Customer Service that Matters

No matter your competitive prices and product selection, you will be no better than hundreds of other retailers competing for the same customers if you lack customer service skills. According to a 2014 study by NewVoiceMedia, an estimated $41 billion is lost by U.S. companies each year due to poor customer service.

Have you ever tried to contact an online seller about a problem or to ask a question? If so, you’ll often find yourself searching the company’s website for contact information and, if you send them an email, you might never get a reply.

According to a 2015 consumer experience survey by Aspect Software, 76 percent of consumers say they view customer service as the true test of how much a company values them.

A great example of customer service done right is Aquarium Depot in Citrus Heights, California. The family-owned retailer puts customer service front and center in its business, which specializes in aquatics and reptiles. When you walk into the store, the first thing you will see to your left is a checkout counter. On your right, you’ll find a customer service counter.

I have visited literally hundreds of pet stores over the years, and have caught store owners, managers and sales people in a wide range of moods. People obviously can’t be at their best all of the time, but even if they’re not, they need to keep in mind that the customer pays their salary.

As a small business, problems with those big, uncaring businesses or inattentive online sellers can give you a big advantage if you’re willing to make customer service an important part of your store’s identity. Here are the top seven aspects that make up good customer service (in order of importance):

Patience: Retailers who know the value of customer relationships will develop a policy that can be followed by everyone, from the top down. Good customer service requires a lot of patience, even when you are really busy or not feeling your best. Being patient is probably the hardest skill to master, but it is also the most appreciated by customers.

Sociability: This skill is a close second when it comes to customer relationships. Being friendly will get you return patronage. Believe it or not, customers “like being liked” and will go out of their way to give you their business if they value that relationship.

A willingness to listen and learn: When it comes to knowing what your customers want, the ability to listen to their problems and solve them will earn you their loyalty. A problem shared or a problem solved creates a special bond that no big business will be able to emulate.

Product knowledge: It has been said many times that a small business fares better than a large business in the product knowledge category. Most consumers believe that small business owners know more about the products they sell than an employee in a big, impersonal chain store.

Good communication skills: Being able to communicate with customers is an obvious necessity when dealing with the public.

A positive attitude: Maintaining a positive attitude, when coupled with communication skills, is critical. Don’t dismiss a customer’s question with the easy answer, but also never tell your customer you will do something and then fail to do so.

A willingness to adapt to market dynamics: An ability to adapt is a skill we must possess in order to stay relevant in an ever-changing marketplace. The retail business was once as simple as coming up with a need and filling that need. Today, filling a need is just one small part of the equation.

Your ability to define your business as one whose reputation and likeability sets you apart from online and big chain competition will enable you to become a mainstay in your community just as Aquarium Depot has been doing for years.

The Many Paths to the Customer

Even if you don’t embrace the concept of multi-channel branding, it’s coming whether we like it or not. Successful businesses will adapt to a changing marketplace.

If you haven’t heard of multi-channel branding, it’s a business model that uses a variety of channels to enhance the end consumer’s shopping experience, including those who research before a purchase. Multi-channel branding includes selling to retailers through traditional distribution as well as direct to retailers where there is no distribution and even includes sales direct to the end consumer. The latter is for products that haven’t successfully broken into the distribution network.

Although my day job is in the pet industry, I also do consulting for brands that sell in the health and grocery categories, where I’m seeing multi-channel branding beginning to take hold. I am also see some manufacturers in our industry who are using this practice, and I expect this trend to continue.

The manufacturer’s multi-channel branding concept relies on current technological advances, mostly in social media and Internet resources. The concept is, in a nut shell, to offer a manufacturer’s full line of products through multiple channels, allowing them to reach the broadest customer base possible. This may sound sinister to any brick and mortar retailer reading this, but in fact, if done right, it will increase the store’s sales over time—or at least that is the theory.

The aim of a multi-channel branding strategy is to maximize revenue and consumer loyalty by offering choice and convenience all the way through to the end consumer. A successful multi-channel strategy offers a consistent quality of experience, whichever channel the consumer uses. The theory is that a customer’s experience in buying a product influences their perception of the brand, and the easier it is to find what they are looking for, the better the brand fares.
This type of mindset isn’t new. A perfect example of this business model is Hewlett-Packard (HP), who has been doing this for more than a decade. HP offers complete support in the way of software updates for their products and trouble shooting forums. You can even buy their products right from their site.

What HP is doing is making their website a destination for everything HP. But if you look a little closer, what you will notice is that, although they make their products available for sale to the consumer, you will be able to buy elsewhere for the same price or less. HP’s goal is to first establish a value for their products. Second, they aim to inform the consumer about their products, making them aware of their range and product functionality. Finally, if a product is not available from other sources, the consumer can click on the buy button.

In today’s cluttered advertising market, most messages become lost in the mix. But the more channels on which a brand is displayed, the better chance consumers will respond. The better known a brand becomes, the better it will sell. If careful pricing policies are developed, the theory is that all channels will be able to compete, enhancing the end consumer’s shopping experience, including those consumers who research before a purchase. Even if a manufacturer doesn’t sell direct, if they maintain a strong MAP policy, their best option is being present on as many selling platforms as possible.

Since there isn’t any way of turning back the clock, planning ahead is a better option than ignoring what is happening. Look for ways to use the manufacturer’s concern for their brand presence. Pick brands that matter to your business and let those manufactures know that you support their products and ask for support in return.

Now might be the time to develop a policy that will help grow your business over the long run instead of flipping around to who has the best price this month on products you purchase. Letting your suppliers know that you have a long term business strategy will allow them to better meet your needs.

