Publisher's Viewpoint

Publisher’s Viewpoint - September 2008

Specialty retailers throughout the country seem to be asking the same question: How can I afford to advertise when sales are down and the costs of operating my business keep rising? There’s no question that most traditional advertising campaigns (whether print, television or radio) are very costly for the average specialty retailer.

The good news, however, is that there are alternative advertising methods that not only are less expensive and more targeted, but that often yield stronger results. We like to call them outside-the-box advertising strategies, which we presented during a noon-hour seminar at the Chicago International Casual Furniture & Accessories Market™.

One of the most effective ways to increase business is to promote your designers. Regardless of whether your designers are in-house employees or independent contractors, potential customers will be unaware of their services unless you promote them extensively. Consider using them in a television, print or radio ad. By focusing on the service that they provide in helping customers design the perfect backyard oasis, you’ll be more successful in attracting customers who desire this service.

Advertising is ineffective when it focuses entirely on products. It’s much more powerful when it addresses the needs of your customers. Instead of drawing attention just to the merchandise you carry, promote the fact that you’re offering a new barbecue cooking class, a Saturday educational seminar on fireplace safety or free home consultations by an ASID-certified designer.

If you want to display your products in an ad, consider showing these products in use in a customer’s backyard. Observing real people enjoying the products you carry is more compelling than viewing images of merchandise lined up on a showroom floor.

One of the best outside-the-box strategies in dealing with print media is to advertise in your community’s niche magazines. Most cities have regional publications that highlight society events and local happenings. Since the readers of these publications are predominantly affluent, they are the appropriate target audience, since they shop at specialty stores. Other publications that offer low advertising rates and targeted readership include regional home-and-garden magazines, real-estate newsletters and homeowner-association publications.

In today’s world, it has become increasingly important to have a presence on the Internet. If you don’t already have a Web site, it’s imperative that you launch one. During the past six years, consumers dramatically shifted their media habits. In addition to reducing the amount of time that they spent with music, broadcast television and newspapers by 10 percent, they increased the amount of time that they spent on the Internet fourfold.

You don’t have to spend a lot of money to design and maintain a Web site. Get referrals from other local businesses to find the best Web-design and Web-hosting companies in your area. When including information on your Web site, be sure to provide customers with educational articles and tips. A Web site should not be just about products; it should include informational materials and helpful hints that assist consumers with purchasing decisions.

At the same time, though, the site should not be cluttered. Simplicity in Web-site design is appreciated by everyone. Remember: Google went from nowhere to number one in three years partly because of its design, which features no advertisements on its main page and has plenty of white space.

The future of advertising is not only going online; it’s going local. Research shows that online advertising is expected to grow by 31 percent this year and that local paid searches will skyrocket by 86 percent. To drive Web traffic to your site, work with companies that localize your promotional efforts, such as Google AdWords and Yahoo! Local Listings.

E-newsletters or e-blasts are one of the most effective tools for marketing to prior customers. When customers make purchases, you should encourage them to provide you with their email addresses so that they can receive information on new products and services, as well as on special events.

One of the best strategies in preparing material for your e-newsletter, Web site and other media efforts is to hire local freelance writers, photographers and graphic designers. Ad agencies charge considerably more than freelancers. In addition, freelancers can complete work sooner, since they often work evenings and on weekends.

To find freelancers, contact the local chapters of the International Association of Business Communicators (www.iabc.com/about/leaders/) and the Public Relations Society of America (www.prsa.org/). Each organization maintains lists of local freelancers. College interns with advanced training in journalism and communications can also be helpful in preparing marketing materials at a low cost.

Partnering with local businesses is another novel way to promote your products and services. Providing product to other businesses—such as restaurants, shopping malls and hotels—is the perfect way to bring visibility to the merchandise you offer. For example, donate a deep seating collection to a business owner who will then display it in a heavily trafficked area with plenty of potential customers. Affix a small sign to the furniture with the name of the collection, as well as the name of your store. You’ll be amazed by how many people will walk into your shop to check out the products that were on display.

One of the most effective outside-the-box advertising strategies involves community service. Cosponsor charity walkathons, fund-raisers, support groups and a local Little League team. Invite the Girls Scouts to sell cookies in front of your store. Get involved with the local hospital’s house tour by providing some of your products in the homes on the tour.

Donate merchandise for an educational foundation’s silent auction. Take out an ad in the high school’s football or theater program. Help support a company picnic by providing the grills and food for a barbecue. Your volunteering efforts will always be appreciated and recognized. As Mark Twain stated, “Always do right. You will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

Since you are a specialty retailer, always offer personalized service—something the big boxes and mass merchants will never be able to accomplish. Send handwritten thank-you notes to customers, offer in-store homemade cookies or popcorn, make follow-up calls to see whether customers are satisfied with their purchases, send gift baskets to customers who make large purchases and carry merchandise out to your customers’ cars.

All of these simple actions will go a long way toward turning purchasers into lifelong customers who will recommend your store to their families and friends. In the end, we all know that word-of-mouth advertising is absolutely the strongest form of promotion. Studies have shown that consumers are 50 percent more likely to be influenced by word-of-mouth recommendations from their peers and relatives than by print, television or radio ads. In other words, satisfied customers are your best advertisements.

You will find that some of these outside-the-box advertising strategies will be more effective than others in keeping a steady flow of customers and prospects entering your stores. Regardless of which tools you use, however, it’s important to remember that as owners of small, independent stores, you can tailor your businesses to meet your community’s needs in ways that big chains never could.

Tony Ramos


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