Andrew was commissioned by leading digital printing specialist Vista Print to provide his view on the future of small businesses. His report was released alongside research undertaken by Vistaprint in May 2021 among 2000 UK Adults.

The pandemic has shifted consumer behaviour and sparked a reset in the way small businesses in the UK operate.

Despite a year of uncertainty, our recent study reveals that for over two-thirds of Brits, the pandemic has shown them how important small businesses are to society.

A generous 41 per cent would even be prepared to pay more for a coffee or lunch if it meant supporting a small business. With 63 per cent saying this is to help the local economy, now is the perfect time for small businesses to plan for the future.

It’s younger people who are leading the charge in shopping small with half (49 per cent) of 18-24 year-olds planning to support small businesses more post-pandemic, along with 43 per cent of 25-34 year-olds; In comparison, just 24 per cent of over 65s said the same.

To dig deeper into what the future holds for small businesses in the UK, we partnered with leading British Futurist, Andrew Grill, who has predicted the key trends that will impact small businesses from certain industries over the next five years and beyond.

From VR workouts and digital pills in the fitness and wellness industry to increased automation in food and beverage businesses, Andrew has detailed the key steps small businesses can take to capitalise on these innovations.

The infographic below captures some of the key changes in consumer behaviour and future trends that will help to shape the future of small businesses.

The future of small businesses

The Future of Small Business

By The Actionable Futurist® Andrew Grill

If 2020 was the year of working from home, 2021 is the year of the Small Business, says leading Futurist Andrew Grill.

The pandemic has permanently shifted retail behaviour, and the agile nature of small businesses means they are positioned to take advantage of this new paradigm.

With 52% of Brits making a concise effort to shop at small businesses in the last year rather than big chains and 63% saying this is to help the local economy, this is the perfect time for SMEs to plan for 2022 and beyond.

In the near term, small businesses will transform from being only local suppliers to include options alongside traditional in-store purchasing, such as purchasing online, click & collect, and other distribution channels to ensure customers can interact using the channel that best suits them.

Grill believes that small businesses need to be ahead of the curve and prepare for a post-covid world now. They need to be thinking five or even ten years ahead when planning the next phase of their business, and a “digital-first” approach is required for success. The changes over the next five years would have taken 15 – 20 years without the impact of the pandemic, and small businesses need to take advantage of this digital acceleration.

The Office of National Statistics reported that while traditional online retail growth remained steady during the pandemic, those that also had a physical presence had a 10% growth in sales due to online channels, with online sales rising to a record high of 33.9% as a share of all retail spending in 2020.

The Vistaprint survey also showed that 37% of Brits plan to work from home post- pandemic, with the figure as high as 63% in London, confirming the view that a hybrid way of working is the future of work.

As such, small businesses need to capitalise on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by exploring how technology coupled with innovative marketing tactics can help capture more local customers and open new markets. Increasing the marketing footprint, lowering costs with automation and robotics to better serve their customers, and using AI-powered data to predict trends are crucial when planning for the future.

The five-year view for Small Businesses

Looking further into the future, Grill believes consumer expectations developed during the pandemic will drive new opportunities across many sectors.

For example, restaurants and pubs that needed to adopt at-table ordering during lockdown will have seen an improvement in customer experience. Anecdotal feedback from patrons was their drinks and food were served faster using an app than having to wait for someone to take their order.

Extrapolating how the accelerated use of technology has provided new and better customer experiences, looking five years ahead, we can expect more innovations to become mainstream.

Here we look at the five-year view across five specific industries.

Wellness

In the next five years, improvements in wellness technologies, combined with Artificial Intelligence, will provide practitioners with a better view of how to treat their clients. In five years, we predict most consumers will have some sort of wearable, transmitting real-time data on their health and wellbeing to a personal health agent that can prescribe the best treatments and assess diet and mental health issues.

“Digital pills” will emerge that will provide a rapid digital “Health MOT”. Improvements in voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri and the addition of always-on “ambient audio” will listen to our speech patterns for signs of stress or discomfort.

Importantly, consumers will be in complete control of their digital health data via open data standards and will choose to share as much data with their health professional as is needed. Wellness in the future will also extend to include digital Wellness and the ability to “switch off” from an overload of digital noise. Practitioners that can understand how platforms affect our wellbeing will be well placed to offer new services.

What to do now to prepare: While AI-powered “wellness agents” will provide an accurate picture of a client’s health and wellbeing, treatments will still be delivered in person. Wellness businesses can prepare for this shift to an always-on digital stream by looking closely at what companies such as Fitbit (now owned by Google) and Apple are doing with their health divisions.

With the increase in the use of “open data” to allow consumers to move around not only their banking data between firms but their health data between their GP, the NHS and wellness providers will allow AI-powered wellness platforms to make better-informed decisions.

Businesses need to invest time to understand how digital health will be transformed thanks to wearable data and how future treatments can take advantage of this increased level of health and wellbeing data.

Fitness

The pandemic has moved much physical activity to the home but exposed consumers to an increased level of digital sophistication with fitness data captured on mobile apps.

Like the wellness industry, the fitness industry will also benefit significantly from more accurate, granular, and real-time health data.

Companies such as Technogym are pioneering the next generation of exercise equipment that combines physical exercise, healthy nutrition, and a positive mental approach with physical and virtual devices.

Over the next five years, augmented and virtual reality technology will have progressed to the point that it will be just another “wearable”. AR and VR will be used to deliver personal coaching sessions anywhere, on-demand. Home fitness equipment will be affordable and will be filled with sensors that track every aspect of a workout.