Building Customer Loyalty

How we treat our customers directly relates to our business’s success. If we listen to our customers, respond to their needs and live up to their expectations, we have created an environment where customer loyalty will thrive.

What do I mean by “listening” to a customer? There is the obvious: a customer walks into your store and asks a question or has a problem and you listen to them. What about other avenues of input? Do you take the time to check on your Facebook Page or Twitter feed and do you respond to customer questions or complaints on these platforms? When was the last time you googled your business name for reviews? Could you have bad reviews out there for the public to see? If you don’t check, you won’t know.

Responding quickly to a customer’s needs or concerns is one of the most important things you can do to build loyalty. We have all heard about the customer review where an employee was rude or a need wasn’t met. There is a brief window of opportunity following a service failure where your customer can actually transition from a state of disappointment to a state of loyalty. Showcase your ability to listen to your customers, responding politely and positively so that other potential customers will respond positively to you and your business.

We’ve all heard the old adage, “Under Promise, Over Deliver.” How many times have you been disappointed by a business who assured you they would do something by a certain time or to a certain quality level and then failed to do so? I know I’ve had that experience many times and I will caution anyone who might be considering using those companies. On the other hand, the companies that did what they said they would do and left me feeling unstressed and happy with their work—I’m more than happy to recommend them to my friends.

Take the time to speak with your customer and to understand their needs. When I visit a store and can’t find what I need but the store personnel is able to assure me that they can get the item I’m looking for and will call me when it comes in on Thursday and then does call, I appreciate their effort and they have salvaged a sale—a win/win for both of us.

A great business personality and service is only half the effort required in building customer loyalty. The other half of the effort is promotion and price. No matter how great you are at pleasing your customers, if they feel you’re not competitively priced, they will gravitate to a business that is. One way to build customer loyalty even against a cheaper competitor is to offer a discount card for specific items that are important to your regular customer. You can write in the item(s) on the card so the customer is assured of receiving the discount even if you aren’t personally there at the time of their next visit.

Sales funded by your distributor or product manufacturers take time and effort to coordinate but allow you to run specials in-store and on your Facebook page that have the potential to bring in new customers as well as keep old ones and give them the impression that you are aggressively promoting.

I know I’ve said this before, but building an email list will enhance any customer loyalty program, so long as you don’t abuse their patience by over-using it. If you have special deals for your loyal customers, they will probably appreciate receiving your email notices. Just make sure that your emails offer smoking hot promotions on things that have general appeal. Although you’re trying to make a sale, you’re also trying to build a loyal following.

Consider trying to interact with your customers in new ways with new ideas, providing regular promotions, and you should see your sales grow. I’ve always found that mixing things up keeps the day to day business fresh. If you can do that and make more profit, too, it’s worth the effort.

Brick and Mortar Retailing in the Internet Age

Brick and mortar stores have advantages that the virtual world can’t match: opportunities for shoppers to touch, see and size up the goods and to walk away with a purchase. I know that many store owners think that customers come in to see products and pick their brains for information and then go home and buy on the internet. This may be true, but what are you going to do about it?

Maybe it’s time for all of us to think outside the box—retailers and wholesalers alike. With the Internet moving from its infancy into its adolescence, opportunities are opening up every day. I can see a time not too far down the road when retail stores will become show rooms and service centers. Customers will be able to walk into a pet store show room and service center and get expert advice, have a package of products tailored to their needs by that expert, who will do a quick internet search to provide them with the best price and most reliable fulfillment agent, and by the time the customer gets home, the product will be there waiting for them.

That’s not science fiction; it’s beginning to happen even now as I write this—just look at Amazon Prime’s two-hour home delivery service. So, rather than rail at the injustice of the Internet, maybe now is the time to become proactive and plan a new path for the retail customer’s buying experience.

I suggest doing a search of vendor websites to see who has shopping carts. If they are selling directly to consumers, is it generally at a decent retail price? Would you be able to partner with them as a fulfillment source for your store? How about your distributors, do they do fulfillment? Some do, and they might do it for you, too—if you ask.

Although outside our industry, an example of this approach is Best Buy stores. The last time I went into one was in response to an Internet ad for a desktop computer. I went in and walked to the back of the store where the computers are. I was approached by a sales rep who was knowledgeable and who actually showed me something even better than what I’d come in to buy. What amazed me was that the computer they ended up selling me was from a company other than Best Buy.

What Best Buy has done is partner with manufacturers that pay them commission. A brick and mortar store is limited by its square footage, but not if you can go outside the walls of the store and sell products from other companies. This scenario might be the wave of the future—to harness the Internet rather than fight it. Manufacturers produce more variety than a distributor can stock, and the average distributor stocks 20,000 SKUs—much more than your store can. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Also, there are still more customers that come into your store who want to take their purchase home that day. On the other hand, there are those who are just using you for product knowledge. I talked to a retailer who told me that when a customer comes into her store and plays the Internet card, she offers to match the price plus 15 percent to cover her cost of stocking it so they can have it right now. She always points out that her products are guaranteed against defects for a full year and she checks for hidden damage before the customer leaves her store. She said that most of the time, that customer will take the deal.

Manufacturers are beginning to beef up their MAP Protection, especially on high end products. Even if MAP isn’t a perfect system and can’t totally control Internet discounting, it will usually stop the deep discounting, making a negotiated price a very reasonable proposition for both the retailer and their customer.

