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6 strategies for retail businesses from top MBA programs

retail business advice


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What part of your retail business needs a little sprucing up? 

No matter what your answer is, chances are you’ve come to the right place. 

RingCentral recently sponsored the virtual Small Business School Challenge1, featuring teams from some of the top MBA programs in the United States (Carnegie Mellon, Yale, UC Berkeley, and more). The retail businesses who participated came to the table with the challenges they’re facing, especially during the economic difficulties caused by COVID-19. They were paired up with an MBA team to brainstorm solutions and come up with a plan to alleviate their biggest pain point. 

Pssst! Applications are now open for the 2021 SBSC, taking place virtually April 8-10. This event is FREE, so apply today!

Over 48 hours, the small businesses and MBA candidates worked side by side… virtually, of course. But it felt like they were in the same room, thanks to high-def video and voice conferencing from RingCentral:

The teams collaborated via video to find clarity and create a path to greater sustainability and success. Thanks to the studies of the MBA students, small business owners received cutting-edge, data-driven insights to help them make decisions going forward. And the experiences of participating small businesses infused the students’ classroom learning with real-world applications. A true win-win!

Feeling the FOMO2? Don’t despair. We’ve rounded up some of the top advice the MBAs passed on to the retail business owners: 

  1. How to increase website traffic and overall online presence
  2. How to maintain a workforce in difficult times
  3. How to improve inventory management and brand awareness
  4. How to scale up as an online retail company
  5. How to successfully launch an online retail business during a pandemic
  6. How to expand a retail business into online markets
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1. How to increase website traffic and overall online presence

The retail business case study

A & S Soap Co., a handmade soap company, wanted to increase website traffic and their presence in the online market.

The solution

A&S Soap Co. worked with MBA students from Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. The MBA’s came up with the following recommendations: 

We as a team recommend that A & S Soap Co. revamps its website, focuses on branding, and expands its marketing channels.

  • Revamping the website will include a new membership program that will introduce a reward system to incentivize customers to continue buying A & S Soap Co.’s products. Customers can shop nine different times, and on the tenth time, the customer will be rewarded a small bath bomb or some other small incentive along with the rest of the customer’s purchase. Also revamping the website will introduce additional payment methods (Paypal, etc.).
  • Branding is important because Sadé (the owner) is such a passionate person, and we felt that from the logo to her social media platform, she could incorporate more of herself to really speak to her customers.
  • Expanding marketing channels will include wholesalers/distributors and e-commerce platforms (Amazon, Etsy).

The MBA takeaways for your business

  • Find your unique strengths and build your brand around them
  • Reward your return customers 
  • Make the shopping and buying processes as simple as possible by expanding ways to pay online 

2. How to maintain a workforce in difficult times

The retail business case study

Dan & Whit’s, a country store with an online presence out of Vermont, have had a tough time with staffing during COVID-19.

The solution

Dan & Whit’s teamed up with MBA students from Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, who advised the following: 

We have identified a potential solution as training employees to work from home. In this way, when employees cannot come into the store due to COVID-related issues, they can contribute by:

  • Managing online orders
  • Answering phones via call forwarding 
  • Expanding social media presence
  • Calling numerous suppliers to reorder products given the frequent shortages

Given that Dan & Whit’s has a history of cross-training their employees across functions, this should be an understandable extension of their responsibilities.

The MBA takeaway for your business

  • Bake flexible work into the DNA of your business so employees can work from anywhere. One way to do this: invest in the right tools the first time.

A powerful unified communications (or UCaaS) platform makes any location work-ready. Whether you need a phone service, group messaging, video conferencing, or all three, there’s sure to be a plan to fit your team’s remote needs. With RingCentral, all of these features live in one clean and simple app that’s easy for anyone to navigate:

3. How to improve inventory management and brand awareness

The retail business case study

April Blooms, a clothing boutique, wanted to find a better way to organize and keep tabs on their growing inventory of apparel and accessories. They also wanted help with brand awareness.

