Merchandising means “Don’t forget the ice”

If you have a retail storefront, do you have a solid idea what business you lose to big online retailers vs. the business you can depend on? What sales do you lose to big box retail? Perhaps the bigger question is this: Are you selling what your clients want and need? Does your merchandising support those needs?

Let’s backtrack a bit. Yesterday was a “honey-do day”. A retail experience or two is often required to complete the day’s achievements and “level up” to good husband for the weekend.  For me, retail shopping is more like a marksmanship thing than a grazing-like activity. I prefer to get in, get what I need and get out with a minimum of time and friction.

Sell what they need to finish the job

My first stop was at a big retailer that specializes in stuff you might buy on a honey-do trip. I picked up a corner shelf for the bathroom in a section of the store where shelves of this nature (free-standing or otherwise) are plentiful. The one I selected is intended for hanging.

Despite selling a plentiful amount of “hang this to use it” items across many departments, the store had none of the hardware needed to hang something – not for the item I bought or any other. However, they had what seemed like hundreds of (often ridiculous) “As seen on TV” items that prompted me to wonder who would pay for warehouse space for such things. But I digress.

I asked one of the people in the store if they had hanging hardware. They didn’t.

Why would you sell stuff that hangs without selling stuff used to hang those things? Because you aren’t thinking like a customer.

Thinking like a customer

When a shopper ventures out into retail, we tend to have one of two missions: “browse” or “complete task”. I think it’s best to serve clients on both missions. In the latter mode, we humans are often forgetful people. We multi-task. The phone rings. We leave our list at home. We’re imperfect at times.

Smart merchandisers can cure some of that.

When you go into a beer store, they have beer. They also have ice, coolers, bottle openers, snacks and other things you may need, or may have forgotten before leaving the house for a day at the lake. Sure, they are there to increase sales, but they are also there to save your trip by triggering any remaining “Oops, forgot to get ice” thoughts before they become expensive. It’s annoying to get out in the middle of the lake or settled in camp two hours back in the woods on a dirt road, only to find you forgot the ice. They understand that your needs extend beyond beer.

When you go into a fly fishing store, you can buy flies. For an expert who has what they need, a fly fishing store has local flies. For the noob who doesn’t have what they need (or the expert who forgot something), a fly fishing store has local flies, and just about any other fly fishing related item you need. They understand that your needs extend beyond flies.

Smart merchandising is good for you and your customers

At some of the best merchandised stores, you’ll find the mission completion items you need right there in the aisle with the item that took you to that aisle. These simple, thoughtful (and yes, sales-increasing) acts of merchandising save shoppers time and steps. They allow shoppers to avoid the time needed to dig around elsewhere in the store for an item. Even better, they may remind your customers to get the (in my case) hardware to hang an item so that they don’t drive all the way home only to realize they need to return to town to get the pieces and parts to finish the job.

Are these things incredibly obvious? Certainly. Obvious or not, does every store do so? No.

Be one of the stores that does.

Don’t have a retail location? Your online store’s shoppers have the same challenges. They forget the ice, or the cables, or the hanging hardware, and other little things needed to complete their mission.

It’s OK to be focused on being the best at selling the item your customers need – but don’t let them forget the ice.

And after Small Business Saturday?

Besides being a particularly busy Christmas shopping day, this coming Saturday is “Small Business Saturday”.

Once a year, American Express (organizer of Small Business Saturday) encourages shoppers to shop at a small local business and offers marketing materials to help small businesses take part in the event by encouraging locals to shop their store.

While you might be thankful that Amex makes an effort to place shoppers’ focus on small retailers for that all-important Saturday in November, and for the (hopefully) positive effect it has on your Christmas season sales, Small Business Saturday (and the holiday shopping season in general) is far more important than a one day sales boost.

For many shoppers, it might be the one opportunity you have all year to get their attention and leave an impression on them that helps them remember to shop your store all year long. Bottom line: Amex has gotten the ball rolling for Thanksgiving Saturday. The other 51 Saturdays are on you.