I see the Internet becoming a tool more than a threat to brick and mortar stores. In the long run, we’re better off adapting to the new retail reality than trying to fight it. A great example of this is the printing industry. They used to have to typeset by hand; today it’s all digital and so much more sophisticated. Eventually, the same sort of transition will overtake the retail experience. Don’t look at it as a problem; think outside the box and create an opportunity instead.

Make a Splash with Ponds

How has your pond business been so far this year? If you are unhappy with your pond product sales and think that Home Depot or the Internet have destroyed your backyard pond business, consider the following: Home Depot stocks a limited number of pond products, generally not well displayed. Although the Internet is a true competitor to pet stores, for the first-time garden pond hobbyist, their local pet store is a real option.

Why is that you ask? Because they drive by your store and know where you are. They may be buying their dog food or other products from you already, so why not pond products, too?

If you don’t advertise your seasonal offerings, only customers who already visit your store will know what is available. I was talking to a retailer the other day that sets up a pond in her store every season and displays the support products on an endcap nearby. She was lamenting about how poorly the category was doing for her this year and wasn’t sure if she would continue to go through all the trouble of setting up a special pond display next season.

I was disappointed to hear that, so I asked her how she advertised the pond category during the season. She replied that they set up a nice display every April through the end of August. I suggested that she might consider advertising and was told that she couldn’t afford the expense, especially since her pond business was failing.

After that conversation, I’ve given the garden fish pond category a lot of thought and would like to put forward some ideas for those stores that are experiencing lackluster sales in ponds and pond accessories. The following are some inexpensive advertising concepts that might help build sales and bring new customers in at the same time.

It is never too late to talk with your distributor to see what they have to offer in the way of discounts to help you compete. The best practice is to assume that there are promotional programs available. Also consider contacting the manufacturer, especially if you are supporting a specific line of products.

Look for manufacturers who offer MAP protection and, if necessary with those that don’t, negotiate better pricing to help you compete with internet stores.

If you have an online store yourself, put your seasonal categories on the opening page advertising a promotion that you have arranged with your suppliers.

Advertise your pond program on your store’s Facebook page and if you don’t have one, have an employee, family member or friend set up an account so they can add content, especially your store specials including your seasonal items.

If you have limited display space and can’t dedicate an area to set up a pond (or even if you can) consider adding pond videos to your website and Facebook page. There are hundreds of videos available online. Also check with your pond product suppliers for what they have available.

If you can’t find pond posters from your suppliers, go to the Internet and google ‘garden ponds’ and choose large images to create signs or posters that will give your customers inspiration, posting them in your store near your pond display. Also offer links to the images if you have an online presence.

Most importantly, use your storefront as an advertising vehicle. For very little money, you can go to a local printer and have a vinyl banner made using images available from your pond suppliers promoting the advantages of a garden fish pond, saying something like, “A Beautiful Garden Pond Will Enhance Your Life! Available Here.”

Rather than assuming you can’t compete against the big box retailers or online vendors, consider working with your distributor and manufacturers on pricing, making the effort to advertise the category beyond what you have done in the past.

Remember, even if you can’t set up a live pond display in your store, that doesn’t mean you can’t sell pond products. It’s not too late to go after pond sales. There are still several months left in the season, so create a pond product endcap today and try some of the simple advertising ideas above. You never know; you might energize your pond sales!

Following the MAP

The one thing I can say about minimum advertised price (MAP) protection with total assurance is that there are a wide range of opinions on its effectiveness and even whether or not it is legally enforceable. In general, MAP Protection only relates to the advertised price and is presumed to be legal under U.S. antitrust statutes. According to the American Bar Association, “MAP policies are generally analyzed under the antitrust rule of reason. As long as a retailer remains free to sell a product at any price, the restriction on advertising is deemed to be a non-price restraint.”

I could go on about the legal challenges to MAP Protection and the several states that don’t recognize advertising restrictions, but I don’t have the space here to do that. If you want to look deeper into what’s happening with MAP policies, a good article that covers the topic is ABA’s Roadmap to Minimum Advertised Price Policies.

Having established that MAP Protection has its issues, what I really want to concentrate on is how MAP Protection is beginning to impact the aquatic segment of the pet industry. As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, our company represents only aquatic and reptile product manufacturers. What we’re seeing in our specialized area of the industry is more aquatic vendors discussing the need for MAP and implementing MAP programs.

The aquatic segment offers a lot of high end products, especially in lighting, filtration and water movement systems. These require that retailers have some knowledge and expertise with the products. These manufacturers know that selling through the internet has many advantages they don’t want to ignore, but they feel that, without brick and mortar retailers sharing product knowledge with the consumer, their brands will suffer.

I have been involved in implementing MAP programs for some of our manufacturers in the past and one of the biggest problems that come up when developing a program are a lack of an established manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP). For more established companies, it is the fact that their involvement with online retailers goes back before the internet had such a big footprint in the marketplace. They find themselves in a quagmire of online discounting that, if left unaddressed, could drive brick and mortar retailers away from their brand.

We call on retail stores, detailing our manufacturer’s products to the owners and managers. In most stores, especially the larger ones with a big investment in inventory, we continually hear about how online discounting is forcing them into off-brand or MAP protected lines. We see how, in years past, major brands that are being liberally discounted on the internet and that used to dominate the aquatic retailer’s shelf are being deemphasized or, in some cases, have disappeared from the stores completely.

Those manufacturers who do implement MAP policies have several hurdles to jump—one of which is MAP enforcement. It costs money to hire a service or to have someone in-house who is dedicated to tracking the internet for MAP violations. Also, after finding noncompliance from an online store, tracking down the distributor that sold them the products can be a challenge that eats up man hours.

