Build Your Winning Team

As a member of our manufacturer’s representative team, I call on several hundred retailers each year, which gives me a glimpse of different management styles. The store owners who have invested in their employee’s training stand out—especially those who have taken the time and effort to build a company culture of teamwork and customer-oriented spirit.

I know that our industry is still generally known for independent retail outlets, and I also know that many think that something like “team building” is for the corporate scene, but I’m here to tell you that even a one unit store can develop a professional, motivated staff that will impress customers.

In this piece, I won’t be writing about weekend bonding trips or corporate teamwork games. What I speak of here is what I have personally seen succeed in team building at the independent retailer level. With a little effort, any business could emulate this.

If you go to the internet and search for “team building,” you will see that most of the articles there will tick off a long list of team building ideas, many of which are over the top for a single unit retailer. But what quickly becomes evident is that the following four concepts rise to the top of the list when discussing a path for building effective teams. I’ve listed them below in what I consider is the order of importance.

Communication: Many people feel most comfortable when there is a firm, clear understanding as to what is expected of them, but if they feel they are valued by management, they will try harder and stay longer.

Collaboration: People tend to feel more positive toward their place of employment if they have some say or feel that their ideas are listened to by management.

Motivation: This can be the hardest part of team building. It takes constant effort to design and implement events that will make the workplace an interesting and rewarding experience for employees.

Competition: Building a friendly competitive atmosphere will increase sales all by itself. Spiff is a wondrous thing. Even if the monetary reward isn’t all that great, there are still bragging rights when someone achieves their goal.

I have seen standout stores that have interesting team building ideas. Here are a couple of team building ideas that especially caught my attention:

One idea that I think is exceptional is what The Pet Shop, owned by Vanessa and Dylan Schmidt in Mesa, Arizona, has been doing for quite some time. Every time they hire a new employee, they take a picture of them (wearing a Pet Shop shirt) and post it along with a brief biography on their Facebook page, welcoming them to the team and introducing them to their Facebook followers. This simple act brings the new employee to their customers’ attention and makes the new hire feel like part of the team.

Another example of great team building comes from Clark Feed & Seed, in Bellingham, Washington. The owner, Larry Oltmann, is a very organized person, and you get that sense when you walk into his store. But what stands out are his people. The quality of the staff has never failed to impress me. His employees are not only professional, but they’re ready and eager to help. Oltmann once explained to me that Bellingham has a state college branch as well as a technical college in town that he tries to draw from whenever he can. He feels that if someone has the gumption to attend college or a technical school, they probably will make a good employee. Even though Oltmann has the advantage of being located in a college town, it takes vision and constant effort on his part to maintain the atmosphere required to build and maintain a good professional team.

Everyone’s sales team (even if it is just a family affair) needs some tender loving care. Even if half their time is spent cleaning cages and aquariums, they are still your sales team. If you remember that and try to keep them engaged and motivated, you should see positive results.

Avoid the Silent Treatment

When I visit my local convenience store, they always greet me, and I find that I always respond by returning their greeting. It’s unlikely that anyone will ignore a person who is being pleasant and verbally interacting with them. Human nature is such that we respond to greetings, which can be a powerful ice-breaking technique and can even turn a frown into a smile.

I’m sure you have visited a store sometime in your life and been given the silent treatment. You may even have had a few instances where you walked through a store and left without a word being exchanged. The sad fact is that if they had interacted with you, they might have made a sale, even encouraging you to visit their store again.

It’s amazing how a simple greeting can have a huge impact and pay off immediately. It is also amazing how difficult it seems for businesses to implement a verbal welcome as part of their customer service practice. Whatever the reasons are for a failure to greet customers, the fact remains that a verbal greeting should be an
important part of your business model and your store associates should be vigorously encouraged to greet every customer even if they are busy at the time.

I believe that when a customer walks into your store, you should stop what you’re doing long enough to welcome them, even it is just to say, “Good morning.” That will let  them know you are aware of them. You might add a question to your greeting by asking if there might be anything you could help them with.
If they know what they want or are shy, they may not take you up on your offer, but you have broken the ice, and it gives you an opportunity to interact with them on a more personal basis later.

