Back in my pre-gift shop owning days, I was a devoted holiday shopper. Indulging passionately in the magical energy of the season, I’d scamper from shop to shop seeking perfect gifts for family and friends. Time constraints from my busy life assured I’d start gathering weeks in advance, glad to sidestep those frantic last-minute crowds.
My recently acquired husband, however, was not as systematic. Still very much in newly-wedded bliss, I accompanied him on his desperate search for gifts on, yes, December 24th. Standing in ridiculous queues, watching as he checked people off his extensive list, I tried not being overtly snarky.
However, by the following year, the honeymoon was very much over. On Thanksgiving Day, I proclaimed an ultimatum: We’d either start shopping early or he’d be doing it solo.
My tongue hurt from biting it as December 25th inched closer, fully committed to no wifely humbugging. Two days before Christmas, I wished him luck as he drove off to the mall by himself, filled with pride to be shopping a day earlier than last year.
Several hours later, frazzled, he returned home, numerous bags in hand. Examining his purchases, they were in need of serious help. Choosing to not be his shopping enabler, I trusted that his family could do whatever they wanted with these gifts. He’d been their son a lot longer than he was my husband, so they must be used to his pitiful gift choices. I continued biting my ever-suffering tongue.
Arriving at his family’s home on Christmas day for their traditional meal and gift exchange, I casually let them know I had nothing to do with his purchases. As they opened gifts, they shot me a guarded eye-roll, but turned to politely thank him. Undoubtedly, they would be part of the masses overrunning the mall to return things the following day. Needless to say, I was not as polite about the gift he bought me. Ahem. Guess who purchased next year’s round of presents sans husband? In early December?
Several years later, I opened my gift shop. I knew it was going to be a busy time for this less than eight-month-old business. However, being new to the neighborhood, I had no idea it was going to be nightmarishly insane. And, when I say insane, I really mean insane! Panicky customers lined up, anxiously wanting arms-full of purchases gift wrapped (free, of course), demanding everything NOW as they rushed off to a holiday party or the next shop. My goal of providing a serene shop, a healing respite in this uptight world, was turned upside down crazy overnight. Tis the season. During rare moments of not helping customers, I was on the phone frantically ordering and re-ordering. I begged local artists and vendors to bring me things – anything – because we were ridiculously low on inventory. Since this was two weeks before Christmas, the pickings were slim at best. Not much arrived.
Also, silly me didn’t realize I needed extra help. My shop was located in a secluded, always quiet, seaside village community. It was easy to run a one person business since I rarely had more than a single customer in at a time. I loved being able to spend quality time with each browser, explaining our earth-friendly philosophy with each purchase.
So, when people started pouring in, my shop filled elbow to elbow, I literally didn’t know what to do! It was exciting, but also terrifying.
Ended up that, even with scant inventory, December 24th was the biggest day of our first year in business. Thrilled, yet exhausted, I knew I needed to do things a lot differently the following year.
Luckily, I was fairly a fast learner from that harrowing experience. During the summer, I spent an extensive amount of time planning for fourth quarter. I discovered the New York Now International Gift Show in August and did most of my fourth quarter ordering there. Still, not quite understanding the concept of budgeting and “open-to-buy,” I winged it with each order, buying bare minimums from fear of overspending. Again, I ended up low once December hit. Admittedly, it took about five holiday seasons to get it down to a fairly well-oiled machine. Eventually, I had enough inventory, as well as the correct inventory, to get the right ratio of orders and sales. Quite an art with nowhere to get advice from!
Adding to that challenge was my ever-expanding business. As word spread about this unique, eco-focused, artsy shop, more people came in ready to buy. Plus, my already established loyal customer base returned devotedly, counting on me for all their holiday shopping. The burden was heavy. I loved it!
Finally, with the winter holiday season under control, I faced one more hurdle: Valentine’s Day. Somehow, it didn’t register that I needed to plan that far ahead. Almost two months seemed like plenty of time to order, receive and display new merch. Again, I learned fast since our first February 14th was a total bomb, not in the positive use of that word. I’d only ordered six dozen beautiful handmade cards at the urging of a very good rep, but that was it. Literally.