Ultimately, manufacturers may in the future be forced into implementing distributor exclusivity agreements, as dog food companies currently do, in order to enforce MAP pricing.

In this day and age, most manufacturers sell directly to online retailers, including Amazon. It’s hard to turn down the exposure, but with properly controlled pricing and an enforced MAP program those manufacturers can support both internet and brick and mortar retailers. I know many retailers reading this will disagree with that statement—but if you take a moment to think about it, it all revolves around pricing channels and MAP enforcement. If a manufacturer works diligently to build a firm MSRP, creates proper pricing channels and enforces MAP to the best of their ability, brick and mortar retailers will be better off and internet sales will still survive.

I think this issue is important enough to the aquatic segment’s brand health that manufacturers will figure out how to make MAP protection work. I predict that, at least as it applies to the aquatic segment, retailers will begin to see more robust MAP policies being implemented in the near future.

Stealth Marketing via Social Media

There are hundreds of social media providers available to every business owner. Most of them offer a free version of their service as well as inexpensive apps to promote a business, offer contests or enhance advertising.

According to Social Media Today, there are 21 top tier providers in the U.S. social media arena, but the obvious standouts are Facebook and Twitter. If your business is taking full advantage of these two providers, you are reaching the greatest number of potential customers.

If you are one of the millions that personally use Facebook and Twitter, you probably log in every day or even multiple times a day. The constant interaction with these providers is what makes them so valuable. Once a page or account is “liked” or “followed” on Facebook or Twitter by a user, your business has direct access to that person going forward and has the ability to speak directly to them.

Although these providers have great potential for your business, there is a fly in the ointment. Those of you who use social media have probably noticed the uptick in commercial posts. Even though social media has proven to be a wonderfully inexpensive and effective advertising vehicle for retailers, there will probably come a time when consumers will stop clicking on blatant ads and even block those posts. These social media providers are, after all, positioned as “social communities” and people don’t log on every day to watch advertisements.

That’s where stealth marketing comes in. Anyone who has been in the marketing field for a while will remember the 1990s, when advertorials were first being introduced. There were several versions of this, including ads disguised as articles, TV infomercials and various forms of guerilla marketing. These forms of advertising have fallen by the wayside due to the steady decline in print media, especially newspaper outlets, and the huge amount of TV channels now available that require multiple placements to reach the general public.

The good news is that print advertising hasn’t stopped working. Print venues have added revenue channels such like digital news and social media that are more likely to appeal to the 18-44 year-old demographics, which are the gold standard when it comes to consumers. According to the Pew Research Center Newspaper Facts Sheet, old school advertising still works with online news outlets, since that revenue stream seems to be growing, but it doesn’t really resonate with people logging onto their choice social media provider.

Building a strategy that will allow you to maximize social media advertising is one of the best options going forward. Such a strategy reaches potentially interested people who may engage with your business, rather than the traditional advertising that online news providers offer. These post an ad whether or not the consumer is a match for it—though for an added price you may be able to target a few demographics.

Creating a stealth advertisement is simply creating a post that you think will attract your followers and has the potential to be shared by them with their friends or fellow enthusiasts. As an example, if you are a marine aquatic store, you could write an article about the newest skimmer or lighting system that everyone is talking about and post it to your Facebook page as a review. This is likely to get interested consumers to “like” your post and potentially your page so they can see future content from your business.

There are many ways to use the stealth marketing approach. Try a post about Lyme disease prevention during tick season. Maybe post dog food recall notices as a public service. And now with the Facebook button choices, you can add a “Learn More” button that steers customers to a deal or discount at your store or online shopping cart.

You may be saying to yourself, “I don’t have enough followers to my Facebook page or Twitter account to make any of this work for me.” That may be true—but at least for Facebook, if you budget $10 to $15 a day to boost your “article” or most interesting posts, you can build a following. Once someone has “liked” your page, you’ll have ready access to them multiple times a day.
From my experience with my manufacturers, the ideal follower number to begin to produce real revenue is about 11,000 followers. With Facebook’s advertising tools, you can restrict your “paid” posts to specific zip codes. If you have an online store, you can target states close enough to your store to control freight costs.

Any way you look at it, the market and the ways of advertising to customers are changing. Don’t be left out because you didn’t change along with them.

Understanding Millennials

We’re hearing more and more these days about millennials, also called generation Y. These folks number some 78.6 million, surpassing baby boomers as the largest demographic in U.S. history. This generation is defined by having been born within 20 years of the new century (1980-2000) and they make up a trillion-dollar demographic, driving retail trends for everyone.

Millennials are the first generation that are absolutely sure they won’t be working the same job for their entire adult life. Many of them believe that the only way to move forward in a career is to move to different companies where they are offered more money or a better position.

Due to the general worldwide economic uncertainty, millennials are more aware of their personal finances than previous generations and, because of this, they tend to share information among themselves more than ever before about quality and pricing for products and services. As an example, you can see queries on Facebook, generally from that age group, asking for friends’ opinions about a product they are thinking about buying or a suggestion on where to look for a service and even information about that service’s dependability. Millennials actively use social media to research purchases through their friends’ experiences.

It’s probably no surprise that millennials are the generation driving social media. According to Entrepreneur magazine, 71 percent of millennials use Facebook, making it the most popular networking platform. Instagram comes in second at 52 percent, followed by Snapchat, Twitter and Google+.