Not simply another sales day

Even without Amex’s help to promote Small Business Saturday, it’s an opportunity to do so many things because you’ll see shoppers you usually don’t see.

Show them why they should shop at your place more often. Make it clear to price shoppers that your prices are competitive, and if they aren’t, make it clear that your prices are justifiably higher because your products/services are of higher value, or that you deliver more, save time, save hassle, etc.

Use this opportunity to engage shoppers in recurring purchase opportunities, but do it in a way that makes sense for your clientele, not simply because I suggested it.

Collect contact information. While some are protective of this info, it’s often because their contact info has been misused or used ineffectively. No one wants to hear more noise, but most people will happily accept valuable info that helps them. Tell people what you will do and do that and nothing else. Let them be selective about the resources you send them rather than giving them only one choice.

You might have lists for monthly promotions, value shoppers, last minute (or low stock / closeout) deals, as well as for special events. Let THEM decide what list they’re on and treat that list with great care.

Make your place a refuge from shopping mayhem

We’ve all seen the news stories and video of the ugliness of box store Black Friday sales. People are fighting traffic, fighting for parking spaces, fighting to be one of the first 62 people to get the Barbie Turbo Fashion Corvette, fighting massive crowds and so on.

Don’t let your store become a part of that. REI decided to close their store on Black Friday. To be sure, some of this is about publicity and this decision was likely made based on their Friday sales figures (think about their clientele), but no matter what really drove the decision, they really are making a point about not taking part in what goes on during Black Friday.

While closing shop probably doesn’t make sense for you, the idea to stand out and take steps to be a refuge from the mayhem is a good one.

Standing out in a crowd

Think about the things that reduce the enjoyment that people get when shopping for gifts for the people they love:

  • Starting at 4am
  • Lines
  • Crowds
  • Parking
  • Dealing with “those people who only seem to drive/park/shop one weekend a year”
  • Shortages of items
  • Hauling around the day’s booty

Everyone’s list might be different. What steps can you take to take the pain, hassle and aggravation out of their day?

While it might be too late to plan and execute a big splash, do nothing wastes everyone else’s efforts and puts off your gains for a year. Even if you start today, a focused effort to do what you *can* do will help.

If you have a preferred client list, this is a great time to bestow a nice benefit for those who have earned the right to be on that list. Offer them valet parking, special shopping hours all to themselves and deferred pickup of items.

Let them order by phone or via your website, even if you aren’t setup to take their money until they arrive for pickup.

Next year, plan your Small Business Saturday

Next year, be sure to plan and promote your Small Business Saturday event well in advance.

Ask your local retailers group and your Chamber of Commerce to get involved in promoting the event both to shoppers and to local retailers, if they aren’t already.

Take advantage of the effort Amex is making, and the resources they provide to make Small Business Saturday your own – and not simply a one day bump in sales.

Doing ahead, not just thinking ahead

Quite often, I talk with business owners about thinking ahead.

Something that happened yesterday tells me that I need to change my terminology to “Doing ahead.”

Why the change?

Primarily, I’m concerned that small businesses are thinking ahead, but stopping there.

Thinking ahead discussions often include strategic thoughts of putting yourself out of business by inventing new products and services for your customers that replace your current top seller.

So let’s talk retail for a moment, since they’re an easy example.

Every time you enter a WalMart store (something I try to avoid – I’m just not into the crowds), you’re likely to see something different. Just a little thing here or there that’s different. Sometimes it’s a test to see how something works, other times it’s the result of such tests.

What you never see is exactly the same store, time after time, town after town. Sure, the overall store is quite similar overall but there’s almost always something different. Something being tested. Something being implemented.

This effort isn’t limited to their brick and mortar stores. WalMart and the rest of big retail spend a lot of time looking at how they can improve the performance of their online retail properties. They have lots on their todo list simply by comparing themselves to Amazon.com – which blows away most (if not all) online retailers in end to end performance and customer engagement.

