In recent years there’s been a lot of talk about the difficulties small retailers face when it comes to competing. But we business owners are nothing if not resilient. So instead of fixating on the problems, for many of us our focus goes immediately to solutions.
The question, then, is: how do we compete better in the marketplace and assure we have the best holiday sales season possible?
A recent survey of small business retailers by Ink from Chase gives us a glimpse into how our peers are planning to compete. I want to share the survey results, because I think they can either reinforce that we are on the right track, or give us ideas for how to be stronger competitors ourselves.
Some 40% of those surveyed are optimistic enough to expect their businesses to perform better this holiday season compared to 2013. Over half expect some of their sales to come from new customers this year.
Let’s take a look at five specific ways small businesses plan to compete:
1) Offer Personalized Service, Including Fulfilling Special Requests
Don’t underestimate one of the biggest advantages that small businesses have over larger counterparts: the intimacy with customers. As small business firms, we are more likely to know our customers by name. We tend to live and work in the same communities.
Even if we’re involved in e-commerce and don’t know our customers face-to-face, we usually know our customers’ needs in depth. We may be involved in niche businesses or produce niche products. For niche sellers, the next sale is not just about “another SKU.” We know what shoppers are looking for and exactly how they plan to use what they are shopping for. We know that not just any item will do.
That’s a tremendous advantage with customers with highly specific needs or desires, and who want knowledgeable service.
And 62% of business owners in the survey know it. They say that fulfilling special requests and fulfilling special orders gives them an advantage over larger retailers.
2) Create Exclusive Offerings
Another way to distinguish your business from others is by offering exclusive products. If you produce products, then you’re in position to create exclusive offerings. If you’re a retailer of others’ products, it may pay to forge relationships with producers for exclusive lines or a product that you have exclusive geographic rights to sell in your region. Or ask the producer to create a special color or special branded version.
Even payment options can be used to differentiate your business. According to Laura Miller, president of Ink from Chase, “Extended payment options are one way to set your business apart. In our survey, 20% said they would offer extended payment terms during the 2014 holiday season. Offering flexibility for your customers is another to way to establish loyalty and provide your customers with more personalized services that meet their individual needs.”
3) Personally Reach Out to Customers
In today’s crowded world, your best and most regular customers get busy, too. Remind them when new shipments come in or when you have a special sale. A short email or even a phone call can make all the difference. In the survey, over half (58%) of business owners say they compete by reaching out personally to customers.
A boutique dressmaker in my town has a beautiful touch for this. She sends out emails, individual Facebook messages, and sometimes postcards signed personally, to let me know when she has gotten in something fabulous. A simple communication like “Just in! Beautiful earrings and bangles from XYZ – you have to see these to appreciate their dazzle!” is enough. It’s not high pressure — just pure information designed to entice. And it shows that she remembers me personally.
4) Offer Customized Shopping Experiences
Along with the general idea of personal service and knowing your customers, is the related concept of creating customized shopping experiences. In the survey, 49% say they create customized shopping experiences to get a leg up during the holidays.
What is a customized shopping experience? This can mean many things, from an e-commerce seller suggesting products based on past purchases, to a retail shop owner who walks around the store with you.
Here’s one memorable example for me. A family-owned shoe store in my area has been in business almost 100 years. They do not compete on price. In fact, they are known for being one of the priciest shoe stores in the area. Instead, they offer the widest range of sizes and widths. They offer customized fittings at a level you almost never find these days — previously by hand, but now it is partially computerized.
But the best part is they keep a personal record of every customer from measurements, foot conditions, special orthotics and all past shoe purchases. Today this is all kept via computer, but I can remember back when they still kept records on 3×5 index cards.
As a result, they can offer a customized shopping experience for each person.
5) Increase Marketing
Last but not least, small businesses plan to increase their marketing including enhancing their social media presence and conducting social promotions. “Engaging with your customers online is a relatively low cost marketing solution,” said Miller. “Making your marketing as personalized as possible is a way to attract customers to come and buy, and social media with its two-way communication capabilities is a great way to personalize it,” she added.
Christmas Gifts Photo via Shutterstock