If the customer does respond, saying they need a specific product, don’t just point to the aisle and tell them where it is, walk them to the location and place the product in their hands. This gives you the opportunity to discuss their need and possibly offer a better option, but at the very least, it lets the customer know that they are important to you.

Other important aspects of any greeting are eye contact, a smile, learning and using a customer’s name if they are a regular, and being genuine and sincere when discussing products or services. If you use these common sense components in your actions and dialog when dealing with a customer, it will create a relationship as well as repeat business.

Just as important as being personable and helpful is being aware of your customer’s personal space. Most people dislike being crowded, so standing too close could reduce your chances of a repeat visit.

Consider posting a store ethics policy near the entrance to your store, which states that to the best of your ability you will always consider the customer’s needs
and offer advice that will give the customer the best chance for success. Consumers usually know if you are trying to sell them on something. Therefore, point them toward the best product and price, sharing your knowledge about the product’s use and features, explaining why you are recommending a specific product.

Before the customer leaves the store, be sure to let them know that if they need anything else to ask for you, sharing your name with them. You might be surprised when your name shows up in a positive Google or Yelp review with someone saying how great it was doing business with you.

Greeting a customer properly can often be the most important aspect of closing a sale and building customer loyalty. Add a greeting policy to your employee handbook and encourage everyone to do their best to make customers welcome.

Use What You Have

Are you a brick and mortar retailer? Maybe you’re trying to sell online but are worried how you will compete with the Amazons of the world. You see retail changing before your eyes and wonder what will happen to your business if current trends continue.

There are ways to compete with big box and online sellers. The big box stores, because of the number of units they have and their large corporate structure, can’t react to market trends like you can as an owner-operator. Online sellers, no matter how hard they try, won’t be able to establish the same meaningful relationship with customers that you can.

If you work with your distributors and manufacturers and run a clean operation, there is no reason why you can’t grow your business despite the online discounting and big box advertising that has been squeezing your margins.

Big box stores are trying to duplicate the services that independents have offered for decades, such as vet clinics, grooming and dog care classes. Their challenge is when offering added value events or services, they are usually big and complicated to comply with regional and national regulations. If, on the other hand, you offer any of these added value services, you only have to worry about your local regulations.

The internet sellers’ only real strength is price. However, no matter how much they try to educate their customers about features and quality differentiations in the products they sell, it comes down to the customer having to spend their time reading and clicking on links to basically educate themselves. As any retailer will tell you, most customers would rather be shown than have to read about it.

The following are a few events and services any retailer can offer their customers to set them apart from the big box stores and online discounters. Keep in mind that any program you institute takes extra effort and requires some expense, as well as maintenance, to keep your offering fresh and relevant.

Facebook is an inexpensive, customizable advertising platform that is always adding tools to enhance its relevance to business users. On the left side of your Facebook page, you will find “Offers.” This tool allows you to communicate with customers that have “liked” your page, offering specials that they can see in their Facebook notifications and that, in turn, their friends can see. Another great tool is “Notes,” which allows you to blog with your customers on Facebook, updating them on new product arrivals or livestock availability.

Make it your mission to get your customers’ email addresses when they visit your store. Email addresses allow you to reach customers who aren’t on social media sites and can be more pictorial-orientated than a simple Facebook post. Make sure not to overuse email notifications. Email marketing is the cheapest means of direct advertising available to you, so make sure your customers don’t move you to their spam file.

Other added value services and events you might offer during the year to bring more customers into your store include a service center to repair products you sell. There are distributors that stock parts for popular items. Offer several fleaand-tick dip events during the summer. Have an anniversary sale; invite the local radio station in to help celebrate. Create a dog day and feline day (or other pet categories) where there are special sales on food, toys, etc. Aquatic stores can offer seminars on establishing aquatic environments or how to use specialized equipment and offer aquarium water testing.

