Dalton, Mass. – For June 2017’s inaugural edition of the Berkshire Business Confidence Index newsletter,  area business owners told me they were feeling pricing pressure from national competitors. Owners also confided that they were simultaneously contending with cost increases in nearly every line item. The profit margins of companies on Main Street, U.S.A. continue to get squeezed.

Shrinking margins are a symptom of what I then called “The Amazonification of America.” But, it’s not just Amazon. Peloton has changed the fitness industry. Zoom has altered business travel. Uber has disrupted local travel. Airbnb has encroached on hotels. Netflix has moved in on movies. Facebook ads are challenging print publications. Robinhood is bullying financial advisors. Rent the Runway is putting clothing stores on the shelf. SoFi is robbing banks. I could go on.

Some of your competitors may have already gone out of business because they were not prepared for this disruption. The transformation has blunted the differentiators of small-town companies. Goods and services are suffering from the creeping perception of commoditization.

The shift in competitive advantage favors those businesses that make it easy for consumers to shop from their phones, which often leaves out local shops.

In 2017, I said that if this phenomenon hadn’t yet affected your industry, it would. Today, if you don’t think it’s happening in your industry, then you’re probably not paying attention. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the shift in consumer perception and preference. Many of us need to play catch-up.

Unbeknownst to me, in June 2017, using the technology available to us at the time would have also helped businesses navigate through today’s social distancing requirements. It’s not too late to make improvements. Partly because we may be stuck in these pandemic-induced doldrums for another year as the global population becomes vaccinated. And partially because business won’t go back to looking like it did in 2019.

It will no longer be “nice to” be able to compel, display and transact digitally. It will be a must-have.

According to research firm eMarketer, sales at U.S. brick-and-mortar stores will drop 14 percent, or $4.2 trillion, in 2020. The increase to digital could rise further, and the reduction of sales at physical stores would likely become a persistent trend.

Online sales are often less profitable on a transaction basis due to the cost of delivery, plus returns, which is why it’s crucial to review all of the available technology tools to determine which may be best for you.

Square Up has tools to help you create an online store that syncs with your inventory and social media. Shopify is a popular alternative. Cratejoy is an all-in-one solution for subscription boxes of all sizes. MarketBox uses a sales automation platform for service businesses, attempting to increase exposure to more potential customers and then convert those leads into sales. Order Hive builds a payment gateway, helps set pricing, develops a product review platform and encourages customers to use it. Acquire handles cross-channel communication strategies, which improves website user experience by connecting through such things as live chats and co-browsing.

Adcellerant is a search engine optimization (SEO) tool. So is Keyword Hero. This is not the field of dreams. If you build it, they will not come. You need to drive buyers to your digital door. If you are more of a do-it-yourselfer or are on a tighter budget, Keyword Hero may be right for you. Keyword Hero has free packages that allow you to solve the problem of missing keyword data.

Unfortunately, you can’t just flick a switch then suddenly have better SEO than your competitor. Initially, I admit, I was reluctant to hire an SEO firm because I was told that it would take eight to 12 months to begin seeing the best results.

I was cynical of this time lapse until I started talking to people in the field that were not competing for my business. The conversation organically shifted to the duration of time required to build the best organic SEO. The amount of observation and data collection required takes a long time. And because there is much competition, it also takes a long time to push you up the rankings.

The SEO team must continuously adjust and maintain things I had never heard of, like backlink info. Then it takes time for search engines to compare the quality of your website relative to your competition and assign it the authority it deserves.

Don’t make my mistake. I shunned SEO because I couldn’t accept that I had to pay that monthly fee in perpetuity, mostly since I would not see immediate results.

Your industry is going to look different in 2021, different from this year or even the year prior. National competitors may have used technology to take some of your sales. However, if you don’t embrace technology as an essential tool, more of your sales will be at risk.

Whether you sell a product or a service, whether your revenue is transaction-based or subscription-based, consumers are going to get more and more digital in the years ahead. If you want to keep up with your competition, take my advice and build your online store, possibly using some of the tools I suggested. If you want to beat your competition, build SEO into your online store to let your customers know that you’re open for business.

This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 28, 2020.

Allen Harris is the author of ‘Build It, Sell It, Profit: Taking Care of Business Today to Get Top Dollar When You Retire,’ as well as the longtime owner and founder of Berkshire Money Management in Dalton, Mass., managing investments of more than $500 million.