The solution

April Blooms worked with MBA students from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Here’s what the MBA’s came up with for them: 

  • Revamp the homepage

  • Generate more user-generated content to build trust and reputation

  • Create blog and video content (styling, trends, tips and tricks) for social media channels

  • Implement affiliate marketing with influencers

  • Reduce inventory on hand and increase rate of turnover by leveraging a pre-order system to better predict seasonal demand in inventory

  • Implementing predictive analytics to give customers personalized suggestions 

By implementing these measures, April Blooms can continue its success and flourish as one of the top hubs for local designers and fashion enthusiasts.

The MBA takeaways for your business

  • If inventory is your issue, try a pre-order system so you can have a better understanding of your demand. 
  • If you’re looking for more brand awareness, try creating helpful multimedia content on your social platforms that is engaging and aligns with your business. And be sure to engage with customers on social media, especially if someone reaches out with an issue. 
  • Check out these 30 social media best practices to make the most of your online presence.

4. How to scale up as an online retail company

The retail business case study

Beard & Brawn, a beard oil company, is new on the scene. They want to be positioned for growth, specifically as an online company, in both sales and manufacturing. 

The solution 

Beard & Brawn worked on this problem with MBA students from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Here’s what they came up with: 

  • In the immediate term, Beard & Brawn can benefit from building out basic infrastructure, such as social media and site analytics, and honing in on their target customer. To grow online sales, we suggest they first prove out their product through retail partnerships and flea markets to build local customer loyalty and brand recognition. 
  • We recommend they secure a contract manufacturer and further invest in their online presence once they hit production capacity and have steady revenue.

The MBA takeaways for your business

  • If you’re a new business, take time to build a solid foundation that will serve you as you grow. 
  • Even online businesses can do with some in-person buzz. If you’re just starting out, build some customer relationships offline. 
  • Scale up your business in phases; it doesn’t all have to happen at once.

5. How to successfully launch an online retail business during a pandemic

The retail business case study

Fine Color Jewels, an online jewelry retailer, launched during the COVID-19 pandemic. They wanted help to stay profitable during this tough time and build toward the goal of outside investors. 

The solution

Fine Color Jewels worked with MBA students from University of Washington’s Bothell School of Business. The MBAs devised that Fine Color Jewels can stay profitable by: 

  • Using advanced analytics to develop targeted insights into key market segments: These insights should provide the foundation for sustaining the business post-launch. 

  • Acquiring brand partnerships and sponsorships to extend the reach and exposure of the company: This should generate potential leads, setting the foundation for viral growth.

  • [Using a] jewelry box subscription service to have a consistent revenue stream from a loyal base of brand ambassadors: This will ensure a solid core of customers to support the company through its initial few years.

The MBA takeaways for your business  

  • Leverage influencers and partnerships with larger brands to expand awareness of your company, especially on social media where so much commerce now happens. 
  • Make use of data analytics to find your true audience, so you’re not wasting time selling to the wrong market. 
  • If you’re selling goods, try a subscription service for more regular revenue. 

6. How to expand a retail business into online markets

The retail business case study

Fusion Dolls, a company dedicated to providing children with a more racially diverse array of dolls to choose from, has done most of its business face-to-face. They now want to transition into the digital space, both because of COVID-19 and to expand their market. 

The solution

Fusion Dolls worked with MBA students from the Yale School of Management, who advised the following: 

Our proposal is to develop 2 different digital products: 

  • Create a digital referral coupon 
  • Offer digital gift codes

Many of Fusion Doll’s sales were from word-of-mouth in a face-to-face setting, which we plan to incentivize customers through the coupon code. This will help spread the brand’s awareness outside of the local area where Fusion Dolls is working now. 

Digital gift codes offer new purchasers to buy a doll for a friend/loved one and letting them choose the product. In addition to allowing customer flexibility, it gives Fusion Dolls cash to use in the immediate period.

The MBA takeaways for your business  

Don’t be afraid to incentivize customers as you transition into a new market. It’s all about building up a new base and customer loyalty and sweetening the pot with discounts and referral codes can help. 

MBA advice for your retail business

The Small Business School Challenge brought together great minds from both worlds, both business owners and future entrepreneurs. Their combined knowledge and experiences produced a wealth of advice for any small business. 

If you’re interested in this meeting of the minds, stay tuned for the announcement of the next challenge. Until then, we bet you’ll find some helpful business hacks in this roundup.


[2] FOMO = “Fear of missing out”


Originally published Nov 23, 2020, updated Mar 22, 2021

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