’Tis the Season for Generosity in Retailing
Ask not what you can get from your customers; ask what you can give your customers and community.
For any retailer that needs a reminder to stay on their toes and keep inventing new ways of doing business, here are three motivating facts: 75,000 retail stores closed in 2014; holiday traffic was down by one-third that year, with Internet sales booming; and the average retail store closes after four years.
But it isn’t all bad: More than 90 percent of retail purchases are made in stores, and some retailers are going to get a lot of those consumer dollars.
How can you make sure it’s you?
The answer is to differentiate your store from any other and include features that no one else has while providing what customers want. There are many ways to differentiate a store, and one great source of ideas is Bob Negen’s Retail Success Summit held annually in Michigan, which I attended earlier this year.
Negen summarizes his philosophy of generosity in retailing with the term “givers get.” Think of holding a door for someone; that same person will hold the next door for you. If you continue giving, some people will feel obligated to reciprocate, so learn to run your business based on a spirit of liberality. Think “What can I give my customers and my community?,” not “What can I get from them?”
Putting this philosophy into practice includes two components: determining what your customers want and making “deposits” into their “emotional bank accounts.”
Know What Your Customers Want
Customers want convenience, so your store should be at least as convenient as your competitors’ stores. This might mean staying open more evenings in the week. It also means carrying basic, popular items that are available in many other locations, even though they should not dominate your assortment. It means your phone is answered cheerfully and never by a machine. Provide your staff with portable handsets. Never allow staff to be invisible while the store is open. Treat every return as an opportunity to engage positively with a customer and to enhance their loyalty to your business. Train staff to ask the customer “What do you want me to do?” and do it if the customer’s answer is reasonable. A handful of customers will make aggressive requests, but almost all will be happy with a reasonable offer. What you want to avoid most is a customer who thinks you are unfair, because that person will no longer be a customer. Accept checks and American Express, and avoid deals “for new customers only.”
Make Deposits in Emotional Bank Accounts
You must make many emotional deposits in order to run your business according to a spirit of generosity, which will stimulate customers to reciprocate. The simplest example is to give a free treat to the owner of any dog brought into the store. Better, select a group of inexpensive items that your staff is allowed to give away. If these are items such as pig ears or natural chews that you sell in bulk, keep small Ziploc bags handy with a sticker including “Compliments of” and the store name. Asking customers what they prefer to get free is a good way to start a conversation and to get to know them a bit before getting into what they are looking for, and what you want to sell them.
Don’t ignore customers who leave their pets at home. Ask what pets they have at home and be ready with a gift for at least one of them. Make it a consumable—even a feeding or two of fish food—to encourage them to come back for more and so you don’t look desperate. The obvious place to ask what freebie they want is at the checkout counter. But experiment in asking the question earlier in each customer’s visit. If you can ask some of them while they are still shopping, you might get into a long enough conversation to help them buy more than what they came for.
Personalized Cause Marketing
Many stores have a favorite animal charity, such as a local shelter to which they contribute. Some hold events during which they pay a percentage of sales to the cause. A better way to make emotional bank account deposits is to offer customers a choice of three to five causes their purchases could support. Even better, ask each customer for the name and contact information of their favorite cause. It could be their kids’ school or a cure research program that affects them personally. If you have their contact information in your point of sale system as part of your loyalty program, it will be easy to do this. Make these deposits—you’ll enjoy the withdrawals.
Barry Berman is president and co-founder of NexPet co-op for independent retailers and Grandma Mae’s Country Naturals pet food company. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.