Don’t let the specter of a changing market discourage you. Play to your strengths and push back. If you have a vibrant store environment that connects with customers, you can offer pricing that’s higher than your competition and still find shoppers wanting to buy from you. And remember, without pets, there would be no pet industry. If you offer livestock, then that is one of the most important strengths that any independent pet store has to draw in customers.

Price Isn’t Everything

There are always good reasons to advertise low prices. Low prices can draw customers into your store, and promoting branded products will enhance your store’s image as a competitively priced business. The thing to keep in mind is that it’s not always about the price. If you only inventory cheap products, you’ll be missing a good segment of consumers who want superior quality and are willing to pay more for proven reliability. You’re also setting your business up for bad customer reviews if you recommend products that may not hold up to regular use.

In my opinion, it is ethically acceptable to advertise inexpensive products while suggesting higher priced alternatives once the customer is in the store, especially if you have a good reason to make those comparisons. The difference between an independent pet retailer over big box and internet sellers should be expertise. If when discussing your customer’s purchase you point out the advantages of another product with added features or proven safety ratings in such a way as to not invoke a “used car” sales persona, I believe you will find the customer will appreciate your input and may very well upgrade to a better product.

For example, say a customer walks into your store and picks up a $9.99, 100-watt aquarium heater. You naturally ask them about their setup and why they are buying a heater at this time. Nine times out of 10, if it is an established system, they’re in the process of replacing a heater that no longer works. If I had a heater that quit working, shocked me or fried the inhabitants of my aquarium, I would likely accept a pet professional’s recommendation about a heater that cost even twice as much but gave me peace of mind that I had the safest product for my system.

The same holds true for first-time aquarium buyers. They are generally not confident about what they need. If they want a boxed kit, that is one thing; but if you have a range of house kits (especially if you set up live examples) and you take the time to compare your kits to the boxed unit, you’re likely to increase the sale amount while at the same time impressing your customer.

In general, to better compete with low internet prices on branded products, retailers should do their research to find out which manufacturers support brick and mortar stores with minimum advertised pricing (MAP) programs. I’m constantly hearing about more manufacturers implementing MAP protection. For established brands, the best approach is to do a Google search and note the high and low price range. Document the pricing and contact your suppliers asking them for a price that allows you to be in the mid-range. You can also contact the manufacturer to see if they have any added value deals or customer loyalty programs that will help you compete.

Always keep in mind and never forget that, generally speaking, cheap is cheap for a reason. Take the time to be sure what you’re selling will reflect well on your business. If you sell a canister filter with a defective O-ring seal and your customer wakes in the morning with an empty 55-gallon tank, dead fish and a swamped wall to wall carpet, where was the saving? What does that do for your business? A well-priced product might simply be that a manufacturer is trying to establish its brand and is willing to operate on a lower margin for a time, but there is the real possibility that the product was constructed without features or safety enhancements so it can meet a particular price point.

Your big advantage over big box and internet sellers is your reputation for variety and product expertise. The best policy is to personally test what you sell, especially when it comes to anything electrical or a brand with which you’re not familiar.

Reward Your Customers

Retailers have offered customer loyalty programs for decades. Remember the punch card? “Get your card punched each time you purchase from the store, and once you have 10 punches, you get $10 off your next purchase of $25 or more.” This was the extent of a consumer reward program—until recently.

If you look at retail internet sites, you may notice that some offer a similar concept, usually called Reward Points. If the consumer signs up as a member of that site’s community, he or she can earn points toward future purchases. Usually, points can be earned by writing a product review or replying to the site’s blog and when purchasing products from the site.

Over the past two years, I’ve noticed the growth of customer loyalty programs offered by internet sellers. I think there are two reasons why they have embraced the customer reward concept. The foremost reason is the ever-increasing number of internet sites. But another reason that’s just as important is that award points offered for site activity and purchases neatly get around most manufacturers’ Minimum Advertised Price (MAP) programs. Since they are not “advertising” a price, but offering a generalized awards program, they aren’t in violation of a MAP program.