When hordes of people (mostly of the male persuasion) started arriving on February 13th, waving credit cards and looking for “something” for their special someone, they ended up walking out with but a card. Happily, these cards were pricey, but the missed sales opportunity was a tragic loss.
Needless to say, the following year I was better prepared for this second busiest day of the year. Nevertheless, being so caught up in December planning, February was always an afterthought. I had to train myself to remember (Post-its everywhere!) to order V-Day items at the summer gift shows, even though it was the farthest thing from my mind. While a last-minute approach may work for customers (especially when your shop can be counted on to always provide perfect holiday gifts), it’s unlikely the same thorny method will work for your holiday planning. Especially if your business depends on holiday sales to end your year on a good (read: profitable) note.
Thus, it’s imperative to have a plan, to not only bring people into your store, but to keep them coming back throughout the end of the year and beyond. That’s an ever-growing challenge as online shopping keeps more people indoors pointing and clicking.
No matter how many years you’ve been in business, here are some statistics to seriously ponder as fourth quarter approaches:
Twenty to 40 percent of yearly sales for small and mid-sized retailers take place within the last two months of the year; 55 percent of consumers plan to visit stores on shopping days such as Black Friday or Small Business Saturday; and 40 percent of consumers begin holiday shopping before Halloween. Plus, a smart 49 percent of marketers launch holiday campaigns before Halloween.
Most of the wisdom I’ve gathered in 21 years as a shop owner was from many a bonk-on-the-head moments. Hopefully, what I share can help avoid some of the pitfalls I’ve landed in. Repeatedly. These ideas are not strictly about profit-making, but instead also emphasize the magic and rituals of the season, what’s truly important and hopefully, at least one reason you’re in business. Take note of the thread connecting all these suggestions: YOU ARE NOT A BIG STORE SO DON’T ACT LIKE ONE!
- Make a plan, Stan. Creating a marketing plan is not as intimidating as it sounds. It’s imperative to not rely on it being “that time of year” to bring customers in the door, especially with the competition of online shopping. Think about why they should come into your store. What can your indie shop offer that no other shop can? What benefits will someone get for shopping with you? What problem will you be able to solve for your customers, especially one that a big box store can’t? Keep in mind the demographic of your targeted customer as well as the area your shop is in.
- Take a risk. If you’ve been in business for a while (or even you newbies), it’s a good idea to bring something different into your holiday product mix. Keep people on their toes, curious to see what new items you have in store for them. For example, find a new jewelry artist unlike any you already carry; bring in a line of handmade body products you can companion with your yoga books; put some organic chocolate bars by the register for an impulse purchase even though you don’t carry candy. Be careful not to go too far out of your box by making sure these new items will intermingle nicely. Go just far enough to stir things up and add some excitement. Boast them up, of course!
- Make new friends but keep the old. While most businesses focus on reaching new customers throughout the holiday season, it’s important to also pay attention to the people who know you best — your existing customers. The people who will visit your store throughout the holiday months are also the people who will recommend you to their friends and family. Keep in mind that it doesn’t take much to lose a customer’s loyalty – one off-buying season, one time not having enough merchandise, one experience of bad customer service – they will be gone, never to return. How often do you go back to a restaurant that served you bad food?
- Shopping is If you’ve been in business for a while, you undoubtedly know that people frequently shop for reasons other than needing to make a purchase. Shopping in the real world (as opposed to online) can bring peace, a bit of adrenaline on a downer day, as well as inspiration that comes from looking at beautiful objects. During the hectic holidays, shoppers may need these things more than ever. Do your part by offering some therapeutic soul nourishment such as relaxing music (who says you are required to play holiday tunes for 25 days?), snacks or hot cider, a place to sit, caring staff, helpful suggestions, compassionate listening, etc.
- Don’t display too soon. You’ve seen big stores putting out holiday merchandise and decorations way before Halloween, right? Well, don’t do it. You are a small, intimate, specialty store, so brag proudly that you will put out your holiday merchandise when it’s the right time – right after Thanksgiving! Perhaps display a few “teaser” items, or put out something you bought tons of to free your backroom space for other inventory arriving. But be selective!
