Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Being a Successful Retailer

If you've been following this blog regularly, you probably know everything I'm going to say here. Some of it is in my Bio, and some is on my new website

For those who are just starting to follow, I'd like to give you a little background about who I am and what I want to accomplish with this blog.

I am a retailer. I run a toy store so I know a lot about seasonal business. I also sell baby products so I know a lot about working on deadlines (nine months might seem like a long time, but it sneaks up on a lot of couples).

And most people consider my business to be quite successful. We were named by George Whalin as one of the 25 Best Independent Stores in America. So we must be doing something right.

In a couple weeks I'm going to tell the city of Jackson how to be successful in a market with 15% unemployment, a shrinking blue-collar workforce, and a struggling government & economy.

I can sum it up in two words - Keep Learning.

When I realized that our advertising wasn't working, I took classes, read books and studied until I fully understood branding and how ads work. I give a lot of credit to Roy H. Williams, aka The Wizard of Ads for what I learned.

When I realized that I was lousy at hiring, I evaluated the problem until I understood where I went wrong and developed a system to improve the quality of people I was bringing in. (I'm publishing a book about it later this fall.)

When I took over 50% of the buying responsibilities for the largest selection of toys under one roof, I studied open-to-buy systems and adapted them to fit our situation and needs.

As an Independent Retailer, there are always fires to put out, always challenges to face, always new obstacles to overcome. I believe the successful businesses are the ones who are always learning, always expanding their knowledge & understanding of four key areas:
  • Customer Service
  • Inventory Control/Merchandising
  • Financials
  • Advertising/Marketing
I have found that the more I study, the more prepared I am to meet the new challenges and turn them into opportunities. As my high school swim coach used to always say, Luck is when Preparation meets Opportunity.

How do I do it? I devour business books. I am reading Trust Agents by Chris Brogan & Julien Smith right now. It will be the 12th non-fiction book I've read this year. One of my favorite books was Seth Godin's Tribes. It's no wonder that I follow both Seth's and Chris's blogs.

Which brings me to the goal of this blog... I want to share with you what I've been learning so that we all can be successful.

Your feedback is welcome. The more you comment and tell me what's on your mind, the more I can tweak this to give you what you need. If there are topics you'd like to see addressed, let me know. If there ideas you want to share, by all means share them.

We're in this together. At least that's my way of thinking.

Your thoughts?


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Social Media - A Must Have or A Passing Fad?

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace. You've heard the names. Some of you even have accounts - personal and business. And everywhere you turn, another talking head tells you how these new Social Media platforms are going to change advertising as we know it. Yet the critic in the back of your head wonders if it's really true when they say Social Media is going to make all other forms of advertising obsolete.

There certainly are some advantages to using social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. First, they're FREE. That has to count for something. You can set up a Facebook page for your company with almost all of the same information as your website at no charge to you. You can send messages to all of your fans without the cost of an email service. You can change pictures, announce events, and have chats with your customers without contacting the IT department.

And it's all Free!

Well, not exactly...

In life, no matter what you want, you have to spend one of two currencies - time or money.

While Facebook may give you all of the above services at no monetary charge, there is a huge time commitment necessary. You have to create all the content yourself. You have to build relationships one friend at a time. You have to monitor discussions regularly. It can take months or even years to develop a friends list with enough people to move the needle.

The same is true of Twitter. Setting up an account is easy. Getting a bunch of followers is harder. Saying something worthwhile in limited space enough times to be relevant is even harder.

But both can be effective tools in your advertising tool box - especially if you have more time than money. Twitter can be an effective way for stores with a fast-turning product to keep customers informed of what is in stock. Facebook can be a great way to give an active fan base a platform for gushing nostalgic about you.

If you're going to jump into the social media pool, here are some things to think about:
  • Decide your purpose for doing social media. Is it to generate leads, keep people informed, set a platform for customer involvement, or some other purpose? Clearly define your goals and it will help you determine your path.
  • Be transparent. No, you don't have to tell people what you had for breakfast, but if it has your name on it, it better be you writing it (or at least editing it). Don't just dump it off to the "young kid on the staff," and hope he stays consistent with your brand. Be honest, forthright and genuine. Don't try to be something you are not, just be yourself openly.
  • Stay up to date. Update it regularly - at least weekly, preferably more often. If you can't commit to that kind of regularity, don't do it. A stale account can be more damaging than no account at all. (Yeah, I know, my Facebook account needs some more love.)
Knowing how the different social media work is important, too. The three most talked about - Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIN all work somewhat differently.