This is the price they pay for ignoring Amazon during their climb to cruising altitude.

What we don’t see is massive shifts designed to make the store or parts of the store irrelevant. It doesn’t mean they aren’t there, but they’re much harder to see in a brick and mortar store. Honestly, I can’t think of the last time I saw a brick and mortar store do something like this but I suspect I just don’t recall it.

Amazon tweaks too

Naturally, Amazon.com is working hard to improve what they already do – testing and tweaking their retail site and their back end (such as the systems that email you about things you might be interested in). You can see evidence of this on a regular basis.

Meanwhile – they’re doing things like what you see in the video above (More video here from 60 Minutes).

This isn’t just about speed, though that is certainly part of it. Keep in mind that this also means that Amazon can deliver without using any of the established shipping systems – all of which have legislative limitations as complex as those currently preventing the use of shipping drones. The only difference is that no one wrote a pile of legislation in the 1920’s to protect the USPS, Fedex or UPS – all of whom are just as likely to have drones in their future.

Parts of this are not just changing the rules but eliminating them wholesale. I would expect this to be implemented in other countries long before it happens in the U.S., due to the legislative challenges here. We’re already well on the way to delivering relief supplies via drone. Why not retail?

Learning while looking ahead

Learn from seeing Amazon look years ahead without a guaranteed payoff, hitting on pain points, looking to shorten the sales cycle (money loves speed), looking to eliminate competitive disadvantages with WMT, looking to improve/control shipping, etc – while ignoring the fact that they can’t put the drones into service and prepare for the day when they can.

They’ll be learning new things about their business and their customers as well.

The challenge for you and for businesses all over the world is not to see another way that Amazon will eat your lunch, or to think you’re safe because you aren’t in retail, aren’t near an Amazon fulfillment center or are in a rural location unlikely to be served by drones.

Your challenge is to think beyond the advances you’ve been working on or considering. Those advances are important, but you also need to be figuring out things that are years off, all while considering what will replace them.

The dangerous thought is to ignore these things because they don’t threaten you now and wont for years.

Why is that so dangerous? Because that’s exactly what many in Amazon’s market did a decade or so ago – and they still haven’t caught up from making that mistake.

Forgotten: What happens after they showroom?

Plastic supermarket carts.
Creative Commons License photo credit: Polycart

The last time we talked about showrooming, I referred to a Harris Poll that exposed a conflicting behavior among shoppers.

The behavior? “Most” people (70%) say they showroom because of price, yet they often buy locally even if it means having to pay a slightly higher price.

That’s right, 70% didn’t choose solely on price. Once again, buyers say one thing, but when convenience and access to local expertise enter the picture, they often behave differently at purchase time.

The survey’s findings echo my buying tendencies – which surprised me a little. Shopping is not an endorphin releasing event for me. I’ll *always* buy from a store that is easier to get in, find what I need and get out of, even if it’s a little more expensive than a competitor whose shopping experience is cumbersome, time-consuming or just plain difficult.

Do you feel the same way about the brick and mortar stores you visit? If so, why would you expect your customers to feel any different when they compare shopping locally to shopping online?

In the last piece, I didn’t mention that the WalMart moving boxes were cheaper. What I did tell you was that they couldn’t tell me if they had them in stock unless I placed an order and waited “a few hours” for an email or a text message. Not convenient.

Claiming that price is the sole or dominant cause of showrooming appears to align with how people shop early on, but it seems research “forgets” to follow behavior all the way to the actual purchase. Recent research is showing that showrooming starts because of price but continues for convenience – so be careful about discouraging it.

That good shopping experience

Can shoppers have a “good shopping experience” at your online store? Can they buy and have it delivered? Can they have it reserved and ready to pick up?

You might be thinking “What a hassle. I never had to do this before. Why should I start now?“ While you’re probably right, that’s exactly what big box online stores hope you’re thinking.

