NEW YORK (
) -- It's been a long, oftentimes bumpy, ride for small businesses in 2011, but now it's time to close the books on this year and get ready for (hopefully) brighter days.
Some businesses assume it will be more of the same -- slow sales, little access to capital and general uncertainty on the tax and regulatory front.
But other are eagerly eyeing opportunities to position their companies for growth, boost sales and bring in more clients by introducing products or services, according to a
survey in mid-September.
A significant number of the survey's respondents plan to increase marketing in the new year through social media and to negotiate for better prices from suppliers and vendors, the Citi survey says.
Another trend likely to ring true in the new year: an entrepreneurialism boom.
Unemployment is still high, and the bump from seasonal jobs will soon be gone.
Additionally, military troops are coming home, and some will have trouble finding jobs.
"With returning veterans who are leaving the military to those who are laid off, many will decided to take their professional lives in their own hands and create businesses that will provide long-term security, income and, most important, their own say in their professional lives," says Jennefer Witter of
, a boutique public relations firm in New York and Washington, D.C.
"There will also be a boom in businesses that specialize in training and coaching, to help these groups succeed in their endeavors," Witter predicts.
Here are nine other trends we see for 2012.
1. Daily deals get refined
We've all heard
daily-deal horror stories
and that daily deal sites such as
may not be truly beneficial for
But Jerry Nettuno, founder and CEO of Schedulicity, a Web-based tool for small businesses to keep track of their appointments, predicts that as merchants learn from their mistakes, "random go-for-broke deals will evolve into well-thought-out offers."
"This gives merchants the opportunity to strengthen loyalty by offering targeted, hyperlocal deals and offers of perishable appointment-based inventory," he adds. "The more geographically concentrated the consumer base, the better chance of turning deal-seekers into repeat customers."
He also sees digital "coupon books" gaining traction within the next two years to give small businesses an "engaged, active audience" -- another way for businesses to expand on existing consumer relationships with hyperlocal offers.
"We'll see a growth in local offer networks, consumer-personalized dashboards and deals with specific targets in mind versus going out to the masses," Nettuno says.
On the other hand, Scott Hirsch, founder of
, says businesses will do away with digital coupon services altogether, preferring to build it themselves.
"As more people join the apps revolution, smart businesses are learning that there are a host of free tools available to get them involved and get noticed on smartphones," Hirsch says.
Including those of his company. Appsbar is an online resource -- the first, Hirsch claims -- that lets any business, regardless of tech experience, build and publish a professional-level app for free.
"Now businesses can build their own apps, engage with customers on their own terms -- and deliver digital coupons without the headache and revenue sharing presented by third-parties," he says.
2. If you're not embracing social media, get in the game.
Social media isn't just for ahead-of-the-curve tech whizzes, big brand-name companies and young adults. Even the most basic business ventures should be promoting themselves via Twitter and Facebook these days.
Investing in "integrated, ROI-focused tools" will be essential for small businesses that are looking to stretch limited marketing dollars, Schedulicity's Nettuno says, referring to return on investment.
In layman's terms, he means businesses will need to bump up their online advertising, search engine optimization capabilities and get in the game with customers who are looking for businesses online and in social media spaces as opposed to in the newspaper, radio or more traditional phone directories.
"Daily deals have educated small-business owners to spend money at the local level, while SEO continues to be a huge priority for small-business owners who have an online presence," Nettuno says. "Online advertising needs to be targeted and cost-effective."
Next year, "we predict more and more small businesses will begin to expand online and embrace Facebook as the dominant marketing tool for small businesses," Nettuno says.
A good way to start: Enter
, designed to encourage more businesses to join the social media site.
3. Government contracting opportunities will increase.
A new year will bring increased opportunities in government contracting, according to Lourdes Martin-Rosa,
OPEN's adviser on government contracting.
Small businesses can look for federal business opportunities at
And while there is continued uncertainty around the federal budget, given the failure of Congress' supercommittee, there is plenty of opportunity for niche businesses, Martin-Rosa says.
First, "green" government contractors and women-owned small businesses may have an edge next year. At least 95% of the government's acquisitions are required to be green and sustainable, Martin-Rosa says, citing an executive order.
Earlier this year the government launched a program requiring that 5% of
dollars be awarded to businesses owned by women, including economically disadvantaged women.
There is also "tremendous" government contracting opportunities in construction, engineering and architecture, as well as a high demand for IT services, Martin-Rosa says.
Additionally, so-called Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity contracts "can be a key enabler for growth since they provide for 'an indefinite quantity of supplies or services during a fixed period of time.' In other words, they offer repeat business without repeat efforts," Martin-Rosa says. "Last year, IDIQs represented approximately 30% of the federal procurement marketplace with more than $40 billion awarded through this vehicle. This trend will not only continue but deepen in 2012."
Among some of the best of these contracts is through the Department of Homeland Security's Firstsource II contract, which is coming up to bid in January.
"With an expected contract value of $3 billion set aside for small businesses, this contract is a must for firms in the information technology and related services industry," she says.
4. Is your business cyber-secure?
Small businesses should be adding heightened security to their
and mobile devices.
Today's cyber criminals are getting smarter and finding more complex ways to take advantage of personal information, including that on relatively open social networking sites, says Bill Morrow, executive chairman of
Small businesses are becoming a growing target.