Twitter is about inside information - no, not the kind of stuff for which the SEC sends Martha Stewart to jail, but information that lets your followers feel like they know more than the average Joe because they follow you. Your tweets need to have the kind of information they can't just get from your website or off the street. Let people into the workings of your mind by telling people why you're carrying a certain brand (or not carrying one). Show them how you decided on a certain product or service. Tell them about issues affecting your business that may affect them. Be the first place to announce new arrivals. Make your Twitter followers feel like an insider and you create a connection with them that raises loyalty to a whole new level.

Facebook is about making and keeping connections. Facebook is all about the customers and their interactions with you. It is the media of nostalgia - posting pictures and videos, sharing memories. Your Facebook page has to encourage this behavior. Start discussions, post pictures and videos. Keep up a dialogue with your fans. Yeah, you can announce events, but if that is all you do, your fan base will get bored quickly. It isn't about you. It's about them.

LinkedIn is often seen as a more professional site. I liken it to speed networking. Meet and greet people. Find people who think or act like you do and make connections. If you are a service provider or independent consultant, LinkedIn could be a valuable way for you to expand your circle of influence. But like all the social media, you have to be active. Just setting up an account and waiting for people to connect to you won't help. You have to join some groups, post comments, offer assistance, write recommendations, and actively seek out connections. The more active you are, the more connections you'll make.

As you can see, social media is a simple equation - time for money. If you have time, you can make social media work for you. If you have the discipline to stay current and active, you can make social media work for you.

And if you don't have the money to do traditional advertising, you better find the time to make social media work for you.

Do you agree or disagree?


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Billboards - Drive By Advertising or Wasted Space?

Coming into Las Vegas, you don't need a show guide to see who's playing. One trip from the airport and all the major acts in town are displayed larger than life. Penn & Teller, The Jersey Boys, David Copperfield, are all standing tall above the road. The promoters in Las Vegas must believe that billboards are an effective form of advertising. And they'd be right.

To some extent.

Billboards certainly have the power to be effective tools in your advertising repertoire. They have two inherent advantages over other media.
  1. They reach lots of people fairly inexpensively.
  2. They reach lots of people with regular, heavy frequency
We are creatures of habit. We travel down the same roads on the same route to work, to school, or to home. We see the same billboards once, twice, maybe as much as 6 or 8 times a day. That is a lot of impressions. Some say billboards are the most cost-effective method of reaching a mass audience with enough frequency to be remembered (remember our discussion about frequency in radio?).

But not all billboards ARE remembered. Like other passive media, there are important steps to creating a successful media campaign.

First, you have to understand the limitations of billboards. A person has, at best, about 3-4 seconds to read your billboard - only enough time for 1 picture and 8 words (including your logo). That is not much room or time to say much of anything. On those Vegas Act billboards there is a picture of the performers, the name of the performance, and the hotel where it is performed. Nothing more, nothing less.

Yet, too many ineffective billboards try to cram too much text, too many or too complicated pictures, and then add in the company logo, address, phone, website and directions. It will take you three or four passes just to read it all. Yet, you'll be bored enough to ignore it after the first drive by.

Frequency, while good because it reinforces your message, can also work against you. After seeing a billboard a few times, if the picture has no meaning and stays unchanged over time, it starts to blend into the background.

And frequency is not always the most important element. Those Vegas boards are seen only once, yet they work. Why? Because the message already has an emotional content for the reader. When you see Penn & Teller, you already have a feeling attached, either from experience, or other forms of advertising. The feeling may be one of excitement or one of disinterest. But the feeling is there nonetheless.

Therefore, the emotions that your billboard evoke are every bit as important to it's success as the number of people who see it and the frequency by which they see it.

To do billboard advertising effectively, follow these tips:
  • Limit your board to 1 picture and 8 words including your store name & website. Anything more and the board has too much information. Simplicity is best.
  • Print the design of your board on an 8.5x11 paper and tape it to the wall across the room. All designs look good on a computer screen. The key is if it looks good from a distance.
  • Use a picture that elicits an emotion tied to your store. Without an emotional tie, the billboard is just clutter on the mental freeway.
  • Change your boards frequently. After about 3-4 weeks, unchanged billboards become invisible.
Billboards CAN be effective when done right, reaching a ton of people at a fraction of the cost of newspaper or TV. But you have to be able to make an emotional connection with 1 picture and 8 words. Can you do that with your business? If so, call your outdoor advertising rep today. If not, get back to the drawing board and find another advertising avenue to explore.

Do you agree or disagree?