Have you asked your customers if they have a smartphone? Have you asked them if they use it to visit your store? Have they ever walked into your store to buy something and found you didn’t have it in stock?

What seed does that plant in their mind? What will they think about coming to your place the next time?

These things matter everywhere, not just in urban locales. Fuel and time are costs people like to avoid. When your store or website causes them to waste either one, it doesn’t help you to become (or remain) the main place they shop.

The moving boxes again

Remember that cumbersome moving box shopping experience I mentioned earlier? What happened *before* I drove to Home Depot?

  • I ran out of boxes…but it was more complex than that.
  • I ran out of boxes in the evening when my local stores were closed.
  • I ran out of boxes on a holiday weekend when the local UHaul stores were closed.
  • I shopped at another big retailer’s site that couldn’t tell me if they had boxes in stock.
  • I shopped at Home Depot’s site, which told me exactly what they had (and didn’t).

My experience online reflects some of the complexities and frustrations of your customers’ lives when they shop in your store.

That frustration is also what drives people online – where they are often frustrated by your web store.

Take everything away that a local store can provide that online shopping rarely provides – and you’re left with the local equivalent of Amazon.com, without reviews and (probably) with a slightly higher price.

Is that what shoppers want? What aren’t they getting *prior* to making a buying decision?

Just looking

Think about why we say “Just looking” when we enter a store. Sometimes it might be because we’re just looking, but we often say it by reflex. If you really are there to buy something, I’ll bet “Just looking” pops out for one of these reasons:

  • Because most of the floor employees know less about what we came there to buy than we do.
  • Because you’ve already done your research and made up your mind.
  • Because you don’t want someone following you all over the store.

Is that why your customers say it?

Are you being showroomed?

Multi-Touch
Creative Commons License photo credit: DaveLawler

If you have a retail store, you’ve almost certainly had people showrooming in your store.

If you haven’t heard the term,”showrooming” can be summarized as “shopping at local stores to check out an item before buying online.”

Showrooming takes different forms and includes:

  • Price checking items on the internet while walking through a store. That bottle of foo-foo shampoo is $28.99 at the local grocery. Maybe it’s cheaper online, so people use the barcode to find a price at Amazon. A showroomer might even order right there in aisle five before they forget.
  • Going to a local store to check out a product you plan to buy online.

Electronics stores and retailers who sell complex, expensive items like cameras are most often showroomed.  Seems harmless until you consider that the local retailer is paying rent, salaries and other expenses to provide you with a free way to make sure that thing you want is really what you want – so you can leave their store and buy it at Amazon or B&H.

Internet-ready smartphones didn’t create showrooming. It’s just easier now. The same thing happened to retailers during the catalog mail order era.

Rather than complaining about it, let’s take a different tack.

One antidote to showrooming: A decent website

Showrooming isn’t just about checking out products and then going home to order them. The good kind happens too – meaning your website shows what you have in stock that’s ready to pick up today or when you can deliver it.

I’m in the process of moving to a new place. One of the unbridled joys of moving is packing your stuff. With the long weekend in front of me, I figured I’d knock out a bunch of packing. Silly me – even though I started the day with 40 boxes, I ran out Saturday evening.

Thus began the battle. U-Haul places are closed because of the long weekend. Most home stores and some box stores carry moving boxes, but it was after six, so that meant I was out of luck locally and would have to drive to town. I don’t “drive to town” for giggles, so I started surfing in hopes that someone had them in stock. If not, then my weekend plans will change (yes, a little of me was hoping I’d come up empty.)

Call it reverse showrooming, but I want to find what I need before I go chasing all over the valley for no reason.

The first box store site shows that their stock is online-order only unless I want to wait a few hours to find out what they *do* have – and then only after placing a “pick up and wait for a call/email/text” order – which felt more like betting on horses.

Some sites make searches like this easy.