MAP has always been a bit of a gray area. Some states disallow the practice, and others have specific regulations that create reporting and oversight requirements. So, with this new twist, what can brick and mortar retailers do to compete?

The pet industry will become irrelevant without pets. Yes, I know there is an ever-growing number of stores that don’t sell livestock, and that may work for some—so long as there are still the traditional retailers who do.

Brick-and-mortar retailers have some advantages over internet sellers. To begin, to get these reward points, customers have to sign up and become a member. Not all consumers want to do that. Of course, those who sell livestock have the obvious advantage of offering a real-time bonding experience. This is an advantage that is difficult for any internet or big box store to emulate.

Multiple industry articles quote total pet food and supplies sold on the internet to still be in the single-digit range with a wide variation from $4.1 to $9 billion (Petfood Industry) out of an overall $69.36 billion (American Pet Products Association) by the end of 2017. No matter what the pundits say, those numbers leave a lot of room for brick and mortar stores.

What can you do to compete with big box stores and internet sellers? Try out new ideas; don’t just turn on the lights in the morning. Think about what those other segments of the pet industry are doing and come up with a way to compete with them that fits your business model. You may not have exposure to the whole U.S., but within your city, county and state, you could bring in more business than in the past if you reach out for it.

If you don’t have one, create a loyalty program, and promote your services and connect with your customer base through Facebook and Twitter. Open your own Shopify e-commerce shopping cart and sell unique products that are hard to find or are specialty items relating to your specific business. Support consumer clubs and run regular instore promotions and key into “get out of your chair and come down to the store” items that you can buy in quantity at a discount from your suppliers and sell in quantity at a discount to your customers.

My advice is to not worry about the folks that come in, browse and then go home and buy on the internet. Try making them want to buy from you by making their time in your store an attractive and beneficial experience. If you do, I dare say they will be back sooner or later to buy food or specialty products from you because you are convenient and they haven’t forgotten that you were pleasant and helpful the last time they were in your store.

Power of the Endcap

I have noticed that effective endcap displays have been reduced from past years. When I’ve asked retailers why they weren’t using their prominent endcaps by the checkout station to merchandise seasonal items or to rotate volume sellers and new items, the response was that they didn’t have the time to rotate inventory.

Back in the 1980s and ’90s, endcap display rotation was a big thing. It was a way to encourage impulse buying and to display quantity purchases. It was effective in showcasing seasonal and new items. I’m not sure why this sales vehicle has fallen out of favor.

Prominent endcaps allow retailers to refresh the appearance of their store. This gives customers the feeling that their favorite store is staying abreast of the newest and brightest products available. Even if you aren’t stocking anything new, just by changing displays you will give that impression.

If you’re willing to try some endcap innovation, your biggest advocate will be manufacturer detailers and distributor sales people. They will be happy to work out discounts, obtain demo units and train store associates on features and benefits. Ask them for merchandising ideas. Distributors can be a great asset to any retailer who is willing to ask for advice.

The best way to get started is to develop an action plan worksheet to help you organize your displays throughout the year. If you have multiple endcaps, consider at least one on a rolling rotation every other month. This will keep things fresh for loyal customers who regularly visit your store.

Any action plan should take into consideration the seasons that affect your store type. If you are an aquatic store only, you might take into account summer vacation season and create a display with automatic fish feeders, feeding blocks, dosers, water level controllers and other things that will give your customers assurance that they can enjoy their away time, reducing the worry about their display tank at home. If your store sells dog products, an obvious seasonal display for summer might be flea and tick control, lawn pet care products or, for winter, containment options, sweaters and coats, etc.

There are five important things you should list on your worksheet for each display:
1. Decide on a theme.
2. Consider the benefits that the products on display offer your customer.
3. Identify the primary mover(s) in the grouping that will most likely attract your customers’ interest.
4. List all related products you will need to support the prime movers or expand the theme.
5. Negotiate discounts with your supplier based upon your effort to promote their manufacturer’s products. You could also talk to manufacturers or their representative at trade shows and distributor open houses or through their detailers who visit your store.

