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Community Networking Goes Beyond Your Local Chamber

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Any retail store relies ultimately on its reputation in order to thrive, and you can’t develop a good reputation until a substantial portion of the public first recognizes that you exist. Until that happens, you have no reputation at all.

Spreading the word about a pet retailer involves many different forms of marketing, including traditional advertising, social media and many others. But to the extent that personal contact with people is the most impactful way of reaching others, few approaches offer greater potential for results than community networking.

But the knowledge of running a pet retail store is quite different from the skills to network effectively. Many are comfortable helping a customer find the right chew toy or bird accessory, but are not at all comfortable making small talk with strangers while munching on mini-weenies.

There is no getting around the fact that networking requires some folks to simply get over their social trepidation. All the helpful tips in the world won’t make a difference if you just fundamentally don’t want to do it. But having said that, here are some ideas that can help a pet retailer optimize the return on effort put into community networking.

Take Advantage of Events

It is certainly no one’s idea of a great time to go to a chamber of commerce “after hours” event and pick at h’ors d’oeuvres while chatting with some real estate agent about her listings and her philosophical commitment to customer service. But you need to keep a couple of things in mind.

First, she’s there for the same reason you are, to make business contacts. So there’s no need for either of you to pretend otherwise. It’s perfectly fine to dispense with the pretenses and get down to why you came.

Tell her about your store. Know what? She might have a dog. And it’s pretty much guaranteed that some of her clients will. It might be in her best interests to tell people about your store even if she personally couldn’t care less.

Be Creative About Offers

Let’s stay with the hypothetical described above. Your new realtor contact meets lots of people who are moving and thus are new to the community. Those with pets will be looking for a new supply store.

Craft an offer to give them deep discounts on their first purchase after they move into the community, and maybe as an incentive to pass them along, you can offer the realtor a discount if she has pets, or the opportunity to display her business cards on your counter if she doesn’t. There are lots of ways you can use special offers to form initial relationships. From there, it’s up to you to turn them into long-term customer relationships.

Attend Other Grand Openings

Bring them gift baskets if you like, but the most important thing is that you show up and establish some familiarity. It doesn’t even need to rise to the level of a “relationship” per se. Just introduce yourself to the owners of the new store and to everyone else there, and needless to say, give them your business cards.

Showing up to support other retailers shows that you a) have your heart in the community, b) pay attention to what’s going on around you and c) take an interest in others.

All of that scores high with people when they’re choosing a retailer.

Seek Sponsorship Opportunities

Every community has Little League teams that need sponsors. There are 5K races, community cleanup days — just about every time large groups of people in the community get together, it requires sponsorship, and that gives sponsors a unique opportunity to be visible in the community.

Sponsors can often get additional value out of sponsorships by going beyond merely paying for signs and uniforms. Why not host the Little League team picnic at the end of the season, and invite extended family members to attend? That could turn some people who loosely identify with you into customers for life.

Most importantly, whatever form of networking you choose, community networking is a never-completed task. It has to be part of your ongoing business strategy because there are always new people to meet. Even the contacts you’ve already made become stale over time if you don’t cultivate the familiarity people have with your retail operation.

The job of networking never ends, just as the job of making a profit never ends. The more you do it, the more natural it will become, and the more you’ll see the benefits that make the effort worthwhile.

- Dan Calabrese

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