For example, Home Depot has a filter on their website that eliminates anything that isn’t in stock at my “home store” (the store that I’ve told the site is closest to me). That works well, since I want immediate gratification – if you can call a shopping trip for boxes “gratification” (doubtful). Anyhow, if I can see what’s in stock, then I don’t have to take a chance at a 36 mile round trip for no reason. Finding up to date store inventory info on their site means they help me avoid wasting time and money – even at full price.

In Home Depot’s case, they also have tabs showing “All products”, “In-Store”, or “Online” – plus the filter I mentioned above.

I drove the 40 minutes and spent the 40 bucks because my local retailer was closed (which is OK) and because Home Depot’s site had enough information to allow me to make a solid decision.

Why do people showroom?

One reason is price, but for many products, the online merchant has done a poor job of selling the item. As a result, the prospect has to invest additional time to find the product and make sure it’s really what they want/need.

Why can’t your store site do that?

TIP: Big corporate stores often use automatically collected product data pulled from manufacturer data feeds (I’ve worked on these systems). Want some evidence? Look at a nationally-sold item at several large retail websites. Is the description identical? Is the picture?

You can do better. Next time, we’ll dig deeper on the causes of showrooming and discuss some solutions.

The most expensive refund

During my recent trip to Tulsa, I stopped into a chain drug store (similar to Walgreens) next door to the hotel.

When I got to the register, a mom with two young kids was trying to exchange an item she had purchased for a very similar item that had the same price and was made by the same company.

Standing in line behind her, it seemed like a pretty simple thing to exchange an unopened, undamaged item from the same company.

But not today, not with this policy and not with this manager.

Your card, please. It’s our policy.

You see, the mom didn’t have the debit/credit card that was originally used to pay for the item – because her husband paid for the purchase during their last visit. He wasn’t with her on this trip.

Despite the fact that she had the original receipt, the store manager couldn’t adhere to store policy without the card used to make the purchase.

You see, store policy required that he refund the item being exchanged onto the original card used to buy the item, then sell the exchanged-for item as a new purchase. It really wasn’t an exchange, but a refund and a purchase – and that’s why policy intervened.

The store’s point of sale system was designed to enforce the store’s refund policy, which required having the card present in order to refund. Having the original card used for the purchase is not a requirement of a merchant card vendor account. It’s an intentional limitation put in place by the store to serve their refund policy.

Most likely, it’s designed to make it impossible to return cash back to a customer who paid with a credit or debit card. In the case of a return for refund, this makes perfect sense – but it still doesn’t require the original card. Merchant card accounts are perfectly capable of refunding or voiding purchases to the original account – even without the original card being present.

Win-win policy

In situations where a customer is exchanging identically priced items, a refund-only policy puts staff and management in a bad place.

Normally, the register clerk would’ve exchanged the item with a simple transaction at the point of sale where the barcodes on both items are scanned and no money changes hands. This transaction makes sure that inventory reflects reality and that store replenishment is correct when the next truck arrives – both good things. This serves the needs of the customer as well as the store. While tax-driven issues can be created when there’s a long period of time between the original purchase and the refund, they can be handled.

An exchange policy that is really more of a refund and new purchase policy turned this into far more than a simple transaction. Policies should give a manager the ability to be a customer advocate, even while protecting the store.

Training matters

As the manager repeatedly quoted the same policy-driven argument with the customer, that well-intended, audit-proof store policy turned a repeat customer into an upset customer who might never return.

This wasn’t entirely the manager’s fault. He was simply adhering to corporate store policy. If he defied it, transactional data sent to corporate could mean he’d have to answer for his efforts to please the customer, despite the zero cost transaction.

Does your management training encourage your staff and managers to make common sense decisions to preserve customer relationships? It should. The cost of an equal exchange nets out to zero, unless you lose a long-time customer in the process.