Don’t forget the silent salesman: signage. It increases the possibility of a sale to display signage telling a story about the products. If customers stop in simply to purchase a bag of dog food, the sight of a display with a sign promoting the beauty of desktop aquariums at the checkout counter might intrigue them into considering one. The simple fact that your dog food-buying customer saw an inviting endcap showcasing beautiful desktop aquariums might actually encourage him or her to come back and buy one for their desk at work or home.

Once your endcap is complete, take a picture of it. The photo will help in the future to remember what worked and what didn’t. You can also post the image on your Facebook and Instagram pages to further entice customers to visit your store.

In short, if you have an old endcap that hasn’t been remerchandised for a long time, consider a makeover to make it more productive for you. You might be pleasantly surprised by your effort.

5 Key Product Groups

The internet is a dominant sales platform. For a brick-and-mortar retailer, that means one needs to be as knowledgeable as possible about what you’re selling and why customers visit your store. If all you’re doing is selling merchandise, your business will not survive; what you have to sell is your expertise, providing credible advice that will help customers succeed.

Pricing your products according to market value and being a professional in your field will tip the balance in your favor when dealing one-on-one with a customer. No matter how easy a website is to navigate, its customer service is limited to remote contact. Even in this high-tech retail environment, personal interaction will give you an edge.

When deciding on the products to stock and prices to charge, be aware that there are five important categories of products that you should consider. If you divide your inventory into these categories and order accordingly, you’re bound to increase your sales and keep your customers satisfied at the same time.

“Demand items” are products that customers ask for regularly. These products include consumables like pet food or supplements. Demand items are often price-sensitive and may not yield full margins, but they do draw customers into your store where you can offer other more profitable products or services. Secure a main and secondary supplier for demand items to ensure they’re always in stock. Running out of a demand item can cost you customers if they feel they need a necessity item and are forced to go elsewhere to find it.

“Unique items” are products that are not substitutable. You can realize better margins on unique products because they are not as price-sensitive. These products include replacement parts, pet clothing, specialized animal training items and such custom-made products as specialty aquariums, cat furniture and dog houses.

“Completer items” are products that are required to complete a project or make other products work. Without these items, other items may not sell. These products could include accessories for bird or dog cages, replacement parts for equipment, cartridges for aquarium filters, etc. Completer items are what set you apart from big-box stores that only stock high-volume items. Completer items may not move as fast as other merchandise but can be the difference between customer satisfaction and disappointment.

“Profit items” are products that have an established price. They can be minimum advertised pricing (MAP)-protected by the manufacturer or have an established price that the consumer expects to pay. MAP protected items are a growing category that some manufacturers enforce because they want to continue to see a healthy retail showroom for their products. Retailers should consider gravitating toward manufacturers who support MAP protection whenever possible.

“Seasonal items” are products that sell at certain times of the year. Examples of these are flea-and-tick items, holiday products and winter clothing. If you don’t have them in stock at the right time, you can’t sell them. It’s true that seasonal items have a time sensitive value—once the season or event has passed, the product value is greatly reduced. Some suppliers will guarantee the sale for customers with good track records and will take back unsold seasonal inventories, which allows the retailer to reinvest in new inventory rather than sit on seasonal products until the next year.

Not all products and brands can be priced the same—not if you want to survive in the ever-changing pet industry marketplace. Try categorizing your pricing formulas and see how it works for you. Consumers only want to spend a portion of their ready cash and will go elsewhere if they can’t find it in your store. Profit is relative—you can mark it up, but can you sell it?

It’s What You Know

Most consumers only visit your store if they have a need or a problem to solve. The reason could be as simple as stocking up on pet food or as complicated as having concern for an older pet’s health. What you do when a customer asks for advice could either lock them into your business as a loyal customer or drive them away, never to be seen again.

