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  • Writer's pictureDr. Gary Witt

Advice to a Small, Struggling Retail Store

What are the two most common activities of small business owners? Work and worry!

Marketing Psychology

Dr. Gary Witt

When reality strikes and the bottom line shrinks, businesses, like this small hardware store, are desperate for advice to help them. Here is what I wrote to this store owner in Texas.

"Thanks for contacting me with your question about marketing. You have the same problem that many small businesses have ‑‑ getting squeezed in the cash register by the big chains, not having enough money to do the splashy advertising needed to compete, and not having the marketing/advertising experience to find another solution.

Based on the situation as you've described it, here are some thoughts I hope will help you. The core idea of them all is to set yourself apart by creating a more person-to-person bond with customers, using cheap research to learn more about how to keep customers, and finding inexpensive ways to advertise to people near your store.

BOTTOM LINE: If you can establish a presence in your customers’ minds, and their choice is between you and a big box store, the “halo” of personal caring and supporting local merchants can be enough to get more customers to pick you. Remember, sales people always say that customers buy from people they like. So make them like you!

* Talk to customers, offer advice on projects you know about. Make them feel you care how well their projects turn out. Make them feel SPECIAL!

* If they have questions you can't answer, offer to find out and call them back. Go the extra mile.

* Create a series of cheap flyers with good advice on doing various projects. You can get a lot of information from the self‑help books you sell. At the bottom of each flyer, note that "More helpful advice about this project is found in XXXX book, which is available at (your store's name)." Always put your store's name, your name, address, and your store phone number and email on every sheet. Then write something like "If you have any questions, just give me a call." Sure, you may be talking to a lot of people and not making any money on it, but it sounds like you've got some time, and the important thing is that you're building good will, and word of mouth advertising. You make people feel special when you take time to talk with them. And people LOVE to feel special!

* Hold a couple of mini‑workshops each weekend to show people how to do some common project, especially those targeted to various seasons and times of the year. Have a sheet that lists all the materials they'll need to do it, and put their locations in your store. Home Depot does this all the time. If you don't have some of the stuff, send them to a nearby place that does. Then make a deal with that store to display your workshop fliers in exchange for sending them the business.

* Create a bi‑monthly newsletter, one side of one page, about helpful hints and tips related to hardware, and promote your workshops, too. You can find thousands in books. Get people to give you their e‑mail address or their fax number. That doesn't cost you anything to send emails. Mail them out to those who don't. At the bottom put some special you're running in a box. This is an INFORMATION piece, not a sales piece. You're building good will and name recognition.

* Ask everyone who comes in what ideas they have about services you could offer them (either free or for a small extra fee) which would be of benefit to them. And ask them why people would pick Home Depot over a community store – you may be surprised. You’ll get good research results you can use in marketing. People love to give advice. And be sure to give them something for it, like a candy bar. Make sure they are talking about themselves and their needs. Otherwise they'll come up with ideas that may not really hold water, or that people would not really pay for. Be flexible and open-minded. What you’re doing so far isn’t working so well!

* Advertising. Xerox a hundred flyers on bright yellow paper (not that neon yellow that's hard to look at). Pay a couple of reliable young kids to stuff them in doors (not mailboxes) in a neighborhood. Do this each week or two, picking a different neighborhood around you. Don't try to blanket one neighborhood before starting on another. You're trying to build name ID and also some word of mouth discussion in various areas.

At the bottom of each newsletter put a coupon that says something like "10% discount on any item in our store ONLY with this coupon. Good until (date).” Also add a code tied to that neighborhood. Make the date one week later. In this way you can find out which neighborhoods may be your best target areas. After you've hit a lot of different neighborhoods several times, look at your results (yes, keep all research results!).

* See which areas drew the most people. Then send the kids out to blanket all the homes in those "best results" areas, including the ones that they hit before. Make sure you change the information in your newsletter so no one gets the same newsletter twice. Keep this up. And be sure to drive the neighborhoods looking for yellow papers to be sure the kids did it right. Done right, this will be cheaper than direct mail, it will get better readership, and more people will show up at your store. And if neighbors like your content, they’ll welcome seeing the same bright yellow flyer each time.

* See if you can work tradeoffs with other stores to display your workshop fliers or newsletters in exchange for some discount on what you sell. This will increase your exposure to potential customers, and will also help build some business clients as well. Or they may be willing to just do a swap, with you displaying their flyer.

* If you've got a Web site or can get one cheaply (YES, you need one!), put your newsletter, store information, specials, and other information online. If you do this, be sure to put your web site address on EVERYTHING, including flyers and posters. Keep changing the information. Use pictures and diagrams and videos if you can. Keep it simple and interesting and helpful.

* Save some money and buy some small ads in a neighborhood paper or the neighborhood insert in your local paper. You don't need to advertise to people who live miles from you, so try to target it to your local area. In the ads, emphasize that you are their "friendly local home project professional." (Remember they aren't buying tools, they doing projects.) Emphasize your personal service, free advice, professional skills, and that you are a hometown merchant. Emphasize what sets your store apart from the big guys.

* Lay it on thick ‑‑ this is how you emphasize the ways in which you can out‑compete WalMart, just like they do it to you when they run ads about their low prices. Look at my HIGH IMPACT book for hundreds of ideas on selecting pictures, writing headlines, and creating messages that hit home with your readers. You'll find some free samples of the book's ideas at our Web site. (

* See if some publication that gets into your area will let you write a free article, or a series of free articles, for them. These types of publications are often looking for advice articles on many different subjects. If you write it, be sure to get several people to read it before you submit it. Unless you're a professional writer, you need other people's eyeballs to help you find mistakes, poor wording, unclear ideas, silly goofs, and so on.

* Be sure to ask people coming in your store if they have seen any of your marketing materials, and where they saw them. Keep records of this feedback.

There are a lot of other things you could do, but this will get you started. Pick what works, and disregard the other ideas. Bottom line: What you need to do, I think, is to create a strong, positive, personal image of you and your store among the people living within three square miles of your store. People like to shop with people they know.

This image should be of a friendly, professional, helpful person who can help them satisfy their real motivations behind buying what you're selling (the needs, wants, fears and desires that you're going to figure out.) Pick the exact image of your store that you think will be the most attractive to those people in your area, given their real motivations for buying, and then keep hammering at that image month after month.

It will take time to penetrate, but it is the way to build loyal customers and create strong word of mouth advertising.

Good luck. We still need small community-based retail stores like yours!"

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