It was standing-room only during the Main Street Retailing Forum, held last week during Retail’s BIG Show in New York. One of the highlights of the forum for me was moderating a session with three of our winners from NRF’s “This is Retail” video contest. While the contest itself told the stories of retailers all around the country, we learned in the process that these small business owners all had unique ideas that helped them connect powerfully with their customers. So we knew we had to find a way for these businesspeople to tell their stories to a group of their peers.
And while the session content was created for small businesses, retailers of all sizes could learn something from the speakers about how to connect with customers and build community. (Afterward, one retail attendee remarked to a panelist that her presentation made the entire trip worthwhile.) Here were some of the key takeaways of that session.
1) Facebook isn’t free. Tanna Dang is a small Honolulu boutique owner with a BIG Facebook page. While her 13,000 fans haven’t come through advertising, Dang is the first to say that the best way to leverage Facebook is to spend money on it. Believing that Facebook is an extension of her brand, Dang pays a professional photographer and a copywriter to put together Facebook posts and cover photos. Her Facebook look always matches the company website, which you can believe takes some finagling. And her editorial calendar with a checklist of ten items that take a post from concept to approval would make even the most “Type A” personality proud. But the benefits are worth it. During her presentation, Dang shared a number of examples of how one Facebook post has helped move product that had formerly been sitting on shelves for weeks (by declaring purple and yellow the new “it” color combination), and how the company has been able to sell out of items in mere hours after one post.
2) Look for reasons to celebrate. Personalized stationery shop The Polka Dot Press likes to party, and Kim Williams doesn’t wait for the obvious celebrations to bring people into the store. During the “This is Retail” video contest, she hosted a chocolate martini party for customers just to say thank-you (she intentionally turned off the cash register, though so many people wanted to make purchases she ended up turning it back on). She has also encouraged customers to pop in to celebrate staff members’ birthdays, and she holds a series of workshops to get kids busy – and give their moms time to shop.
3) You don’t need the government to make change happen. Frame of Mind owner Mark Plessinger told the story of the rundown Main Street in his hometown of Columbia, SC, and his efforts to bring it back to life. After finding success with art shows in his eyewear store, Plessinger used the concept of synergy to band together the merchants on the street in the hopes they would collectively draw more than each storefront could draw on its own. And now that the merchants have come together to drive traffic downtown (to great success – some events bring up to 1500 people), you can believe the local government officials are noticing. It’s no wonder why half a dozen new businesses have chosen to open their doors recently in the once-abandoned Main Street storefronts.
4) Be authentic. While each one of the business owners sees tremendous recognition among their customer base, there’s no question that a promotion or traffic-driver that works for one probably wouldn’t work for the other. Frame of Mind has hosted fire-spinners and belly dancers to appeal to its cutting-edge customers. Eden in Love uses philanthropy to connect with its customers through “buy one, give one” scarf promotions to help cancer patients and magazine collections to distribute in doctor’s offices and hospitals. The Polka Dot Press has held back-to-school photo sessions and “meals in minutes” workshops for its moms.
5) You can’t do it all, so stop trying. After one attendee asked about the ROI of Twitter, several of the panelists talked about their lessons learned on the importance of prioritizing. Twitter doesn’t lend itself to showcasing experiences or a brand, said the panelists, so they haven’t found it as valuable. And even those channels that do help you demonstrate your brand need to be evaluated. Williams talked about choosing to shut down her blog after several years because it was a “time suck” and she didn’t see the work translating into sales. Instead, she has chosen to focus on Pinterest, which has already proven to be a better way of connecting with the moms who visit her store.