Small retailers – it’s time to smile!

Yes, a lot of retailers are finding it tough out there.VitreusArtGallery

Despite recent reports that new car registrations are higher than ever suggesting that the UK economy is booming, the underlying story is that cheap finance is driving much of consumer behaviour, but that’s only benefitting sales of high-value goods – like cars and kitchens, and white goods and massive TVs too big for most UK living rooms!

Down at the lower-cost end of the scale, shoppers are being careful what they spend their disposable income on and that’s affecting many smaller shops.

Today we learn that M&S has had a woeful set of Christmas results; even my beloved Waitrose didn’t have such a brilliant Christmas, which was a surprise to me.

Doubtless there are lots of reasons for the prevailing sense of doom among many retailers but not being qualified in economics, I’m going to refrain from speculating. What I do know is – there’s a lot we can all do to help ourselves.

Part of this is marketing – I’ll come back to that.

Most immediately for me, having experienced extremely lack-lustre service in more than one smaller shop lately, and with Jenny prodding me to write about some of her experiences too, I’m going to ask you some questions…

  • Do you greet a visitor to your shop (or your stand at a craft fair?!) when they first step inside?
  • Do you offer to help, or ask a friendly question a minute or two after?
  • Do you manage to smile when on duty, and especially when customers are present?
  • When you see a potential customer is in need of help, do you get up off your chair and talk to them?

I hope so, but on the example of shops I and Jenny have visited recently not all independent shopkeepers do…

A key part of the appeal small, independent shops have for customers weary of high-street homogeneity is friendly service from people who are willing to help.
Product knowledge, genuinely helpful service and a cheery welcome are key differentiators – essential when we small retailers really need to stand out!

In our case, as a working studio-gallery with our own and other artists’ work on sale, going the extra mile to help a customer choose, or transport a piece of art, finding out if the artist has ‘something similar in different colours’  or getting something broken fixed efficiently, these are all aspects of service we consider to be the minimum necessary – not extras.

Given a chance, most consumers will moan and complain about the service they receive in our chain stores; I hear that and think – then come to our little shop and be treated like a human!

And that brings us to marketing. We need to get that point about treating customers as humans across to our future customers, and gently remind our current customers about it too.

So many small retailers are hoping that customers will find them, and then spend money in their shops. For me, hoping is not a strategy.

I do detect an element of ‘I have a shop – people will come in and buy things’ without the ‘I need to make sure people know about my shop’ among some of the small retailers I know.

Again, in our case, we advertise locally, we use national and local ‘what’s on’ websites and Facebook pages, we continually develop our email subscription and regularly (about every two weeks) email our list with news, questions, updates on our art courses and much more.

We speak at WI and U3A events about our craft, we take part in craft shows and cultural do’s.

We host events where visitors can see art being created and even have a go themselves, we get together with our neighbouring retailers to put on open days and outdoor events, we use our own social media pages too of course, but we don’t rely on them, and we do everything we can to encourage word-of-mouth promotion.

This is especially important – although we’ve only been in our gallery for a year, we’re increasingly getting visitors who tell us their friend (or relative, partner, neighbour) recommended us. Lovely!

But this only happens if we give good service and make our gallery a fun and interesting place to browse. And on top of this, we make sure we always have some work in progress on the bench. We’re a working studio-gallery and it’s proving to be a real winner for us – seeing work being made is a great conversation starter, it allows us to demonstrate our competence.

And another blessing – when we’re running classes at our studio visitors see what we’re doing and some of them want to get involved; we almost always take booking for classes when we’re running a class that day!

So the take-away from this last point is – activity. What can you do in your own shop to get activity going, get interest going, get customers asking you for more?

Demos? Have-a-go sessions? Events and talks, taster days?
Special products that the chains don’t or won’t stock?
Offering true expertise in your field that the staff in the chains just can’t provide?

An interesting, fun, quirky environment far removed from the corporate boxes on retail parks?  Yes, that all might sound like a lot of work, perhaps?

Maybe a better way of thinking about this is – marketing is a fundamental component of every business; just having a shop and putting things in it isn’t going to cut it any more (if it ever did).

It’s tough out there so get on with the marketing, make your offer really distinctive and fun, and remember to smile!

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