People seem to be out shopping and the retail news seems to be positive. Could it really be true? I decided to call , Rebecca Marion Flach, Vice President of Membership and Communication for the Retail Council of New York State.
As Vice President of Membership and Communication for the Retail Council, exactly what do you do?
I’m in charge of all internal and external communication that supports the Council’s government relations, sales and marketing and membership functions. I’m also in charge of new membership benefit programs and services for the association.
Exactly what is happening in the retail sector, is business looking up?
We had a brisk holiday season and it appears sales grew in the 2-3% range over 2010. Our members gave the season an “A-” letter grade as part of the Council’s Holiday Sales Watch. This is all good news given the state of the economy.
What does this mean for 2012? It’s tough to say although economists are pointing to slow growth next year. Unemployment is down. The stock market is rallying. Gas prices have dropped. All of these factors and many others play a role in retail sales. We’re keeping our fingers crossed for steady improvement next year.
How do you get your information?
My colleagues and I constantly talk with members to get the pulse of retail. How is business? What trends are members seeing? What new ideas are they implementing in their stores?
The Council also surveys its members during the holiday season. We just wrapped up the 2011 Holiday Sales Watch, which consists of one mail survey and three telephone surveys we conduct between mid-September and the week after Christmas. The mail survey measures our members predictions for the upcoming holiday season, The telephone surveys begin after Black Friday Weekend to gauge what actually happened in member stores at critical points in the season.
Rebecca. I remember when I was in the retail business we always had excuses for why customers did or did not show up. It was either too cold for them to come out, or so nice they decided to play golf or work in the garden.
Is there such a thing as “good” and “marginal ones retailers?”
The Council only reports what our members tell us is happening in retail and I wouldn’t be so bold as to try to discern the difference between a good and marginal merchant. Our members are the true experts and I’m here to support them. That being said, I’ve learned over the years from members that knowing your customer and treating them like family go a long way toward success in retail.
Successful retailers constantly survey their customers to find out what products and services interest them and what they’re willing to pay for it. I don’t mean they send mail surveys or call their customers to collect this information (although they could). It’s asking simple questions while customers are in the store or just making observations. You have to know what your customer is thinking and what is influencing their thought process.
I’ve also learned that service makes or breaks the independent merchant. Service is what distinguishes small businesses from their larger competitors and can attract or deter shoppers from coming back. As one of our Hudson Valley member always says, “Treat your customers like family.”
How is technology affecting retailers?
For the last two or three years we have been talking about the use of social media including Twitter, Facebook, and Google Places. Many of our members have started to build Facebook pages and are encouraging their customers to post opinions as well as talk about their products.
Those members that use social media regularly are starting to see a difference in their referrals and customers. It takes time to stay connected but this is the new platform where the consumer is communicating with businesses and other customers. In addition, customers get information about products and reviews from each other so it’s increasingly important to monitor what’s being said about your business online.
In addition to social media, mobile technology is revolutionizing retail. QR Codes are becoming very popular ways to direct customers with smart phones to more information on a product or service. Foursquare and other check-in applications give retailers some fantastic opportunities to communicate with customers. Couponing sites might make a good awareness building tool for some merchants. The options are endless, but the struggle for the small business owner is finding the time to learn about and implement these tools.
Are there other events that are influencing retail?
Small Business Saturday, sponsored by American Express the Saturday after Thanksgiving had a major impact this year. This was just the second year for this event, but some of our members reported customer interest and increased foot traffic as a result.
Our independent merchants tell us Black Friday is a Big Box Store event and I think it was ingenious to create a holiday designed to promote small business. It brought attention to the contributions made by small businesses to our communities and encouraged a “buy local and small” mentality that lasted far beyond November 26.
We had members who capitalized on the free publicity Small Business Saturday generated by offering special in-store promotions, featuring “Made in America” products or talking about their business’ role in the community (job creation, history, etc.)
Rebecca I can only think that Small Business Saturday can only get better as we have a few years under our belt. Retailers who took advantage of it these past years will probably have some great ideas how to make it have more impact on their business.
What about the Wall Street protests? Good Morning America noted that this is starting to have an effect on consumers.
The Wall Street Protests also seem to have encouraged many consumers to reexamine how they spend their money and where. The protests against “big banks” and “big corporations” has brought new energy to independent retail much like Small Business Saturday did. Some of our members told us they had the best holiday season they can remember from a resurgence of interest in supporting local businesses.
You mentioned community teamwork; how would you define this?
We are hearing from our members that consumers have reawakened to shopping locally, and we’re also learning of retailers’ willingness to work together to promote each other’s businesses in a way I haven’t noticed in the past. Business owners seem more willing to cross promote with neighboring businesses or businesses with a natural tie-in.
I’ve talked to members who are sharing brochures and coupons with neighboring businesses, hosting joint events and co-branding marketing materials. It’s a great way to spread the word about these local businesses, help them develop new customers and foster a sense of community.
It certainly is good to get some other opinions from the world of retail. I hope that this continues and we continue to see growth. Maybe Rebecca will revisit us in a few months with an update.
10 Tips for Revving Up Your Business for the New Year
Based on my conversation with Rebecca, here are some ideas to explore for implementation in your business in 2012.
1. First, have an open mind. Start thinking, what are others doing that are bringing in customers? Are these good ideas for my business? Should I be joining with other retailers, sharing coupons and inviting them to share in events?
2. Think community. Who do I know that I could “pair up with” and have an event? Is it a restaurant, caterer, jewelry store or the local candy maker? What type of event could we hold? Can we swap coupons or give out gift cards advertising each other’s stores? How will “being green” help your community and are you doing your part?
3. Think about what’s cutting into my customer’s spending. If food purchasing is taking a bite out of their budget how about giving grocery coupons or partnering with a grocery store? I remember when we were in business; food was always a good gift during the holiday season. We used to give out coupons of different values based on how much the customer spent. Giving away turkeys was always a big hit.
4. Know your customer as well as you know yourself. Many retailers are afraid to ask for email addresses or if the customer is on Facebook, they feel like they’re being intrusive. How will you get know them better if you don’t find a way to keep in touch?
5. Get involved with local activities and don’t forget Small Business Saturday. It’s not too early to start thinking about next year, how you can market to your customers and what can you do better? Talk with other business on your block or in your neighborhood, how can you all join forces?
6. Get moving with social media. If you’re doing social media explore how you can do it better and take advantage of new programs. Don’t forget Four Square and other programs which offer free gifts to customers. I have a friend how used Groupon and had so much success they were overwhelmed. They couldn’t believe the response.
7. Develop your “small business hat.” Continue to talk about how shopping in small locally owned businesses and how it can help your community.
8. Review your customer list from past years. Who are your good customers, who is giving you business and how can you keep in touch?
9. If social media isn’t “your thing,” review the pros and cons. What are your objections, is it helping other businesses, how can you get your salespeople involved in getting your customers to “brag” about you on line. Talk with successful businesses and ask about their on line customers; what are customers talking about?
10. Look at new ways to communicate with your customers. Are you using video regularly, are you reusing your television and radio commercials by linking them to your social media sites. Don’t forget that YouTube surpassed Yahoo for the first time in total U.S. search queries, making it the 2nd largest search engine in the U.S. next to only its owner, Google.
Have a great New Year; maybe retail is really looking up!
Lisbeth Calandrino is a retail consultant and business coach. She can be reached through her web site or at email@example.com.