However, merely having a presence on social media sites isn’t enough. To take full advantage of these powerful marketing tools, a retailer must offer a seamless experience allowing the millennial shopper to discover their product or service through the research stage and become a part of the social conversation by offering tips and tricks as to how your product or service will make their lives easier or more enjoyable.

An interesting point that was made during my research for this article was that, although many millennials use the Internet and social media to find and research a product, most say they would rather actually complete the purchase in a brick and mortar store. However, millennials want that purchase to be integrated with the digital experience.

According to Technology Trends 2016, a report published by Accenture LLP, millennials want “an integrated, seamless shopping experience. They expect to find the same merchandise, same pricing and same discounts whether in-store, online or on their mobile device.”

With more than $600 billion spent by millennials last year and even more forecast for this year and next, it is only logical to expect them to be savvy shoppers. When they come into your store and say, “I can buy that cheaper online,” you should have a positive response rather than a negative one. If you can, offer a discount. Make it plain that there are associated costs to you because of paying in advance of sale and holding inventory costs. If they still decide to go online to order, wish them well and point out that you are always willing to work with them as much as possible.

Keep in mind that your service (for most of your customers) is that you have it when they want it and there are a lot of products in your store, especially consumables, that are not that easy to order online unless they want to order bucket loads.

You can also counteract the online drain by reaching out to your customers in the millennial age group. Reports show that 95 percent of this generation say they want their brands or services to actively court them. Coupons sent via email or mailed to their homes and even advertised on your store’s Facebook page currently have the most influence with them.

Millennials are not only the largest segment of shoppers in today’s marketplace, but they are also influencing their parent’s preferences. Changes in brick and mortar retail are coming whether or not you are prepared for it, and millennials are leading the charge.

Increase Your Sales with Signs

Recently, I was talking to Rick Ludes, sales manager at Central Pet in Southern California. He was telling me about a store that had bought a bulk supply of bird millet that wasn’t selling, even at 39 cents per unit.

Then they tried an experiment.

They placed a sign on the basket that read, “Fresh Bird Millet, 59¢ each or 2 for $1.” Shortly after, the millet started to sell. They were eventually even able to raise their price and sell more—all because of a sign.

In the course of business, I call on a lot of retail stores throughout the western states and, curiously enough, I don’t see as many signs as I used to in the stores.  I truly believe that there is an advantage to using signs because they give information to your customer who otherwise might not ask and increase the chance for impulse sales, all at very little cost or effort to you.

In-store signage can be a powerful selling aid. According to a study by the Point of Purchase Advertising Institute, in-store advertising, such as point of purchase signage, influences 53 to 60 percent of the consumer purchases to some extent. Another research study revealed that, during the same sales period, if 100 products were sold with no signage, then 170 were sold when handwritten signs were used and 265 products were sold when signs were professionally produced to sell the products.

Those are pretty powerful numbers and should convince any pet retailer to increase their in-store signage. From end cap signage to window displays, in-store signage guides customers through the retail location and can provide valuable information to assist the customer in their purchase decisions.

How about your store’s identifying sign on its exterior? When was the last time you looked at it closely? A faded or peeling sign might turn business away. Since most commercial locations have glass entry doors as well as windows, what are your doors and windows saying to the public about your business?

As an example, many aquatic stores paint over their windows. Some do a great job by hiring a professional to indicate what the store specializes in, but many more just shove fixtures up against the windows to block the algae-causing sunlight. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this type of thing in my travels, from aquatic to general merchandise pet stores, and it’s not a pretty sight and does nothing to draw customers in.

According to one national study of independent retailers, over 35 percent of their customers learned of their businesses through just seeing the store sign as they passed by, while another 29 percent already knew they were there but a newly installed sign finally brought them into the store. Comparing those numbers to 14 percent brought in by word of mouth, 10 percent by advertising and 12 percent by other, it is clear just how important an outside sign can be in building your business.

Keep in mind that 85 percent of your customers live or work within a five-mile radius of your business and a good outside presence is essential to your store’s sales growth. Don’t be afraid to change out your window advertising signage monthly and only keep in-store signage if it shows sales progress. Try something different in place of the signs that are not bringing in sales.

Every endcap in your stores would benefit by providing a theme, such as a dog food of the month endcap, boxed aquarium setups or anything else you know you can sell and want to bump those sales up even more. Make signage detailing why the product is being showcased and why the customer is encouraged to buy it now.

Statements like “We Recommend” or “We Use This at Home” or “This is Our Favorite” are powerful sentiments that will encourage customers to try what you’re selling. Signs can be as small as an index card or as large as a 10-foot banner; just make sure your sign tells the story, keeping it simple and to the point.

If you haven’t used in-store signs in a while, or even if you have never used them, try them out. Signage is an inexpensive way to increase your sales.  Over time, you will see what works and what doesn’t and make the whole process more effective and informative.

Creating an Events Calendar

Have you ever wondered if the other guy gets a better deal than you do? Why do you suppose some stores grow so quickly while you struggle to keep the bills paid?

There are many factors that cause some businesses to grow faster than others, such as a well-negotiated lease, a great location or having been well-financed from the beginning. Some of these factors may or may not affect your business. Even if you have none of these advantages, you can still beat the odds by creating a business plan and then following it.

Since we are into a new year, now would be an excellent time to develop a yearlong event and promotional calendar. The best way to maximize your profits is to plan ahead. If the distributors or vendors that you buy from know what your promotional plans are for the coming months, they will all be more likely to participate with discounts or in other ways that you define.