Hard costs

Losing customers like a family with two young kids over the exchange of a $12 item is a poor choice. Two kids under the age of five means 13 years of drug store trips, say $20 a month. 13 years (age five to 18) times 12 months times $20 a month is $3120, not including the word of mouth costs of losing that customer. $3120 doesn’t seem like much, but it’s the cost of just one exchange transaction that should cost nothing.

While writing policies to protect your business, be sure to consider how they’ll work in the field. A group that included an experienced register clerk, a store manager and their assistants could reveal win-win training and policy changes that protect this business while encouraging customer loyalty.

The most expensive refund is one that costs you a customer.

The Amazon Prime Directive

Moving away from the light....and into the darkness of night
Creative Commons License photo credit: mendhak

What did you learn from – and change in your business – after Amazon launched Amazon Prime?

If you aren’t aware, Amazon Prime is a membership-based service that provides access to Amazon video-on-demand and free Kindle books from the Kindle lending library – but more importantly, it upgrades all purchases to from regular ground shipping to free two-day shipping.

The question remains – what did you take away for your business from the launch and subsequent success of Prime? Did it provoke you to change anything about your business and how you work with customers?

Even if you don’t do retail, there are lessons to be learned from what Amazon is doing.

The Fresh Prime of Bel-Air

Plenty has been written about the success of Prime and what it’s done for customer loyalty.

One quote from the Small Business Trends piece (linked above) that might get your attention – a comment from a Morningstar analyst who researched Prime:

What we found is that, generally speaking, last year Prime members spent about twice as much as non Prime members. (emphasis mine) They spent about $1,200 dollars compared to $600 for non Prime members. What’s also interesting is that the average person shopping online last year spent approximately $1,000. What that says to us it that Prime members generate more incremental revenue per than non Prime shoppers. They are doing most of their online shopping on Amazon as opposed to going to other sites. Prime members generate more income.

Recently, Amazon took the service a step further with the introduction in Los Angeles of Amazon PrimeFresh, which expands upon their Seattle-based test program.

What can you take away from this and implement at your business? Do it for them. Deliver it for them. Automate it for them, as appropriate. All with more personal touch than Amazon can afford to do *in your community* and *in your market* with *your customers*. Yes, automation *can* result in more personal touch.

The key is the emphasis on your community, your market, your customers. I’m not suggesting that you try to clone Amazon.

Behavioral shifts

There’s much more to this than automation allowing you to buy produce via your web browser. Customer behavior is central to what Amazon does.

When Amazon saw that Prime members behaved differently, then they could work differently with them. Simply by buying a membership in Prime, a buyer is telling Amazon “I am going to buy more, more often.”

If your customers could send you a signal in advance like that, how would you use it to improve what you do for them? How do you care for your best customers? How do you encourage new customers to take advantage of what you offer like your best customers do? How do you make buying friction-free and easy?

Now reverse that. If you look at customers who buy more and more often from your business, what are you doing to take care of them? What if you did those things for more of your customers – would it turn some of them into Prime-like customers?

Amazon, WalMart, You

We’ve talked repeatedly about “When Wal-Mart comes to town“. Amazon’s taken WalMart’s game and made it more convenient and logistically efficient.

Take from them what makes sense for your business and implement it a step at a time, even if your implementation looks completely different. The lesson is doing what matters for your customers, rather than blindly cloning what Amazon or WalMart do.

For example, let’s say you sell high quality, organic meats that your area’s chain grocer doesn’t carry.

Do your customers forget to stop by your place? When they’re at the grocery, do they grab something there because it’s in front of them? That convenience can cost you a $25 sale. How many can you afford to lose each week?

While you probably can’t afford to provide same-day delivery like Amazon does in Los Angeles, you can serve your neighborhood or small town in a similarly convenient way. Maybe you deliver on Thursday evenings so people have their weekend meat supply for campouts and family gatherings in advance of their weekend grocery shopping. A part-time employee could deliver their pre-paid orders.

You don’t have to cover the whole state 24 hours a day, just your market area (or part of it) as convenient.

