Retailers, What to do about the Internet?

I’ve been following a conversation on another forum that was started with my recent post, “Are Your Suppliers Letting You Down on the Web?”  You may recall that the original article was about manufacturers who don’t use the web effectively to communicate with their dealers.  Like most on-line conversations, this one has morphed into a discussion on how independent retailers and manufacturers should handle Internet sales to consumers.

We know that there are price-only shoppers who will come into your store, get all the information they need, then go to the web to buy the item at the lowest price they can find.  On the other hand, there are customers who do their research on the web then buy the item locally.  The question is, which group is bigger?  My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that more consumers fall into the second group.

Maybe I’m not a very good shopper, but I’m in the second group mainly because I (1) prefer to support my local merchants and (2) I’ve yet to find anything on line that I couldn’t buy at the same price, or close to it, locally.

Here’s the thing.  If I can buy an item for, say $200.00 on line and I can buy it for $210.00  or $220.00 locally, I’ll buy local every time.  Basically, I’m a mechanical idiot.  It’s worth it to me to spend an extra 5-10% to have somebody close by to hold my hand when I can’t figure out how to make something work.  I’m not alone.  Based on the statistics, a lot of people feel the same way.

Case in point:  I just bought a new cell phone.  The instruction book wasn’t in the box.  Today I’ll go back to the store and get it.  If I had bought the phone on-line, I’d have to send an email and wait for a response.  Assuming they get back to me, I’ll then have to wait for the instruction book to come in the mail.  Meanwhile, I have a $179.00 phone that I can’t use properly.

To me, the key to competing with on-line merchants is to let the customer know how much your service is worth.  Granted, some people just don’t care.  All they’re interested in is getting the lowest price.  Chances are those people aren’t your customers anyway.  If there were no Internet, they’d either buy from the big box store, or they’d be searching the ads in the back of the magazines.  Either way, you don’t get the sale.

There’s a lot of hype about on-line merchants.  The media love them!  Price shoppers think they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.  (I wonder what the greatest thing was before somebody invented sliced bread?)  Anyway, the facts don’t necessarily support the hype.  Depending on the industry, web sales still represent a small piece of the total pie.  According to the US Department of Commerce, 3rd Quarter 2009 on-line sales represented 3.7% of all retail.  Obviously the percentage varies by industry, but overall, nine out of ten retail dollars are spent at brick and mortar stores.

e commerce stats

Big on-line merchants like Amazon.com are doing very nicely, thank you.  But there’s still a huge market out there for your store.  Rather than chasing sales that you’re never going to get, in 2010 your brick and mortar customer should be your major focus.

Granted, on-line sales are growing, 4.7% in the third quarter of ’09 vs. 4.3% in ‘o8.  Today’s strategy may not work in the future but carpe diem,  seize the day.

Meanwhile manufacturers will continue to wrestle with the question of how best to market their products.  That 4.7% is worth more than $30 billion, hardly chump change.  Like I said in my last post, brick and mortar independent retailers should support suppliers who support them.

Here’s a post that I wrote in 2006 on Your Business Strategy that you might find interesting.

Are Your Suppliers Letting You Down on the Web?

If, as I suspect, you’re a web-savvy entrepreneur, (If you’re not, how did you find this post?) it’s in your best interest to find the manufacturers who think the same way that you do.  The fact that you’re a blog reader tells me that you know how to find relevant information and that you know what to do with it.

Whether we like it or not, (and we should like it) the way business is done in the US and in the entire world is changing.  You can pretend that you’re customers can’t find the lowest price on anything with just a few minutes of web surfing, but you’d be sadly mistaken.  You can assume that your customers have to leave their homes to shop, but you’d be very wrong.  Maybe you don’t think that eBay and Craigslist are your competitors, but I promise you that they are.

Wise manufacturers are working with their dealers to provide them with the best, most up-to-date tools and information.  We’re in the midst of an economic crisis yet many retailers are thriving.  Often, but not always, these dealers are supported by like-thinking vendors.  Some dealers thrive in spite of their vendors, not because of them.

By way of disclaimer, I don’t claim to be the most knowledgeable person on the subject of social media, but I have been a blogger, podcaster, and forum administrator for quite a while.  Between this blog and its predecessor, I’m approaching my 900th post.  I regularly follow dozens of blogs and podcasts.  Obviously I’ve invested a lot of time and effort in providing information to small business owners.  I guess that, since you’re reading this, you must find some value in the content of Mining the Store.

Sadly, there seem to be a lot of manufacturers who just don’t get it.  Twenty-first century business owners want and need help.  The climate is just too hostile for each of us to reinvent the wheel every day.  Likewise, very few suppliers have all the answers.  (even if they think they do)

The key to success in the year 2010 is community; communities of people with common interests who get together online to share information.  Whether it’s politics, sports, health matters, or business, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can find communities of interest where any question can find its answer.

