What are the business areas that are worth investing in in 2021? Read this article to find out everything you need to know!

Square contributor for Forbes, 25 February 2021

With so many changes happening in the past year, now is an ideal time to think about how to set your business up for success.

If you’re thinking about your next business move, you’re not alone. Square and Wakefield Research found that 90 percent of restaurants plan to use new strategies to keep customers coming back.

Retailers are also looking for new ways to increase customer retention, with 66 percent planning to add new virtual shopping options, like livestreaming and virtual reality shopping, in the next 12 months.

For many businesses, the key to success is making strategic investments to keep things moving forward. Knowing where to invest in your business can feel challenging, but many customer habits and business changes adopted during the past year are likely to remain even after the pandemic ends.

By investing in strategies that allow you to shift in new directions, you can position your business for both short- and long-term success.

Focus on the customer checkout experience

Why this was a challenge in 2020

A familiar checkout process that is quick, convenient, and keeps both customers and employees safe is now table stakes. Many of your customers either started using online shopping during the pandemic (or are using it more often) and need it to be as easy as possible to complete their purchases, no matter where they buy from.

Where you can invest in 2021

With many people shopping online more regularly, it’s important that when customers check out, your POS system accepts multiple forms of payment. Consider expanding your fulfillment options, like pickup and delivery, to encourage customers to purchase their goods and services in the way that’s most convenient to them.

The shifts in shopping patterns make it even more important for businesses to strategically feature items and offer many ways for customers to both buy and pay for the products they need.

If you aren’t already offering contactless payments, which doesn’t require any physical contact between customers and your POS system, adding these options can help keep customers and employees distanced.

Now that curbside pickup is becoming a more permanent option for many businesses, contactless payment methods add a layer of safety beyond social distancing stickers on the ground or physical barriers.

The National Retail Foundation recommends focusing on creating a comparable experience for curbside pickup as in-store shopping, like dedicating an employee to curbside, creating visible signage, building a convenient flow in the parking lot, and training employees on how to serve customers outside.

Communicate clearly about how to pay regardless if your customers are buying items in-store, using self-checkout, or with an associate.

For restaurants, focusing on improving the online ordering process is key to remaining successful in today’s atmosphere.

By making it easy for customers to place and pick up their orders, restaurants can keep loyal customers returning. In fact, 45 percent of restaurants are offering digital menus through either QR codes or by posting them online, according to data from Wakefield Research and Square.

Improve your website and eCommerce offerings

Why this was a challenge in 2020

Consumers now make 43 percent of their monthly retail purchases online, according to the same study from Square and Wakefield Research.

The study also found that over two-thirds of retailers say it’s likely that they would be online-only in 2021. The rise in eCommerce is a permanent change, so it’s imperative that you make it easy for online shoppers to find and use your online store.

In the second quarter of 2020, online sales jumped nearly 32 percent from the first quarter and were up 44.5 percent compared with the same quarter in 2019, according to the US Census Bureau.

If you haven’t added online ordering to your website or created an online store yet, tools like Square Online can help you quickly set up shop.

Where you can invest in 2021

Once you set up your online store, you want to help your existing and potential customers easily find you. Experts suggest the combination of SEO and SEM drives more traffic to websites and converts more surfers into shoppers.

These strategies are increasingly important with the rise of online stores and restaurant ordering due to the pandemic. If you have a physical location, consider creating a Google My Business page so customers can easily discover your business.

Many businesses are also rethinking how customers can try on clothing and other items as shoppers buy more products online. Consider implementing creative try-out options, including ship-and-return programs with extended return windows.

Many top retailers including Estee Lauder, Burberry, and Sephora are now also using chatbots to provide a more personal customer experience, completely online.

Streamline your operations

Why this was a challenge in 2021

Streamlining operations is more important now than ever before, as many businesses sell across multiple channels, and as customer habits continue to evolve. Customer demand and foot traffic are increasing as some states are changing safety and reopening protocols for businesses, which reinforces the importance of having an omnichannel strategy.

As shoppers buy across more channels, it also makes managing inventory harder, especially when combined with supply chain disruptions. But with the right insights and tools, you’ll be able to better plan ahead.

Where you can invest in 2021

By using a cloud-based inventory management system, you can know the exact status of your inventory in real-time, allowing you to make adjustments as needed. In fact, 74 percent of retailers plan to use technology for real-time inventory management in 2021, according to data from Square and Wakefield Research.

Your POS reports are another goldmine of information that can help you better streamline your operations. By collecting and proactively getting insights from data in real-time, you can have a complete picture of your customer at all times. Start by doubling down on tracking sales data in your POS software to understand how demand for your product or service is evolving.

With your team likely responsible for extra tasks, QR codes can help you improve the customer experience while giving your staff more time back. Data from Square and Wakefield Research found that a surprising 37 percent of Millennial and Gen Z shoppers are interested in window shopping using QR codes they can scan, but only with their phones. Only 28 percent of retailers are likely to implement this tool in the next 12 months, however, which highlights an opportunity for many businesses.

Plan for flexibility

Because it’s impossible to make concrete plans, consider the business investments that can allow you to easily adjust to changes as they occur. By investing in the areas that will set you up for success even beyond the pandemic, you can increase the odds that you’ll be able to serve customers for many years to come.