Make quality, local buying easy. That’s the local Prime Directive.

I know this sounds awful

Franjipani Maldives
Creative Commons License photo credit: Badruddeen

On a late afternoon errand run, I stopped into a local hardware store for a bag of potting soil.

I asked the woman at the counter if they had any left. She stared back at me as if I had asked her for a date (she was at least 25+ years younger), responding “Anything we have is on aisle 5”.

A few minutes later, I’m approaching the register.

As I take my place at the back of the line (now 2 people long), a car pulls into the parking lot as the guy in front of me asks about another possibly out-of-stock item. After answering him, she sighs and comments about another customer coming in 10 minutes before closing time.

Another employee approaches the front of the store and while ringing me up, she suggests to her peer, “Can you flip the signs to closed so they’ll stop coming in?”

Then she says “I know that sounds awful, but I have another job to go to.”

Yes, it does sound awful.

While I will think twice before burdening your employer with my business again,  I do appreciate your moxie at doing whatever it takes to make ends meet.

Sometimes that voice in your head should stay there.

Out of Stock

Quais de Seine, Paris
Creative Commons License photo credit: Zigar

When your store is out of stock on an item…what does your staff do and say?

When I was out of state not long ago, I looked around for a pair of light hikers for everyday wear. I knew exactly what I wanted right down to the model name.

I visited a locally owned store, but they didn’t have my size in stock. A few days later, I visited a box store. They had the shoe on the wall (which is never my size), but they didn’t have any others. They didn’t even have the match to the one on the wall.

As I got into the car in the box store parking lot, I called the locally owned store again just in case they had some new arrivals. Nope.

They offered to order a pair for me, but I told them I was visiting from elsewhere and wouldn’t be around when they arrived.

At this point, they had choices:  Focus on the sale, focus on the customer or try harder.

What’s your focus?

If your sales people are trained to focus on the sale, they might say “Nope, we don’t have any” and be disappointed that they didn’t get a sale. If that’s the end of the conversation, your customer might go elsewhere – losing the sale and the customer.

If your sales people are trained to focus on the customer, they might say “Nope, we don’t have any. Have you looked at (competitor number one) or (competitor number two)? They both carry that brand.

If your sales people are trained to focus on keeping your customers happy, they might say “Nope, we don’t have any. If you come by and let us fit you in a similar shoe in that brand, I can order that model in your size and have it shipped to you. If it doesn’t fit like you want, we’ll take care of you until you’re happy or we’ll give your money back.

What they did was refer me to two of their competitors (one was the store whose parking lot I was in). The second one had my size in stock, so 20 minutes later, I had my shoes and was heading for the in-laws place.

The “try harder” choice might not have been what I wanted, but I wasn’t given a choice. Keep in mind that you can always fall back from the “try harder” position if the customer isn’t interested in or cannot use that kind of help.

The important thing

You might think that the locally owned retailer lost a sale, but that isn’t as important as keeping the customer over the long term.

While I wasn’t able to buy the shoes from the place I wanted, they were able to help me find them.

They could’ve run me off quickly by saying “We don’t have that size.”

They didn’t do that. I suspect their handling of the call was the result of training driven by a management decision.

I wasn’t a familiar voice calling them on the phone. While I’ve bought from their store on and off for 20 years, they don’t know that because they keep paper sales tickets. I’m not there often enough to be a familiar face / voice and had not been in their town for two years.

Yet they treated me like someone they want to come back.

Do you treat your customers that way? Do your online competitors?

Competition from tomorrow?

Sometimes business owners complain about online competition.

Yet online stores can rarely provide instant gratification. It’s difficult for them to help you buy something you need today for a meal, event, dinner, date, meeting or presentation happening later today.

They can rarely deliver the kind of service a local, customer-focused business can offer.

Online often gets a foothold when local service and/or selection are poor and focused on the wrong thing. Even with online pricing, a product isn’t delivered until tomorrow.