A wise supplier will get involved in the communities that affect his/her market and become a contributor.  Simply lurking, seeing what people are saying, is critical but it’s far from sufficient.  The days of a company looking down at its customers, considering them necessary evils, are over.  There are too many other vendors who treat their dealers as partners in the supply chain.  They will be successful.  Make no mistake, the same rules apply to retailers and their communities.

The bottom line here is that you have to hold your vendors feet to the fire.  Demand that they give you the help that you need or you’ll take your business elsewhere.  I don’t want to generalize too much, but there are vendors whose sales are down who actually blame their dealers.  They have such a perfect product and such infallible marketing programs that the problem couldn’t possibly lie with them.  Therefor the fault must be yours.  One sales manager actually wondered on an industry forum why “the better dealers” aren’t participating.  Maybe it’s because “the better vendors” aren’t participating?  I’m just sayin’…….

I’m not advocating for insurrection here.  But I am suggesting that you insist that your suppliers give you the help you need to move the product through the marketing chain to your/their customers.  History has shown, even with the help of the Internet, that it’s very difficult for a vendor to go directly to the consumer.  They need you more than you need them.  If they aren’t giving you what you need, they’re not doing their job.

Now These are Funny!

OK, it’s Saturday and I thought we’d have a little fun.  Here are two pictures emailed to me by a friend.  I’ll let you insert your own captions.

Christmas Eve Eve

Here we are on the twenty-third day of December, 2009.  We’ve almost completed the first decade of the twenty-first century and it’s certainly been a challenge.  The fact that you’re reading this is a sign that you’re one of the best of the best.  You’re a competitor and a survivor.  Congratulations!

No one knows what 2010 will bring but I suspect it will be interesting.  The current administration doesn’t seem to be a friend of small business in spite of their claims.  As I’ve said here many times before, small business is the engine that drives the American economy.  That’s been true in good times and in bad.

So, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas and the beginning of a new year, keep the faith!  Keep doin’ what you’re  doin’ and take advantage of the agility that only a small business can muster to beat the competition.  I have confidence in you.

“Black” Friday

Saint Charles, MO, "historic main street"It’s unfortunate that the media have chosen this particular name for the day that often makes or breaks an American  retailer’s year.  It is the day when many retailers bottom line changes from red ink to black, but the term still has a negative connotation for many people.  In fact, depending on the outcome of today’s business, it may really be a black Friday for some.

Of course, we hope it’s a great day, especially for small business.  Personally I will avoid the malls like the plague.  But my lovely and talented wife and I will spend the afternoon and evening shopping the independent shops on Main Street in Saint Charles, MO.  It’s a “tradition” that we started last year.  The crowds are smaller, and much friendlier, than the rampaging mobs that started surging through the chains as early as midnight this morning.

There are just as many bargains to be had, and the gifts tend to be much more personal, some even personalized, compared to the “Made in China” stuff found elsewhere.

So, here’s hoping that it’s a good day for all of our independent retail friends and the beginning of a successful Christmas shopping season.  That’s all for now.  I’m off to do my part in boosting the economy.

It’s All About the Mission

I spent the last two mornings helping set up for a charity auction.  The Poor Clare nuns hold an annual auction to help pay for the expansion of their monastery.  That’s right.  They’re actually expanding.  Reports of the demise of religious orders is greatly exaggerated.  Some orders are actually doing quite well.  But that’s a topic for another time and another place.

Here’s the thing.  There were more people helping over the last two days than there are nuns at the monastery.  How does this happen?  Why are so many people willing to give up their time to help out?

Obviously the volunteers support the nuns’ mission.  The Poor Clares are a Franciscan order and they have a lot of friends.  Their mission of peace resonates with people all around the world.  A lot of people are willing to give their time, their talent, and their treasure to support it.

So how’s this help you?  Unless you’re running a nonprofit, it’s not likely that people are going to work for you for free.  But how often have we seen friends and neighbors rally around a business that’s in trouble?  In times of disaster it happens.

On a day-to-day basis your employees and your customers will do what they can to support you, if they believe in your mission.  The question is:  Do you have a mission that people can support?  If you do, does everyone know what it is?

You may not be looking for volunteers, but you are looking for a staff that works hard and customers who are willing to patronize your business.  It all begins with a solid mission statement.

We’ll be talking more about mission statements soon.  For now, give this question some thought.  Why are you in business and why should I care?

Twitter Can Improve Your Search Engine Ratings

Thanks to Andrew Williams of Vac Shop, Mayfield, Newcastle Australia for pointing out this post at Website Magazine.  Search engines Google and Bing (formerly MSN search) announced last week that they’re going to start indexing Twitter tweets.

According to Website, a new eMarketer report (“Social Commerce on Facebook, Twitter and Retail Sites”) “while some e-commerce merchants are experimenting with these sites, most merchants are still ignoring them.”