As I have mentioned in other articles, I and my colleagues call on hundreds of retail pet stores every year to ask owners and managers what they do to promote their business in their marketplace. Often, we ask them what they think are the most important components to growing their business. The top three answers they give are:

1. Professionally designed street signage

2. Competitive pricing

3. Customer service

While I think all three of these components are obviously important, competitive pricing is the hardest to deal with because it is the biggest factor between profit and loss, and success and failure. With the growth of online shopping and the proliferation of discount stores, it becomes more of a struggle every year to be competitive.  With that in mind, it should be your mission to work with your suppliers to plan events and promotions well in advance.

Creating a calendar for the whole year will do two things:

First, it will allow you to allocate resources to manage events, such as adoption days or flea and tick dip days—all of which take advance planning. You could even try inviting the local media outlet to attend and write a piece on your Santa Photo Day or other special event. Believe it or not, they are always looking for human interest events to offset all that bad news they are always reporting.

The second advantage to planning ahead is that you are more likely to get what you want. For example, when approaching your distributors about supplies you need for your event, they may be able to order what you need during their normal order cycle if they know what you want in advance. This allows them to take advantage of vendor discounts and pass extra savings on to you. Also, if you have a calendar developed with your implementation plan, you can contact manufacturers directly to explain your plans and get their help maximizing distributor discounts.

Having been a manufacturer’s rep for 25 years, and a distributor buyer before that, I think I can safely say that most manufacturers will be happy to work through their distributors to help any retailer interested in promoting their products. They would probably go out of their way to sweeten the deal by offering a discount through their distributor, and door prizes or added value incentives are also possibilities.

And then there are the vendors that retailers buy from directly. Just because you are buying direct, does not mean you cannot negotiate an extra discount. Direct seller vendors want you to keep buying from them and will be sensitive about promotional requests from established retailers.

When you are developing the calendar, pick out the vendors that you already do volume with or those that you would like to be doing better with and contact them. Also let your distributor salesperson know what your plans are, as they will be your greatest asset and will look out for you as well as for their sales numbers.

Remember: if you do not ask, the answer will invariably be “no.” Stop wondering if the other guy is getting a better deal than you are—be the other guy.

When Is a Sale More than Just a Sale?

December and January are traditionally the bestselling months of the year for pet retailers. It always amazes me that so many retailers approach the holiday selling season so casually, without a detailed plan to take advantage of this important profit boosting period.

In my travels detailing stores, I’ve heard some smart ideas from those retailers who do gear up for holiday sales. I’m going to share their insights in the hope that this year will provide independent pet retailers a chance to make some significant profits by offering their customers more than just a discount.

Successful Sales

No one runs a sale to make their customers upset, so why would anyone just tag an item as on sale when they are actually charging the usual price? Well, apparently some do. There have been news reports on television of major retailers doing just that—and getting caught doing it by customers. To assume that your customers won’t catch a sharp practice like that is to underestimate them and it is also a business ethics no-no. Even if the savings is no more than 10 percent, always be sure that a sale is a really a sale, or you’ll alienate a portion of your customers who will in turn spread bad vibes to people they know about your business.

If you can’t discount a lot due to cash flow, it is ethical to not compare the regular price with the sale price and say ”On sale at $27.95”, even though the everyday price might be $29.95. It isn’t compulsory to point out that the savings is only $2. It is enough that there is a savings and it allows you to highlight a product or service during a peak selling season.

Everyone knows that the bigger the display the more confidence the consumer has in the products and therefore you’ll sell more of the sale items. That having been said, the best sale offers the consumer variety, such as offering all of a particular fish food line at 15 percent off. This type of sale allows the customer some choice and builds your brand—one that you want them to come back to and buy from again. That example could be used for dog food, apparel or just about any category.

Distributor Deals

A better idea to make your sale sizzle is by taking advantage of your distributor’s holiday promotions. This idea may at first glance seem counterintuitive, but if there is a hot deal on your favorite aquarium water pump, don’t just buy what you need for the week. Invest and make a real display on the shelf and pass along the savings. If you offer a great sale price on items that are popular, customers will remember and be less critical of future offerings and more likely to come back to your store for future promotions.

There are always a few retailers willing to go out of their way to talk to their distributor about out-of-the-box ideas. An example of this is finding a distributor who has overstock or discontinued items that might fit your needs, such as building out a puppy starter kit or a 15 gallon aquarium gift set. Many times items don’t sell for distributors for reasons other than quality. Even though it is policy to only include consumables that you stock in a kit, (because you’ll want customers to come back and buy more) a food dish or aquarium heater (a one-time sale) doesn’t have to be your normal stock to fill out a package. You might be able to get a huge discount to clear out a distributor’s stock on slow or discontinued items.

Social Marketing

Finally, don’t just run a sale that only customers who cross your threshold will see. Take advantage of social media. Facebook is becoming a powerful tool for any retailer. For as little as $5 a day you can advertise your sale to new potential customers. Check out Power Editor and build your Facebook following. If you use Facebook’s paid advertising program—even if your Facebook page following isn’t large—you can target all the zip codes around your business and reach thousands of Facebook users in your neighborhood, making your holiday sale more successful than in past years and adding more followers to your Facebook page at the same time.

Using some of these ideas will hopefully make the demanding holiday season even busier for your store.

Knowledge Makes a Difference

Employee training is so important that it makes the difference between your store’s success and its failure. However, it is easier to accomplish this training than you might believe. You can do a lot just by arranging regular product meetings with your major manufacturers.

