Author: Daniel B. Kline | November 02, 2018
Go big while being small
The holiday season favors major retailers. Big players spend money on ads, generally have the best locations, and have digital technology that small business owners can't hope to compete with.
That does not mean smaller businesses can't compete. They just have to be more clever and find ways to earn business both from regular and seasonal customers.
Steer into the curve
Your store may not be able to compete with big box retailers when it comes to Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Don't even try. Instead, market your store as an alternative. Push the fact that you won't be crowded, or even offer free coffee or hot chocolate for people before or after they brave the mall. Be something different and people may come just for a change of pace (or to rest up over your free coffee offer).
Put service first
Greet customers when they walk into your store and be there for when they need help. Don't be pushy and don't try to upsell. Offer a customer-friendly experience that helps your shoppers find the items they need, not the ones you want to sell them.
Talk with your customers before the holiday season to see if expanded hours make sense. You may want to open earlier or on a day you would otherwise be closed. At the very least make closing a fluid thing. If there are still customers, stay open until every person has been taken care of.
Leverage your customers digitally
Make sure you communicate with your customers via email. Share your holiday schedule, offer discounts, and incentivize your regulars to bring in their friends and family. Be thankful and make it clear that you appreciate their loyalty.
Throw a party
Celebrate your customers with a holiday party. It does not have to be anything major -- cookies and drinks works fine or a bunch of pizzas gets the job done too. Pick a time when people are likely to be available. Steer clear of Black Friday or Christmas Eve and honor your customers while inviting them in to do some shopping.
One small business can't compete with larger players, but a bunch of them can. Reach out to other business owners and partner on everything from advertising to offering deals to each other's customers. Sometimes even a flyer showing off what shops you're partnered with will be enough to get consumers to try a new retailer they otherwise might never have visited.
Special order for customers
You know your customers. Talk with them and see if they plan to make any major purchases. If they do, work to get the business. Offer to special order the exact item they want and sell it to them at a lower-than-normal price. This lets you make a big sale (albeit at a lower margin) without taking on any risk.
Holiday shopping can be challenging. One way to make it easier is to offer a personal shopping assistant. Give your customers the chance to make an appointment to get some one-on-one attention. That can lead to higher sales and help you or your staff build up their relationship with your customers.
Add checkout options
People shopping for the holiday are often in a rush. They don't want to stand in line -- perhaps even more so than usual. To make sure that doesn't happen open up secondary checkout options. That may mean adding another cash register or opening up mobile options like phone or tablet-based checkout.
Many bigger stores have returned to offering layaway programs. That's not always easy to do, but it's a great convenience for customers. (Layaway is when a customer essentially reserves an item, pays for it in installments, and picks it up when it's paid for in full).
Sell gift cards
Someone coming into your store may be shopping for someone else. He or she may love your store, but have no idea what to buy. In that case, a gift card is the best option. Ideally, you will offer gift cards, not certificates or any other alternative (generally this can be arranged through your point of sale provider or your credit card processing partner).
Have the right inventory
Every retailer has to weigh the risk of getting stuck with inventory versus not having enough in stock to sell. Work with your suppliers to find out which ones will have items in stock throughout the season and know which ones require ordering up front. Use your past history and customer knowledge to make sure you come closer to "just right" rather than "too much," or "too little."
You can gain exposure for your store by partnering with local non-profits. Offer a period of time where 10% of sales go to your partner or make another similar deal. Allow the non-profit to have someone on-site promoting their cause and seeking donations.
The non-profit should promote the special hours to its members. That should increase your audience during the holiday season and help you win some customers in the long run.
During the regular part of the year it's sometimes a risk to sell cheaper items. Doing so allows people to get out of your store only making a small purchase when they otherwise may have gone bigger. During the holidays people are looking for stocking stuffers and grab bag gifts. These tend to help inflate the overall spend per customer in the period leading up to Christmas.
Prepare for bad weather
In much of the country snow or bad weather will lead to unexpected closings or the inability for customers to get to your store. Budget to lose at least a day or two. In addition, plan as much as you can to handle bad weather. This includes having a snow removal plan in place and arranging for workers to be able to get to work if their own vehicles aren't up to the task. It could mean arranging the occasional hotel room and some owners/managers have spent the night in their store in order to be able to open when roads are cleared.
Offer volume discounts
Remember that you are competing with countless other retailers. Entice customers to spend more with you by offering an extra 5% or 10% off for hitting certain sales thresholds.
Keep it interesting
Start now and make a calendar of special events. That might mean offering limited-time sales or offering a hot cocoa bar. It could be bringing in someone to sign autographs or showing off some of your merchandise in a clever way.
The goal is to give customers reasons to come to your store that don't center on buying. Be creative and make sure you truly offer people an event or experience that enhances their visit.
If you have the room, you can increase sales by having something for children to do while their parents shop. Consider hiring a school teacher on weekends or a stay-at-home parent (who may bring his or her child) to run activities both planned and informal. You don't have to do this for all the hours you're open. Promote a few periods during the week and you may see a bump in sales from parents eager for a little freedom to shop.
Train your staff
Don't wait for the holiday season to prepare your staff for the increase in customers. Start training now and make sure your staff knows how to operate when things are busy. Leverage workers who have been through the holiday season to help prepare those who have not.
Schedule early and late
During busy holiday shopping days your staff may not have time to do anything other then serve customers. Schedule people to work before you open or after you close in order to restock shelves and clean.
Make a plan for cash
This isn't exactly a way to improve your sales or make more money, but it's important to be prepared to handle more cash than you usually do. You may have to go to the bank more often and you will certainly need to be prepared to make more change than you normally do (and that will impact sales).
Remember the season
It's the holidays. Be festive and joyful. Decorate, bring in Santa Claus for pictures, or find other ways to mark the season. This should be not just a lucrative time for you as a retailer, but also a happy season to share with your customers. Big box stores can't make those sort of connections. You can.
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