Challenges for rural enterprises
Issues to consider
This document offers an insight into some of the issues that have arisen from our work with business in a rural setting. The businesses in this case were mostly a series of micro enterprises, selling a variety of products at a local produce market in West Wales, while another business was a social enterprise, which wanted to set up a local online shopping system that brought together a range of local traders in an online ‘one-stop shop’. Each had their challenges, and some are still developing both their business and the technologies that support such enterprises.
We hope that this brief overview will provide some ‘food for thought’ and suggest some of the barriers that might affect your business. The aim of this is to make you aware of these in a simple and quick to read format.
Understandings to take away
Understand your supply chain
This may seem obvious, but one of the key issues when running a business is to understand where your stock is coming from and which people are involved in that supply. Often customers want to know where your products came from, how they arrived on your shelves, and the provenance of the products. It’s also important to understand how you can build upon your relationships with suppliers as this can help them understand your needs and circumstances. Sometimes it is important to make this supply chain visible to your customers as we have seen that many want to support the local economy and want to support you in playing a role in that.
What motivates business?
Understand what motivates you and how you want to ‘do business’. In our studies we found that although traders wanted ‘a bit more footfall’, their motivations were less about growing, in terms of taking on more staff and scaling-up, and more focused on community, family, supporting the local area, and supporting their lifestyle. It’s important to remember that not all businesses want to scale-up and take on the administration and extra work that is often associated with such growth.
Understanding customer motivations is key to any business: without getting a good grounding in the reasons that your customers “buy stuff” you’ll be left at a disadvantage when it comes to supplying the customer with what they want. In our study we found some of the motivations for the customers were as follows:
- Quality of the product: In many ways this is obvious, but we found that people buy products because of their quality, which doesn’t mean that they aren’t still looking for a bargain. One of the key motivations of the traders was the high quality of their product and the feedback they could get from their customers in relation to it.
- Homemade/homegrown: Many people bought from traders that had made or grown their own product. There was a general feeling that they trusted local traders to provide high quality produce, they knew who was making the product, they knew where it came from and how it was made. It’s important to make this obvious when you are selling anything that is homemade/homegrown.
- Customer service: Our study showed that many customers appreciated the high level of customer service that was given by local traders. Building up a relationship, and a high degree of trust with your customer base is an important factor in the way that your business is perceived. Many customers come back week after week.
- Enjoyment: Customers enjoyed going to buy from local traders, often they had built up a relationship with the traders and the visit to the market, for example, was seen as an occasion to catch-up and meet friends, have a chat and socialize.
- Alternative to larger stores: One issue that was raised was the importance of rural business as an alternative to large supermarkets. Remember that small local businesses are often seen as being part of the local community and supporting the locality, offering more of a personal service than larger stores.
Notes for designers and IT developers
Our research identified two potential areas for technologies to be developed: marketing and collective buying. This could help to reduce the cost of packaging in particular, to help micro rural enterprises retain more of the value they create. Both of these possibilities could be problematic, largely because the tools and solutions to support them already exist. Indeed, marketing and collective buying solutions are commonplace: tools and services for creating websites and promoting businesses abound, and solutions such as Groupon are readily available.
An important part of the mix here is community identity and branding and the ways in which this can be supported digitally. The issue of identity permeated our study of the market, running through the market itself as social enterprise created within, by and for the local community, and the motivations that drove many of the stalls and consumer engagement, manifest in various interests and concerns with ‘the local’. Digital tools may usefully be leveraged to add specific local feel to the brand, thereby making products feel unique. This could also be applied to a collective of local brands.
One of the problems with this kind of response is that it assumes that a local brand will be constructed and maintained centrally by a particular service provider. However, most of the micro enterprises in our study didn’t have websites and no single party was in control of service provision. What we have here – and what design needs to respond to – are ad hoc connections between independent actors.
Solutions are required then that enable the bespoke construction and management of local brands by independent businesses through association, rather than being centrally provided. This isn’t to say that there won’t be a central body of some kind involved in branding – insofar as some body has to control a brand, but that a commercial service provider is not needed to create and sustain it, as each party to the brand can and does (or does not) commission web provisioning as they see fit.
This kind of intervention also requires that we seek to support branding in numerous ways. A business might use social media to promote itself instead of a website, for example, which means that mechanisms for building local brands will have to cut across a range of existing tools and services. What initially sounds like a straightforward challenge that is easily solved by currently available solutions begins to open up and mushroom as a broad range of digital tools and services are drawn upon by micro rural enterprises: not only bespoke websites and social media, but in some cases online ordering and online payment as well, along with other potentially relevant services (e.g. collective buying, online advertising, analytics, etc.). In light of this it would make sense then to think about developing a micro enterprise toolkit that glues together a range of existing digital services, and enables them to foster and support the construction and management of local brands.
It is also important to understand the use of physical media to promote micro enterprise. Each of the businesses involved on our study used physical media in one way or another – banners, posters, leaflets, flyers, etc. – to promote itself and the products it sells. This suggests that physical artefacts may be used to embed the digital in the world (e.g., via QR codes) and add more detailed information about goods and services (e.g., provenance, history, culture) that enables a micro enterprise to differentiate itself and create the kind of competitive advantage that motivates consumers. The possibility also exists to extend the physical-digital mix, through (for example) the judicious placement of situated displays, to enable the physical discovery of local brands and connect consumers to local enterprise.
- A. Crabtree, A. Chamberlain, “Making IT “Pay a Bit Better”- Design Challenges for Micro Rural Enterprise” In Proceedings of CSCW 2014 (pages 687–696), Baltimore, February 2014.