On-demand workouts are likely to become more popular as consumers are not content with waiting for an available class, and gyms will need to provide more flexibility. Immersive experiences, using temperature, terrain, colour, and lighting to provide more dynamic classes will emerge.

Fitness and Wellness are likely to become more aligned as physical and mental wellbeing become more important. Social fitness, where a better sense of community is generated involving online, and offline interaction, will be more critical. It will become essential to have customer relationship systems that link health data with social media feeds to provide a complete picture of a customer’s exercise regime when not in the gym.

Like the wellness sector, AI-powered by more granular health data will focus on providing more personalised workouts.

What to do now to prepare: As data, AI, apps, and wearables feature heavily in our 5-year view, you should become acquainted with all the developments in this area.

Why not set aside an area of your physical space to provide “beta classes” that use data to go beyond the traditional workout. Start investigating how the adoption of fitness apps drives the industry and prepare your back-end systems to capture and add value to consumer health data.

Build trial programmes for your most engaged members where they securely share health data in exchange for a discount to allow you to experiment with the art of the possible with actual data. You should also look at your gym management systems to ensure they are ready for a Social Fitness revolution and allow connectivity with social media feeds.

Home Improvement

3D printing is rapidly evolving, with BMW and Airbus already “printing” spare parts to repair equipment. Experts believe that the technology will have evolved to allow Home Improvement businesses to provide services to print-on-demand and in-store over the next five to ten years providing a complete custom design capability.

Consumer’s increased concern for the environment will drive the demand in truly smart homes. The Internet of Things (IoT) will feature heavily as anything that can be measured will be measured. Digital twins will also emerge from modelling the environmental impacts of every item in the home in real-time. Artificial Intelligence will also feature heavily to predict how homes can become smarter and more functional in the future.

The focus on technology in the home over the next five years will dramatically shift the Home Improvement industry from a sector selling physical items to become an integral partner in the efficient design of any improvements made in the home.

What to do now to prepare: Invest in an inexpensive 3D printer to experiment with what is possible in printing hard-to-get items and get customers familiar with the ability to bring their designs to life with visualisation software. Augmented reality technology is also maturing to visualise how spaces might look before any design is started, and businesses should be investigating how these technologies can transform a customer’s vision of their home.

To better understand how IoT technology will be pervasive in most homes in the next five years, start to experiment with current technologies that provide the ability to control sound and lighting and investigate digital twins’ use to plan home improvements.

Local Restaurants and cafes

The next five years will see the rapid adoption of robotics and automation in the preparation of food and beverages. One example is Boston-based Spyce who has deployed a nine-foot-long robotic kitchen.

The food is prepared by seven magnetically heated woks that are systemised with time and temperature sensors. The “robot chef” tosses and cooks the ingredients and puts them in bowls for the final touches in less than 3 minutes. Zume Pizza in California uses a hi-tech robot that creates a pizza almost from start to finish, and Eatsa is one of the first almost fully automated restaurants serving food to customers without any human interaction.

While these types of restaurants seemed unlikely a few years ago, they are now appearing in the US. In the next five years, we will see a significant number of establishments in the UK deploying automation to reduce costs and improve customer satisfaction with shorter waiting times.
Some years ago, IBM’s Watson was deployed to make new variants of cocktails based on what it understood about human taste. Expect AI-powered systems to introduce your customers to new drink flavours and provide meals that are healthier and more matched to the personal health profile captured by smarter wearables.

We believe the ability to match a meal to the exact dietary requirements of an individual customer will be possible in the next five years via AI and robotics.

What you can do to prepare: Imagine the parts of your business that are labour intensive that can be automated. What might this mean for kitchen space, workflow, and digital ordering?

Start researching the companies above to see how their offerings are embraced by consumers. Look also at your back-end customer systems. While you may have deployed a simple solution to get you through lockdown, is the technology able to adapt to a world of robotics and individual customer preferences driven by external health data?

Creatives and Makers

The Vistaprint survey showed that 56% of Londoners have considered opening their own small business, and 21% are more likely to as a result of the pandemic.

This will drive an increase in the number of Creatives and Makers starting their own enterprises. Many of the trends identified in other sectors above will come into play.

Grill believes the future of this sector will involve distributed creative production sourced to individuals and small teams around the globe. To enable this distributed workforce, creatives and makers will need to embrace collaborative software tools such as Slack and Trello, used by many tech companies today.

For Makers, the static portfolio of the past will be replaced by the “connected portfolio”, a set of projects that live not only within a personal portfolio site but also on other galleries and networks around the web.

Creatives and makers will also need to adopt new ways of controlling and licencing their intellectual property. The emergence of “Non-Fungible Tokens” or NFTs will transform the way designs are bought and sold.

What you can do to prepare: Start experimenting with collaboration and workflow management tools. Look at how companies such as Automattic, creators of the WordPress platform run an entirely distributed creative workforce. Become more digitally literate with emerging online design tools and techniques and investigate how NFTs are being used.

How can small businesses prepare for the future?

  • Start experimenting with leading-edge technologies being trialled in your industry
  • Opt-in key customers to “beta” programmes and have them come along the journey with you
  • Explore how your physical spaces and processes could be transformed by automation
  • Become more digitally curious and enrol in courses and programmes that are focused on the next five years
  • Appoint someone in your business as a “data champion” to have them understand what data you have now and what you will need in the future