Want proof? Look at Yelp. It amazes me when I look at a retailer’s Yelp review page where one review is one star and the next is five stars. You can read between the lines and know that some sales people deal well with normal business situations while others don’t, letting customers leave their store with a displeasure that they share with the world on Yelp.

Have the Answers
Ask yourself these questions: What makes a loyal customer who will give you repeat business? How would you like to be approached if you were visiting a store for a solution to a problem? What is the consumers’ perception of the service or products that you offer?

Engage your customers by taking the time to understand their issues—don’t just point them to a product. Be sure they understand the product, and be ready to suggest alternative solutions to their problem if necessary. The differences between you and the big-box store is knowledge and personalized service, so be prepared to supply both.

Retailers who think their only job is to inventory and sell products will probably not thrive in current market conditions. If that was all customers needed, they could just click a mouse and order online. The successful retailers must know how their products work and be able to communicate that to their customers.

Most new customers value a hassle-free first visit and, if needed, a little TLC from the retailer. If they have questions and have them answered competently, they will not forget the experience. “Do you have something that will work for (fill in the blank)?” is one of the most asked questions by customers. There’s nothing worse than being given inaccurate information or being fobbed off with a cookie-cutter answer. Any customer treated like that will probably not give your business a second chance.

What They Need
Hobbyists know what they want before they step into a store. The majority of consumers aren’t hobbyists, and they won’t buy if they don’t understand what they need. Product knowledge easily equates to sales and profits. Signage and displays show the products and should suggest projects that will enhance the customer’s lifestyle. Displays are a key to selling anything if you’re looking to increase volume, but taking the time to confirm that you have what it takes to solve their problem will close the sale.

Keep in mind that most customers never make a purchasing decision based solely upon price alone. Example: Say you’re at a baseball game and you’re thirsty. There are two vendors selling soda. One has his soda priced at $1 and the other has his at $2. So, naturally, you go to the vendor that is cheaper. What if once you get up to the counter you find that the guy behind the counter was dipping the cups into a big bucket of soda and flies were buzzing all over the place? Would you buy it? The other vendor has a clean and inviting counter with a dispensing tab. I would pay more because the value is obvious; the same thing applies to pet services and supplies. The only difference is that pet retailers have to make an effort to explain as well as show why the customer should pay the asking price.

Remember, and never forget, that people don’t like to be sold. What they want is someone who will listen to them and solve their problem or provide them with reassurance that their purchase is the right one to fit their needs.

Negative Grades 2.0

You might wonder why the designator “2.0” appears in this article’s title. That’s because I wrote on this subject in July 2014, and I wanted to do an update. Much has changed since that 2014 article.

As part of our vendor service, my colleagues and I visit a variety of aquatic and reptile retailers. When I wrote the original article, quoting figures from personal experience, we estimated barely 50 percent of our retailer base used social media, and around 30 percent had no online presence other than through the Online Yellow Pages or Yelp, both of which are driven by consumer reviews.

Fast forward to January 2017 and we find that 95 percent of our retailer base today has some sort of online presence. Even stores with no store website still have at least a Facebook page, and they actively use it to communicate with their customers.

I think this change in statistics comes down to the fact that retailers know internet sales are the engine driving sales these days. They know they must be more online savvy than in years past to grow their business. I predict there will come a time when having an online store will be a natural extension of every brick and mortar establishment, and this type of service will become part of their distributor’s services or from some sort of third-party providers. They will make the participation process easy to navigate—as simple as a signature on a cable TV or a leased car contract.

Having said that, what hasn’t changed is the fact that consumers generally are only motivated to “review” a business if their ire is up, and that type of “review” can put off potential customers.

According to a survey by RetailNext, 71 percent of savvy shoppers research online before purchasing in a store. Another survey by ReviewBiz states 58 percent of consumers say the star rating of a business is important to them and 84 percent trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation.

Consumers come with all kinds of expectations, and one wrong word can set them off. Negative ratings are more prevalent than positive ones because a bad experience, whether perceived or real, will motivate the consumer to take the time to warn fellow shoppers or to just “get it off their chest.”