One of the more important things we do as a manufacturer’s representative is to visit aquatic stores throughout our territories. Our business model specializes in staying in touch with aquatic stores and full line stores with aquatic sections in them—and as you can imagine, when you visit enough stores you’re bound to see market trends that transcend more than just one category. Across store categories, we’ve seen changes in the investment successful stores make in their employees.

Not much more than a decade ago, general practices for pet-related business owners included advertising in the yellow pages, hiring high school aged employees to work after the school day and simply just hoped people would walk into their store. Most retailers gave little thought to investing in more than the bare necessary training for these employees. That type of investing may have worked back then. Over the intervening years with continued consolidation and big-box store growth, as well as the growing Internet influence, retailers need to look for new ways to define their business and stand out from the crowd.

A Training Resource

Having said that, what is a store owner to do? One thing that sets a store apart from the crowd is having knowledgeable sales people engaging the public. People who aren’t expert in sales might think that sales is an easy job, but the fact is to be a good sales person you need to know your product and be confident that you can solve problems. The truly great sales person is someone who feels they are offering a service rather than just making a profit.

Our aquatic customer base may deal in more technical things than dog toys and hamster food, but every product has its story to tell. In the field, we know when we have walked into a store with a knowledgeable sales team. These sales people will be engaged with customers, typically discussing the features and benefits of a product and suggesting ways to increase the success and joy of pet ownership.

How are these specialist sales people found? They usually can’t be found. Instead, they have to be made. You’re lucky if you find a person who has the attitude and drive to sell something, but to also expect that person will be knowledgeable about products from aquatics to dog food formulas, or kitten wellness to bird seed just isn’t realistic.

Reaping the Rewards

The bottom line is that store sales people need training and there is also a vast array of opportunities for technical training available. In many cases, manufacturers have experts that will attend a store’s training meetings. Once it becomes known that a store wants training for their sales people—either by letting the store’s distributor contact know or by requesting this at a manufacturer’s trade show booth—manufacturers will line up to help.

Manufacturers know that trained personnel are the key to their sales growth. I’m sure stores who sell dog food already know this, but the same holds true for aquatic product manufacturers as well as reptile products, pet containment, pet training products and even grooming services.

If you are hiring high school-aged employees to work in your store after school, there is no reason not to train them to be product experts, too. Should a miracle ever occur and you find someone already fully-trained in the products your store specializes in and they happen to have a winning personality, do everything you can to keep them. Someone who comes to you with those skills was trained by someone else and luckily for you, you’ve just reaped the benefits of their efforts.

Remember that one big difference between your independent store and the big-box stores and the Internet is knowledge. Try to set up one day a month with a different manufacturer to come in and do a training session before or after hours. It will pay you back in added profits during the year because customers will keep coming back when they trust the information your sales staff provides them.

If you can’t offer more than a price and product availability, your business model may not be realistic for the period in which we do business in. Stand out from the crowd by investing in your sales staff

Do You Know Your Customer?

In business, you can’t worry about being everything to everyone, but you better know your customer demographics or you might not have a business to worry about.

Location, Location, Location

If you’re planning to open a new pet store or pet-related service, before committing to a location, take the time to check with its local chamber of commerce. Also, ask your commercial realtor to provide you with local consumer demographics. Most of the information you will need is available online. There are many websites you can check, so here are a few useful ones to start: Provides a quick overview on the most-important demographic data. Provides every bit of information on the real estate market of any area. Provides accurate data, although sometimes is outdated. Provides extremely accurate information that is updated every one and a half to two years. Provides the ability to locate potential competitors and also synergistic non-competitors.

For those who have already committed to a location or those who have been in business at the same location for years, it won’t hurt to keep up to date with changing demographics in your neighborhood. Having said that, no business can prosper on statistics alone. Once your business is up and running—even if it’s fully established—you should refresh your consumer strategy to keep the inflow of customers coming through your door every day.

Who Lives There?

Assuming you’ve done some basic research and know the key demographics about your local community, such as disposable income, cost of living, population, average gross income, median age and locations of nearest competitors, you should be able to form some idea of what price range and style of products would sell best in your store.

Once you understand demographics, you will be able to use that information when deciding what type of inventory and services to offer your customers. For example, if the area has more apartments than houses, you may want to focus your dog department on products for small breeds and your aquatics department on desktop and other small aquariums.

Always consider your customers and what will sell best, but don’t ignore trendy items or higher priced products. Just make sure your supply of demographically relevant items never runs out of stock. Keep in mind when developing your margins that customers like incentives and sales, so take that into account when pricing items in your store. If possible, keep a war chest of cash in reserve to buy no-brainer promotions on your best selling products to advertise on sale. This will not only bring in new customers, but reward loyal ones.

Be the Customer

Another aspect to successful customer interaction is to try walking in the shoes of the customer. Try using the products you sell. This will lend credibility to your business and reassure your customers that you are the expert, knowing from personal experience about the products you sell. Also be aware of potential customer issues, such as parents with children or the elderly who may have impaired movement. If you’re located near retirement communities or young family neighborhoods, ease of access and child safety could become an issue, and you should consider these factors when designing or remodeling your floorplan.

If you offer services such as home aquarium maintenance or provide grooming, take the time to be the customer and try to experience what it might be like for your customers to find, interact and complete a transaction with your business. That will allow you to smooth out the rough edges, making it easy and hassle-free to interact with you and your staff.

Once you have spent some time walking in your customer’s shoes and you know your key local demographics, you will be prepared to offer the customers what they want in the way of products and services. You also can offer them a more comfortable, reassuring experience that will encourage them to recommend your business. As a small business, knowing your customer should be the big advantage you have over the big chain stores.