When you aren’t competing strongly against tomorrow, you really aren’t even competing against today.

Focus on helping them get what they want and need. Whether they are local or remote, customers just want to be well taken care of and get what they came for.

Small business owner: “What’s with these funny new barcodes?”

Ralp Lauren Rugby QR code
Creative Commons License photo credit: mackarus

You may have seen those odd-looking square barcodes in newspapers and magazines, on product boxes, etc.

You might even have noticed them in the middle of the star-shaped signage in some Macy’s television commercials.

They’re called “QR codes“.

Why should business owners should care about them?

A smartphone can scan/read a QR code, which will take it to a specific web site address (URL).

Why use them at all? Who really cares about yet another barcode?

Your prospects and customers do. Some of your websites make it really hard to buy.

For prospects and customers using smartphones, it can be particularly annoying. But your customers don’t use smartphones, right?

Let’s talk about that. Currently, Nielsen (yes, those TV ratings people count other things too) says 40% of U.S. cell phone users use a smartphone.

A web search will tell you that there are 327 million active mobile subscriptions in the U.S. Yes, that’s more mobile subscriptions than there are adults, per the 2010 census. The numbers get a little whacked partly because of the number of people with a personal account/cellphone and a business one (provided to them or otherwise).

327 million is a fairly big number. Too big, maybe. To get a better handle on the numbers, a glance at a 2009 CTIA (wireless telecom industry group) survey of their members report indicated that 257 million Americans have data-capable devices and about half of those are phones. The rest are laptops and tablets. So we’ve reduced the number to roughly half the population, which is close to the Nielsen number.

Again, that’s a end-of-2009 number….BEFORE the availability of iPhone4 (and 4S), iPad and other modern-ish tablets.

Seems to me a number that’s even 10 million smartphones too big would be enough to provoke interest in the experience mobile/smartphone website users have at your site.

So now that you have big scary (or exciting) numbers to think about – particularly if your business deals in retail, tourism and other core business-to-consumer fields – get back to solving “we make it hard to buy” problem.

Important safety tip about using QR codes

Never (yes, never) use your home page URL as the destination.

Reason #1 – QR code users are, by definition, mobile users. Presumably you have a URL that is designed to be used by mobile browser users so they don’t spend all of their time squinting, pinching and spreading (or pressing zoom buttons) to read about your cool new product. If your site automatically senses mobile browsers and changes behavior or reroutes them to pages designed for mobile users, all the better.

Reason #2 – Sending them directly to your home page can make it far more difficult to measure inbound visitor numbers.

Why is that important? Because you want to know how your QR code links are performing by media/by ad/by publication etc. If you have them going to different URLs (web site addresses) such as MyReallyCoolsite.com/QR1 and MyReallycoolsite.com/QR2, then you can figure out their individual performance.

If QR code A works better than QR code B, you have information about the effectiveness of the media, placement and other characteristics of the location of that code. You can eliminate this reason by including QR code specific analytics codes (Google Analytics, et al) in your URLs, but that doesn’t eliminate the most important reason…

Reason #3 – Why did they scan (and hopefully share) that QR code/URL? Because they wanted something specific that they were looking at RIGHT THEN. If I’m looking at a Corvette ad in an in-flight magazine, do I want to go to Chevy.com or do I want to go to the page that describes the smokin’ Vette I’m looking at?

The primary reason to use them

Consider how annoying it is to navigate not-so-mobile friendly sites on a smartphone. Make yours the friendly, easy site for mobile users.

Make your customers’ life easier. Make it easier for them to visit your site, visit the right page and share something about your business that they want to share.

Ask anyone in the publishing business about pass-along numbers. They’re important to readership, so much so that they claim pass-along readership as an asset to advertisers.

Transfer that thought to your website, catalog, ads, trade show materials, demo products and other materials. Do they need a QR code so that people can view/share them easily?

In many cases, I think so.