownership in challenging business cases.

  1. Customers are changing retail

When downtowns were emptying out, and everyone predicted the complete eradication of independent retail in the 70s and 80s, no one realized that eventually Chain Store Age would admit that “Mom and Pops are Cool Again.” Now, big box retail has triggered its own scale implosion, as chains close stores, reduce square footages and try to retool to imitate that small-town downtown feeling.

The same technologies that are reducing geographic limits apply just as much to the retail world. Retail will split into two main branches: the infinite and the selective. Infinite retailers will capture the no-thought automatic re-orders for anything that doesn’t matter, and small independent retailers will shine for carefully considered selections of things where the experience matters most. The big boxes will be caught in between, and will capture less and less.

Here’s how rural businesses are reacting right now:

RuralOmniLocal, again: Small retailers are adopting technology that lets them bring the best of online information and tools directly to the real-world of stores for a mixed real and virtual experience. Think of wish lists, related product recommendations, user reviews, and expanded product information. Tie that to a knowledgeable staff and a curated selection, and you’ve got an experience that can win.

Keep your eye on Amazon: Their retail experiments with bricks and mortar, same-day delivery and instant walk-out checkout predict technology that all retailers will be adopting later.

  1. #SmallTownCool

Society is rethinking a good life, and showing a new interest in our rural lifestyles. The trick is, some of the interest is camouflaged as “local,” “place” and even “cozy.”

You can see it in small-town travel pieces from Washingtonian Magazine, TravelSmith, and even the Weather Channel. UK travelers are heading to the Deep South even before they visit big cities. The big fad for everything “hygge” (the Danish word for “cozy”) is another disguised interest in rural, with its emphasis on experiences like friends coming in from a snowy hike in the woods to enjoy a fire and hot chocolate together. Comfort Consumers and the New Better Off favor connection with people, place and culture instead of things.

Here are a couple of ways rural businesses can capitalize.

Hygge: Businesses that depend on visitors are talking up their slower pace of life, conviviality, and authentic cultural experiences. You don’t even have to call it “hygge,” as long as you connect with people’s interest in simplicity, calm, and connection.

Placemaking: Small town businesses are getting involved in community and improving quality of life. Arts projects, walkability, public spaces, and grassroots actions reflect a new paradigm for community involvement.

Deb Brown and Becky McCray explored these trends in more depth and looked to the next 30 years in a live broadcast on Jan 18, 2017. (The recording will be available on-demand throughout the year.) You can learn more about that here