Do-It-Yourself Advertising

You will find that there are many tried-and-true tactics that have been used by professionals to create budget-smart advertising campaigns. Here are some proven marketing tools that will help rev up sales.

Customer Rewards

According to LinkedIn author Colin Shaw, it costs six to seven times more to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one. With that in mind, consider starting a customer reward program that will give customers incentive to come back to your store more frequently. Actively promote a loyalty program that offers rewards on enrollment and then provide on-going incentives using a simple flier handout with every purchase.

Email List

Build an email list created from your customer base. Using an email marketing company like Constant Contact or Vertical Response is a low-cost, high-return way to enhance customer relationships and increase sales. Every time a new or existing customer crosses the threshold of your store, offer them an incentive to supply their email address. Then be sure to send out an engaging email every other week about in-store events or promotions. By using an email marketing service you will have all the tools you need, including the ability to let a customer unsubscribe from your emails. It also automatically tracks that information so you don’t send emails once a customer opts out. Sending unwanted emails is a sure way to lose customers.

Google Landing Page

Many consumers do some form of research online prior to making a purchase. They may know what they want to buy but are just looking for the right place to buy it. Google and other search engines offer services for local advertisers. You can have a free Google landing page enriched with detailed information about your store. You can even enhance your free listings on every search engine just by taking the time to do it—and it’s free. This will help drive traffic to your store, even if you don’t have your own website. You will notice that at the beginning of each Google search page there will most likely be a Google link to the business you are trying to find. Take advantage of that free top-of-the-page listing for your store. It is most likely already there; all you need to do is enrich it with detailed information.

Joint Mailings

A traditional and highly effective way to reach customers is by using a joint mailing service that will reach targeted segments in your local area. So instead of spending a bucket-load of money doing your own direct mailings, consider contacting a provider like Valpak, who will design, print and mail your coupon or ad. In many cases, they can do it for less than the cost of a first class stamp.

Do-It-Yourself PR

Do-it-yourself PR is a low-cost alternative to using a professional PR firm but it requires some effort in building a list of media outlets for either TV or print. Think about what is interesting about your store—maybe exotic animals or an outreach program for school children—and then send a news release or pitch letter to your local media outlets and community associations. Follow up by phone. Once you have some success working with local partners, it will lay the groundwork for ongoing relationships in this field.

Inter-Store Partnerships

If you have a pet store that specializes in dog food and supplies, think about working up a partnership with noncompetitive retailers like the local aquatics store, reptile specialty store, or even a groomer, veterinarian or delivery service. Often, it can pay to partner with another company that targets the same general audience. Advertising in a cooperative effort will cut your costs.

Word of Mouth

Don’t forget the old standby: word-of-mouth marketing. Spend the time to create some buzz on Yelp or other review sites by encouraging satisfied customers to share their positive experiences of your store and employees with the public.
Bottom line: Do more than turn on the lights in the morning. Think innovatively, let the world know just how great your store is and give them a reason to come in

You Only Have to Ask

It’s that time of the year again. The annual plethora of national and regional trade shows, along with distributor open houses, will take place between March and September in 2015. Will you be taking advantage of these money-making opportunities?

In the past, trade shows were held as order writing events and, in some ways, this still holds true. Since the advent of digital communication, however, most manufacturers don’t wait for show events to reach out to their customer base when introducing new products. That’s not to say deals won’t be offered at shows. It just means that those deals will probably be available to you again at distributor open houses and other trade shows throughout the year, so you won’t be required to outlay a large chunk of cash at one time to get those deals.

Even without writing big orders that tie up cash flow, there are still real advantages to attending trade shows and distributor open houses. What might not be foremost in your mind when thinking about these events is the fact that vendors will have their sales representatives present, standing in their booth, ready and waiting to engage with attendees. In the case of trade shows, you may also have access to national sales managers and perhaps even the owners. Where else would you be able to interact with suppliers from around the country, in one location, who are all focused on their customer and looking for ways to increase their business?

We all know that our industry has gone through a period of consolidation that has affected both manufacturers and distributors. At first glance, it might appear to reduce the options of retailers. But if you look closer at the reality of these changes, you will see that, for the most part, these consolidated larger entities offer increased professionalism as well as a range of services that just weren’t available to retailers in the past.

Being an independent retailer, you might think that you are at a disadvantage when competing with the big chains and mass market stores. But in reality, your business is more agile and a potential trend-setter simply because you don’t have to worry about a corporate office making decisions from afar. For this very reason, you are important to both manufacturers and distributors; without you, the product offering would eventually be dumbed down to basic general merchandise that produces volume but little innovation. This is something manufacturers and distributors already know.

The best way to take advantage of your place in our industry is to attend at least one trade show; choose according to what best represents your main product and service category and then plan ahead. Don’t attend trade shows and open houses just to get a deal on what you would have purchased anyway; go to present your ideas for yearlong promotions, advertising and in-store events. Think about what you do to market your business, what promotions you run and what advertising you do during the year. Set aside a few evenings and work up a preferred manufacturers list, with an outline of what you think those manufacturers might be willing to do for your business. You may be surprised by what they will agree to do for you. All they really want from you is a positive outcome, plus your support at the retail shelf, and they are generally willing to reciprocate.

The same thing applies to meetings with your distributors. Talk to distributor sales managers and present a promotional plan. Even though distributors run promotions and have open house discounts, that doesn’t mean they won’t support your ideas. This way you don’t have to rely on specific events to plan for your store’s profitability and you’ll be able to take the time at their open house to cement relationships with the vendors you support.


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