Considering that social media sites can be used to promote your business at virtually no cost, it makes sense to use them, especially if your competitors aren’t there.

 

5 Tips for Shopping Local

[picapp src=”7/0/4/5/Steamboat_Winter_Carnival_2966.jpg?adImageId=6860296&imageId=3461828″ width=”234″ height=”154″ /]Thanks to Phil Reed of  Vacuums and More in Lincoln City, OR for sending me the link to this article from MSN City Guides.  It’ s directed toward your customers.

The article, by John Rossheim,  begins by appealing to shoppers’ civic pride and their desire to help their fellow citizens.  If that doesn’t move them, Rossheim points out that $68 of every $100 spent with local merchants stays in the community compared to just $43 out of $100 when you spend it with a national chain.

The article points to a few “buy local” programs including my personal favorite, the 3/50 Project.  Here are the five tips:

Visit an independent before heading for a big box. The article suggests that the shopper think of one item that could be purchased locally and to scan local advertising before heading out to shop.

Patronize local merchants who add value. Shoppers should consider more than just price when they purchase.  Professional guidance may not be necessary when you buy laundry detergent or toilet paper, but in other cases the expertise of the merchant often more than offsets a slightly higher price, if the price is actually higher.  Often it isn’t.

Hold the plastic and pay cash. The author throws this on in even though he fails to cite an advantage to the shopper.  Of course there’s a big advantage to the merchant if the customer opts to pay cash.

Beware “local-washing”. Some national merchants pretend to be “local” though I can’t imagine anyone would actually fall for it.   If there’s a competitor in your market doing this, I wouldn’t hesitate to point it out both in-store and in my advertising.

Impulse Items

This post originally appeared at Mine Your Own Business on October 23, 2006.
[picapp src=”8/3/c/f/711_Celebrates_Its_2565.jpg?adImageId=6139833&imageId=1978313″ width=”234″ height=”111″ /]

We all know that grocery stores love to put high-margin impulse items near the cash register.  They know that, while you’re waiting in line, you’ll keep your mind occupied by looking over the merchandise that’s right there in front of you.  Most of us will be tempted by something, if not every time, at least enough times to pay for the shelf space. (Isn’t it ironic that the slower the service is, the longer you have to stand there and, up to a point, the more you’re likely to buy?)

This same psychology is used throughout the store.  The most profitable items are always located at eye-level, with the less profitable ones near the floor.  The higher profit may be in the form of larger margins, or it may be in the form of rebates from the manufacturer for the prime spots.  A successful grocery store will never put staple items like milk and bread in the front of the store.  Intense competition on these items makes them very low-margin.  If you’re going to buy them, you’re going to have to walk past other, more profitable areas of the store, much like the Las Vegas casinos make you walk past the slot machines to get to the cheap buffet.  There are many other ways that grocers, who work on razor-thin profits, use human nature to increase both sales and margins.

How about your store?  Have you studied your customers to see what areas of your store they naturally gravitate to?  If you haven’t, you should.  If you carry something that’s a staple, the equivalent of milk and bread, it should be at the back of the store.  High-margin accessory items should be displayed near the check-out just like the grocer’s candy bars and magazines.  This is also a good place to have an add-on item that the customer may not have considered buying when they came in.  And, in case they don’t have their glasses on, your staff should mention these add-ons to every customer.

I once managed an electronics store.  One year I had an opportunity to buy a pretty nice car ice scraper for 50 cents.  I marked them $1.99, stacked them by the cash registers, and paid my salesmen a quarter for every one that they sold.  We sold hundreds of ice scrapers that winter, at $1.24 profit each.  The customers were happy because they got a nice ice scraper that wouldn’t break off in their hand the first time they used it.  My salesmen were happy because they made an extra quarter, and sometimes more, on just about every sale (this was when a quarter was really worth a quarter) and my boss was happy because I was adding extra margin to almost every sale.

As we approach the busy Christmas season, it’s important that every square inch of your selling space generates the maximum amount of profit.  A little time spent analyzing customer traffic patterns and placing the most profitable items in the spots where they are most likely to sell could pay big dividends.

101 Small Business Mistakes

There’s an interesting post at American Express Open Small Business by Gregory Go, with the above title.  While you (hopefully) haven’t made all 101 of them, we’ve all made some of them.  Of course, the key is to learn from our mistakes (and others’) and move on.

The post is broken down into five categories:

  1. Startup
  2. Product
  3. Sales and Marketing
  4. Operations
  5. Big Picture

Check out the article and thanks to American Express for providing such good information.  Thanks, too, to several people who posted a link on twitter, including:

@PXAbstraction

@btushar

@octobermigrate

@federated_media

@msaleem

@annescarlett

@jenbenz

@ConversationAge

@lizstrauss

and several others.  If you’re not using twitter as a source of business information, you’re missing an awful lot.