- Don’t discount prices early in the season. Unfortunately, since the Great Recession, many consumers now expect discounts. Department stores and internet shopping has trained them to never pay full price with 20 percent off now the “new full price.” But remember, it’s charming to be a small shop, not a department store. If a customer truly wants small shops to survive, they’ll understand needing to pay full price. If there’s push back, remind them that they’re not purchasing mass-produced, cookie cutter items available everywhere. Plus, discounting changes the feel of your shop, and if it’s done early, it will drastically reduce your profit margin. After-holiday clearance sales are the way to go. . . if you have anything left!
- Black Friday is not Small Shop Friday. Again, your shop is not a department store or a big box store so emulating them will only lead to disappointment. Customers will be standing in line for those door busters and will barely remember you exist, so accept it! Instead, celebrate Small Business Saturday that’s specifically designed for indie shops. By the way, consumers spent an estimated $12.9 billion at locally-owned stores and restaurants on Small Business Saturday in 2017. Nothing to sneeze at!
- Be authentic. It’s impossible to compete with big stores, so wave your independent retailer flag proudly. Emphasize the importance of and the feel-good factor of shopping local. Explain how it helps keep the community economically strong by tax money going back to the people who live there. Join forces with neighboring business owners and do cross promotions or a mutual event of some kind. Ask local restaurants to feature you in their social media postings or on a table talker card offering discounts with proof of a meal purchase. It may be a life-long challenge, but continue to emphasize your uniqueness and value over price.
- Offer unique. When customers were polled as to what type of holiday content would most likely get them inside a shop, many said digital coupons and just as many said a link to a holiday contest or giveaway. Make the most of the season by coming up with creative and stress-reducing ways to get people into your store. Offer an exclusive customer loyalty discount; a prize for the 100th customer on a Monday (choose your slowest day); a complimentary foot massage (find a local massage therapist willing to work for tips); a window decorating contest; a live reading by a local author. Sky’s truly the limit.
- Spare the staff, spoil the holiday. In order to shine, small businesses need to go above and beyond when it comes to customer service. Hire additional experienced help to handle the onslaught, and train them well. It’s up to each shop owner to demolish the notion that small shops are inefficient and staffed by pushy, salespeople or by a teenage son who couldn’t care less. The fastest way to lose a customer for life is to have a disorganized, uncaring, overbearing staff. Remember: First impressions are the most important in retail.
- Support employee needs. Even though you probably won’t take a day off until December 25th, your employees shouldn’t be expected to have no life. Post a schedule early, making sure they get the time they need to fulfill their personal needs. Happy, well-rested employees make for happier, less stressed customers. And, chances are if someone wants to work at your shop, they probably love your merchandise, so reward them with a juicy gift certificate (or with what they have been eyeing all season) as a holiday bonus!
- Be “searchable” on the web. Okay, let’s admit it. Now-a-days, people are shopping more virtually than in brick and mortar. If online sales are part of your business, make sure everything is working and running smoothly before the holiday rush. Take steps to optimize your website for the season, or create a special “gift page” with suggested (or new) items. Even if you don’t provide a shopping cart, at least don’t add to stress by struggling to find your shop online. Make sure you can get found on Google by having a good selection of keywords. Statistics show that at least 25 percent of consumers purchase gifts from a retailer they had never shopped with before. A professional, easy-to-navigate website is the best investment you can make to help your business. Memorable sites are what bring people in; mediocre or amateurish ones will keep them away.
- Be mobile. Mobile devices have a big influence informing consumers about their purchase choices. In fact, get a load of this stat: mobile devices are expected to have an impact on almost 90 percent of all holiday purchases. So, if a potential customer can’t easily find the information they’re looking for from their mobile device, or your website doesn’t look good on a smartphone or tablet, it could cost you business. Most do-it-yourself website design aps will help you become mobile compatible with just a few clicks. If not, they have techs that can talk you through it if you call them directly.