There are simple ways to make negative reviews work for you—rather than against you. First and foremost, always respond to reviews, positive and negative. On a positive review a quick “thank you” lets them know you are aware of their post and appreciate it. On negative reviews, reassure the customers that their concerns are important to you, and offer a resolution and apology—even if you feel the review was unfair.

Whether that customer responds to your follow up isn’t important because all the other potential customers researching online will see it and feel you are trying your best. They might even be reassured by your efforts, thus turning a bad review into a positive advertisement for your store.

Consumers generally think reviews older than three months are no longer relevant, so the best policy is to always ask satisfied customers to review your services. With Facebook’s star-based rating app, it’s easier than ever. You can put the URL on your business card and in-store promo stuffers.

Seven out of 10 consumers will leave a review for a business if asked to do so, according to ReviewBiz, and almost 90 percent of consumers read fewer than 10 reviews before forming an opinion about a business. So even if you have had bad reviews in the past, getting positive ones going forward would correct that problem.

Yelp, as well as Facebook’s review app, can hurt or help your business. It doesn’t take a lot of time to keep your reviews and searchable online information current and up to date. When you hear a customer say, “I saw your good reviews on the internet and decided to give you a try,” you will understand the power of positive reviews.

Four Essential Buying Questions

What motivates customers to purchase the products you are selling? The answer to this question is simple: they will buy anything if they perceive the product to have personal value.

Consider in-store signage and even social media to explain why people or their pets need a particular product. Successful merchandising is nothing more than telling the right story about the product so the consumer sees the value and is encouraged to buy.

Why Should Customers Buy It?
How will this product make your customer’s life or the life of their pet happier, healthier or more secure? Even if only one applies, address it with in-store signage and post the information on your social media platform. It has long been known that customers spend less of their expendable cash than they would otherwise simply because they can’t find what they’re looking for or don’t see the products’ value. By merchandising properly, the retailer can pick up extra dollars that have always been available.

What is the Product?
The average person comes into your store to buy because they have an issue to resolve or a project to complete.

A good way to speak to a common problem is to create a merchandising center—a Flea & Tick Control Center or a Water Quality Center—where every problem in that particular category can be addressed using signage and can make it easy for the customer to buy. Another option to boost sales could be a bulk endcap display, which can show store confidence and encourage consumer buying.

How Much is it?
Information is what sells the average hobbyist. They will seek out the price, so it’s not important to be able to read the price from across the room. An example of a good sign would be: “20-Gallon Aquarium Setup with Everything Including Fish: $79.99,” with a list of the contents. The actual price font can be as small as you want, because if the customer doesn’t know that the kit is complete, they will just pass it by anyway.

You may ask yourself, “How do I sell against the big box superstore’s 20-gallon aquarium starter kit that sells for $10 less?” Buy one of their kits, take it out of the box and set it beside your kit. Then place a sign in each kit comparing them, making sure to point out the quality and completeness that you are offering.

Is it Worth it?
Think about all of the aspects of a product before setting the retail price. Can the product be explained to the consumer as a necessary item? Is the product competitively priced? It is important to know what the retail value of a product is in the marketplace. The retailer’s cost isn’t the important issue here. It’s what the retailer can sell it for that matters most.

Take something like bulk millet spray at two for $0.99. If you told a story with a sign saying something like, “Fresh Millet Spray Keeps Your Caged Bird Healthier and Happier, Good for Song Birds: 59 Cents Each,” your sales would probably increase simply because you are telling the consumer the value of the product. Because the consumer has no preconceived idea about what bulk millet should sell for, they will pay more to have a healthier pet bird. I’ve known cases where millet costing the retailer 35 cents has been sold for as much as 99 cents each. It can be done if the retailer is willing to key into products that will withstand market-bearing prices.

Take advantage of the silent sales tool: signage. Telling the story in the store and online will enhance your sales potential with little added expense or effort. Keep in mind that many consumers don’t like asking questions, so if you answer a question with signage and social media, you’re making it easier for your customer to buy what you have to sell.

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!

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