"Spear phishing campaigns, 'like-jacking' on Facebook and shortened URLs are just some of the techniques we've seen over the past year, and we can expect these approaches to get more sophisticated as we enter 2012," Morrow says.
Smaller firms are also typically easier targets, since many don't have the expertise or associate strong anti-virus programs with high expense.
Morrow suggests that small businesses embrace
to protect data.
He also warns that not all "attacks" are external.
"An inadvertent mistake or a disgruntled employee can cause significant damage to an organization if proper data security precautions are not in place," he says. "In 2012, stay ahead of potential threats by taking advantage of advanced technologies available to protect your sensitive corporate information."
5. Be mobile.
With consumers carrying their
iPhones and iPads with them everywhere, if it's not already obvious, mobile commerce represents a huge opportunity for businesses small and large.
One only has to look at how consumers used their smartphones and devices during the Thanksgiving weekend shopping kick-off to realize how much they rely on their
for information and to make purchases.
According to a snapshot survey taken by Tealeaf after the Thanksgiving shopping rush, Twitter conversations about mobile shopping with the top 35 mobile retailers increased by 217%, on average, on Black Friday.
Yet consumers expressed frustration with their mobile shopping experiences.
About 41% complained about the inability to "complete transactions, poor search functionality, inconsistencies between the online and mobile channels and other types of customer struggle," the survey said.
That means an opportunity for businesses that do it right.
"Consumers are really looking for more," Betsy Demarchi, director of strategy at
, a digital marketing company, said last month.
"When people are in the store and they're trying to decide on an item they might leave to go look at ratings and reviews on
," or even make a purchase there, she says. "We can bring that content into the store
by facilitating the decision-making in the store, but also enhancing that with some additional content that can help her or him understand 'Is this the right product for me?'"
6. QR Codes explode
You may not know exactly what a QR code is or how to use one in your business, but you've definitely seen them.
QR codes, or quick-response codes, are an extension of the mobile bandwagon in which businesses can promote exclusive deals via their social media outlets or Web site, according to
, a platform that manages and measures social media content.
A QR code is read using a smartphone QR reader app and, once scanned, gives the user more details about a specific event, product, deal or company -- usually by sending a smartphone browser to a specified URL.
"QR codes were predicted to fade quickly, but there has since been a massive increase in their use on everything from advertising campaigns to product packaging," says Sabrina Koester, an account manager at The Eisen Agency and the director of the firm's
small business arm
. "Their easy accessibility and novelty factor make them an appealing marketing tactic
from the biggest brands in the world right down to family-owned businesses."
QR codes are an attractive marketing tactic for small businesses because "they are simple to create, free to generate and easy to track," Koester says.
They're also an easy way for businesses to quickly connect customers to contact information, social media sites and coupons, she adds.
7. Get a loan!
Looking to expand your business? It might be time to get a bank loan.
Small business borrowing surged in October, according to the Thomson Reuters/PayNet Small Business Lending Index. October was the 15th month of double-digit increase, suggesting that the economy will be expanding going into next year, a
The index measures the overall volume of financing to U.S. small businesses. It rose 20% in October, higher than September's revised figures of 12%, according to the index.
Access to capital was virtually shut off during the worst of the financial crisis, but banks recently have been touting their commitments to lending to small businesses. "I don't know of any bank that is well-capitalized and well-funded that doesn't want to make a loan," says Frank Sorrentino, CEO of
North Jersey Community Bank
. "The problem is not on the supply side. It's on the demand side."
But that is starting to change, he says.
"We've noticed recently -- in the last couple of months -- some percolation starting to occur in the small-business environment. We're seeing some of our clients talking about possible expansion," Sorrentino said last month.
8. More businesses will hire.
Small businesses are dipping their toes in expansion and looking to hire.
"We're seeing some of our clients saying 'in '08, '09, '10 we really cut our business to the bone. We can't stay at this level. We have to hire.' I'm having some clients come to me and tell me that I have a great opportunity to grab some employees, but I need to borrow a little bit of money to make that investment," North Jersey Community Bank's Sorrentino says.
It will be a long time before we see widespread small businesses hiring. According to a September survey by Sage North America, 48% of 275 respondents said they would like to hire but were inhibited by a lack of revenue and an uncertain economy.
One company that is hiring is
, a maker of solar-powered, mobile showrooms. It said this week that it plans to fill 25 positions in sales, marketing and training.
"The dramatic interest we've already experienced in BizBox is driving this growth," BizBox CEO Rick Sikorski says. "It is important that we have a team in place across the nation to meet the demand."
9. Buying locally continues to gain ground
From small caterers pledging to cook only locally sourced foods to American Express' Small Business Saturday promotion, local businesses finally were in the spotlight in 2011.
As they should be. These businesses are run by some of the brightest and most innovative entrepreneurs and are bringing products and services to the world that, in many examples, could not be done by large corporations.
Bill Brunelle, spokesman for Independent We Stand, a nationwide movement encouraging consumers to shop local, says they didn't hesitate to partner with Amex on their Small Business Saturday initiative.
"More awareness of the benefits of shopping local benefits everyone, not just Amex. In fact, we'd love to see a Small Business '24-7/365' event to 'shop small' all year round," he says.
-- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.
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Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.