Traditional businesses can make it online

By | June 29, 2011

The internet has created a whole, bright, brave new world of opportunity for businesses.  But for established companies, braving its heavy surf can present as many challenges as it does opportunities.  Established ways of running businesses in just about every industry imaginable have been challenged in the last few years as the power of new media gathers pace.  Even old media seems a bit lost when it comes to its upstart younger cousin, with ‘citizen’ journalists flooding the web with free editorial.  Traditional advertising methods have changed beyond recognition:  the local newspaper with its weekly adverts has seen not only the last nail hammered into its coffin by ‘eBay’ – but all the others as well.  Let’s face it – eBay built the coffin and probably threw the shroud in for free.

For many businesses the internet has been the virtual equivalent of a Tsunami – and many have already succumbed.  For long established businesses the changes that the internet has wrought are a sink or swim moment, with many failing to catch up.

Riding the new wave

The first problem seems to be that the internet is young and changes very quickly.  To those running an established business it can be seen as the preserve of the young, the trendy and the techy.  This is the first and often the last mistake any business owner can make when facing up to the challenges of the internet.  Forget the idea the internet is new – in some senses there’s not as much new about it as you might think.  The internet is a method to communicate, nothing much more or less.  It happens to have the biggest audience any media has ever had and it has established itself in just a few years.  Clever competitors can set up in the blink of eye – or rather a click of a mouse – and start eroding your businesses over night.

So faced with these tech-savvy bright young businesses, what has an established business really got to offer?  Experience, experience, experience: to put it simply.  Established businesses not only know who their customers are, what they want, when they want it, but other really useful little details like how much they want and why.  Established businesses also have a market and this is more powerful than new technology.

Old techniques combined with new

One excellent example of a traditional business moving successfully into the scary world of the internet is some of the UK’s traditional dairies.  Milkmen – what could be more traditional – have gone all virtual.  Despite the brave new world we are living in, there has been a considerable rise in interest and concern over the way our food is produced and where it’s produced.  Buying fresh, buying local, having fresh food delivered – all of these trends had been under the watchful (if bleary eyes) of our trusty milkmen and women (they really are getting very modern).

In the great scheme of things, the traditional milk man should really be extinct.  But then you really do have to get up very early to beat them.  Traditional dairies faced a series of threats when it came to their delivery operations.  Supermarkets have been a big threat – and they caught on to the idea of home food shopping delivery and internet ordering early on in the game.  However, the case of the resurgent milkman is an excellent example of a traditional business model taking advantage of the best the internet has to offer.  When it comes to home delivery services the milkman is the ‘daddy’ of all deliverymen.  Up well before dawn and delivering before their customers are entirely awake the delivery service can’t be beaten.  You simply can’t order next day delivery, however fast your broadband connection is and get this sort of result.  While supermarkets can offer next day delivery, they invariably have delivery charges and slots that don’t suit everybody.  Nor can they offer to supply one or two items with no delivery charge.  The milkman can – it is after all what they have been doing for centuries.  Sometimes combining old with new can work incredibly well indeed.

Trend setting services

Certainly in the last few years our shopping habits have changed.  But many consumers are not happy with the changes.  With a focus on sourcing local produce, fresh food and a growing interest in small suppliers, a surprising number of consumers are turning to techniques and suppliers that their grannies would recognise – except for the high speed broadband bit.  Before the 1950s most housewives would have bought food from local grocers, many would have had it delivered.  A grocer, a fish-man, milkman and a butchers van were familiar sites in most towns, cities and villages.  Now they are returning.  The consumers are different – there are a few more house-husbands around, and they don’t drop in to order but ring or order online.

Long life milk – and more

With their traditional rounds well established the dairies have been able to offer free delivery.  They’ve (very sensibly) diversified when it comes to products.  Offering fresh food, fruit delivery and a large range of daily essentials in addition to the traditional pint of milk, they now offer a delivery service that nobody can compete with.  Yet have they changed that much?  The concept is no different.  One man and his milk float, a round and some happy customers.  Seeing the internet as an opportunity rather than a barrier has created a new, successful business model based on very old lines.  The milk man is here to stay and may well out last the supermarket.

About the author: This is a guest post by Neil Goddard who specialises in web design, online marketing and social media and can frequently be found blogging on online business and technology related topics around the web.