- Be sociable. More and more consumers plan to browse and research online and then go into an actual store to make their purchase. In fact, almost 70 percent of Black Friday purchases were the result of a social media interaction. Make it easy for customers to find what they’re looking for by sending targeted promotions to their inbox as well as promoting products and services on social media. Facebook and Instagram are terrific venues for small shops, so start building or adding to your list of followers. Forty percent of consumers say Facebook has influenced them to buy a gift and 65 percent of shoppers use social media to find the perfect gift. Forty-five percent of shoppers discover gift ideas through peer recommendations. Post frequently to keep your shop in the top of peoples’ minds and feeds. Feel free to get involved in social media conversations since it’s all about promote, promote, promote! If you like more in-person networking, get involved with local businesses in your neighborhood or your Chamber of Commerce. Participate in their events; go to their lunches; reach out to their memberships. They are an invaluable resource.
- Tweet it out. The holidays are a great time to step up your Twitter activity and make new connections. Make sure to monitor your “@ mentions” carefully. If someone sends you a question, be sure to answer it in a timely manner. If someone shows you some holiday love, share it and say thanks for the mention. Here are more statistics to encourage Twitter use: In a survey of Twitter users, 45 percent of respondents said they would rather take Twitter shopping with them than their husband or wife! Sixty-five percent said they’ve bought a product because of something they saw on Twitter. Almost 60 percent use Twitter to determine which stores to visit. Thirty percent of Twitter users begin thinking — and tweeting — about holiday shopping before October. Fifty-five percent discuss gift ideas on Twitter. Sixty-two percent of shoppers tweet about purchases they’ve made.
- Pin it up. Almost 50 percent of shoppers say that Pinterest content has inspired holiday gift purchases. Get your products in front of shoppers using Pinterest since almost 70 percent of consumers have purchased a gift they saw on social media. Also, Pinterest is launching a “click-to-buy” button to make things even easier for consumers and more profitable for you.
- Old school works. If technology still makes you tremble, do whatever works for you. Send out handwritten holiday cards to your customers; take out an ad in your local paper; drop off flyers in the neighborhood; send out a personal holiday letter. Make holiday magic in your own unique way.
- Easy returns make for return customers. Of course you don’t want your merchandise to be returned, but face it: Returns happen. Small shops have bad reputations for being difficult, if not impossible, to return things to. But, would you rather lose a customer for life or take back a purchase with a (authentic) smile? It’s about relationship building, and, if you do it with grace, they’ll stay connected and ultimately return. They’ll probably post to their friends, in glowing terms, how wonderful it was to not get hassled trying to return something at your shop. Or the opposite if it was a hassle. Remember what it feels like on the customer’s end, so be compassionate.
- Be prophetic about profits. If you depend on November and December sales to carry you several months into the year financially, don’t. It’s far too easy to rely on fourth quarter laurels, but it’s important to market your business throughout the year. Make sure to have a cash reserve in case holiday sales fall flat for some reason. You just never know.
- RememberPost holiday madness is the perfect time to follow up with those new customers who found you in December to build a strong, future relationship with them. Contact them in some way – a handwritten thank you note; an email (make sure to have an email sign-up system that is updated daily); an invitation to check out your newly arrived inventory; and, of course, your January clearance sale.
- Valentine’s Day too. It may seem like 50 days is a long time to get ready for February 14th, but it’s really just around the corner. By the time you’re done putting away holiday decorations and selling leftover ornaments half-off, customers want to see shelves filled with red hearts and sentimental cards. Make sure you’ve placed those V-Day orders well in advance, so you’ll start receiving merchandise at the end of December (or sooner). But, even though big stores start putting theirs out in December, don’t.
- Give forward. Undoubtedly, you’re inundated with requests for charitable donations all year, but ‘tis the season to make sure there’s equanimity in your give/receive energy cycle. As a person in the consciousness business, you know that giving from a pure place ultimately results in receiving. That’s what the concept of tithing is about. So, find an organization or a cause doing something you feel strongly about and pledge a donation while you’re in the black. Your heart will soar doing something good with all those profits you raked in. Plus, it’s a tax deduction!