Business ideas that will be buzzy in 2013

December 9, 2012
Embracing ‘showrooming’

Showrooming — in which shoppers browse in a traditional brick and mortar store only to make their purchases online — has been feared by retailers for years, and for good reason. Almost anything that can be bought off a shelf can be bought for less online these days.

But maybe trying to stop showrooming isn’t the answer — perhaps it should be encouraged. That’s the notion that two of retail’s biggest executives put forth recently. Walmart.com president and chief executive Joel Anderson has released a mobile app that allows customers access to an online circular, but only while they are in the store. Other companies offer coupons or propose product pairings — a sweater to go with the skirt you are considering — through their in-store mobile apps.

Only a couple of months into the job, Best Buy chief executive Hubert Joly said last month that he is “embracing” showrooming by offering to match online prices in the store.

And if stores are really just becoming showrooms, they ought to become good ones. Taylor Chess, senior vice president of retail for the Peterson Cos., developers of National Harbor, said that showcase stores opened directly by big-name brands, like Northface, Nike and Carhartt are likely to catch on with others.

“The next big thing is utilizing your store as a showroom for just getting your products out there as opposed to a lifeblood for your sales,” Chess said.


— Jonathan O’Connell

‘Leadership pooling’

Companies large and small have long looked to succession planning for top leadership positions as a key way to maintain continuity and stability at their businesses.

Brian Kropp, managing director at Arlington-based corporate research firm CEB, said that in the new year, many companies are likely to rethink their approach to grooming their next generation of leaders.

Kropp said he sees companies moving toward “leadership pooling,” a model in which the organization identifies and nurtures a pool of its most talented individuals and prepares them to be able to step into a variety of different roles.

This would mark a shift from the status quo, in which many firms work to prime a specific person for a specific job. The reason for the new approach, Kropp said, is that technological innovation and globalization are putting the business world in a state of fast-moving flux.

“The roles that are most important now, half of them didn’t exist” five years ago, Kropp said.

This change in strategy, Kropp said, could have ripple effects on how businesses look to recruit, develop and pay their top-performing workers.

— Sarah Halzack

Going global

The legal industry is buzzing about the latest spate of mergers between leading U.S. law firms and firms in Canada, Australia, Europe, Africa and South America that are forming a new breed of global legal giants with staggering manpower.

Among the biggest mergers announced during the past quarter were SNR Denton — whose partners approved a three-way merger with Canadian firm Fraser Milner Casgrain and European firm Salans to form a 2,500-lawyer firm — and K&L Gates, which expanded its Asia-Pacific reach by absorbing Australian firm Middletons and creating a combined 2,300-lawyer operation. Baker & McKenzie picked up Estudio Echecopar, a mid-size firm in Lima, Peru, and Rudolph Bernstein & Associates, a small boutique in Johannesburg, and now has 4,000 attorneys worldwide.

The push to grow internationally through mergers — a faster and at times riskier way to expand than by hiring small groups of attorneys — will likely continue as law firms that once considered themselves U.S.-centric face pressure to globalize.

“The worst thing nowadays for U.S. law firms is to brand yourself as a global firm but not really have the bulk or reach to be global,” said Steve Nelson, managing principal for the law and government affairs groups at the McCormick Group.

— Catherine Ho

Lowest price, but ...

Contractors are watching with increasing concern the government’s preference for “lowest price, technically acceptable” proposals — or the least-expensive bid that fits the solicitation’s requirements, rather than a higher-priced submission that offers more capabilities.

This has put pressure on contractors to squeeze out overhead costs by trimming employees and shuttering facilities, and some have said it reduces the incentive to pursue innovative work.

In 2013, however, this issue could become more nuanced. Frank Kendall, the top acquisition official at the Pentagon, said recently that the government shouldn’t always accept the cheapest proposal but should make sure the government gets the quality it needs.

Wes Bush, who heads Falls Church-based contracting giant Northrop Grumman, expressed optimism last week that the Pentagon is making changes.

The challenge now is “to communicate that all the way down” to contracting officers, he said. Kendall’s revision is “attempting to actually put more thinking into the decision-making at the program level.”

— Marjorie Censer

High-end takeout

Mussels and lamb shank may soon be replacing Chinese food and pizza as weeknight takeout staples as high-end restaurants beef up their to-go menus to keep up with growing demand.

Ris in Northwest Washington recently introduced a special menu that includes items such as wild mushroom strudels, sherried beets and house-made sorbets that customers can pick up and take home. Orders for lunches and dinners to-go have also been on the rise as the broader economy continues to improve, said Natalie Christenson, who oversees Ris To-Go.

“People want to go home and not have to cook, but they don’t want to get Chinese takeout every day,” she said. “They’re more conscious of being healthful.”

The Capital Grille in Chevy Chase has noticed a similar increase in demand. The restaurant has begun buying special containers for takeout steak that prevent heat and moisture from being trapped during transport.

“We hear from people who say, ‘I want to open it and want to feel like I’m at the Capital Grille. I want it garnished the same way, served the same way. But I want to pick it up and take it home,’ ” said Kyle Gaffney, a managing partner at the restaurant.

A few months ago, Smith & Wollensky introduced Steak-to-Go — a package that includes ready-to-cook steak, a reusable cooler and steak knives — to accommodate customers who prefer to eat their filet mignon at home. Restaurants such as Central Michel Richard and Carmine’s have similar options.

“This is something that’s not going away,” Christenson said.

— Abha Bhattarai

Crowdfunding niches

The Securities and Exchange Commission is scheduled to release guidelines for equity-based crowdfunding in the new year, establishing the rules of the road for a new form of investment that allows entrepreneurs to raise cash from ordinary people via the Web.

Entrepreneurs and investors alike aren’t waiting on the regulation to get started. A slew of Web sites that facilitate crowdfunding have cropped up in the last year and their approaches vary wildly.

San Francisco-based CircleUp exclusively features consumer products companies. Upstart, a platform founded by ex-Google executive Dave Girouard, connects accredited investors with young entrepreneurs, rather than particular businesses, in exchange for a percentage of the entrepreneur’s future income.

Other platforms help start-ups collect financial contributions from the public in exchange for non-financial rewards. Indiegogo and Kickstarter are well known for helping artists and designers raise funding for projects, while platforms like New York City-based Rock the Post specifically feature business ventures that offer perks or recognition in exchange for investments.

“With more certainty around the SEC guidelines and as people get more experience with what works and doesn’t work, I think that there will be a narrowing down of different models and approaches,” said Jim Chung, director of the office of entrepreneurship at George Washington University.

— Steven Overly and Mohana Ravindranath

Rise of the rest

For many Americans, the term “entrepreneurship” evokes images of people like Mark Zuckerberg and places like Silicon Valley. But next year, expect business leaders and government leaders to push for new business formation by people and places not traditionally associated with start-up culture.

The Small Business Administration, for instance, is targeting groups such as veterans and retirees to get into the act.

Meanwhile, Startup America, a public-private initiative intended to accelerate high-growth businesses across the country, is among those leading the charge. Over the past year, the group has launched regional chapters in 30 states, and the team is planning to set up at least another half dozen in early 2013, hoping to boost the number of entrepreneurs and high-growth firms in those regions.

“As the cost of starting companies continues to decline, and connectivity makes it easier for entrepreneurs to hire the best talent from across the U.S., the ‘rise of the rest’ will give entrepreneurs more flexibility to start companies where they prefer to live,” Startup America Chairman Steve Case wrote in a blog post earlier this month.

— J.D. Harrison

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