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Indie Retailers Best Poised for New Retail Model

A few years ago I went to lunch with a fellow toy store owner. I had wanted to see his store, so we made plans for me to visit and then go get lunch. Since we were in his town, I left it up to him to pick a place for lunch. What he said next I still cannot believe.

“Well, my favorite lunch place is out because I went there yesterday. A couple of our city council members stopped by and took me to lunch to ask me if there was more they could be doing for my business.”

Jaw meet floor.

That kind of respect for a local independent business is a rare bird in the world of government. Instead we see communities falling all over themselves to throw money at Amazon, not realizing that even if they don’t get an Amazon HQ or DC, they are still “giving money” to Amazon as local tax revenues are lost while local independent businesses struggle to survive.

For most indie retailers, even the government is slanted against us. You pretty much have to be a chain store or opening a mega-store for government to throw you any kind of bone.

In spite of all that, local independent retailers are starting to see a surge.

In a recent article discussing the problems plaguing Walmart, the author said, “Selling products to strangers doesn’t cut it anymore. To succeed in retail today you need to start with the customer, not the product.”

The article went on to talk about how several eCommerce sites are expanding into brick & mortar to better serve the customers.

Do you know who is best-suited to take advantage of this it’s-about-the-customers-more-than-the-products era of retail? You guessed it! Local independent retailers.

Believe it or not, it hasn’t been about the products for indie retailers for over a decade. It used to be that if you invented a new product you had to pitch that product to existing vendors or go into manufacturing yourself and pitch it to a handful of indie retailers to get started. Then, after the product gained traction and had sales history, bigger vendors might take interest. Once the bigger vendors got their hands on it, the product could make its way to the masses.

That model is gone. Now if you have an idea, you crowdfund it and launch it online until the big guys swoop in and buy you out.

Local indie retailers have had to build relationships with customers and offer them curated selections of great items they’ve likely never seen before to succeed. Fortunately, that model works. According to the article, that’s the new model of retail. According to me, that’s also the old model of retail.

Fostering relationships with your customers and building loyalty through something other than a frequent purchase discount never goes out of style. 

The simplest way to do that is:

  1. Figure out what she desires, needs, and expects.
  2. Give her more than she desires, needs, and expects.

I call that the Simplest Business Success Formula Ever. This is what the companies in that article are doing.

This is how you compete in today’s retail environment. You can’t control what product fads will be hot. You can’t control what vendors will stab you in the back (pro tip: every year at least one vendor goes back on his word about a product or product line he promised to keep exclusive to the indie channel.) You can’t control what products you will actually get shipped. On top of that, you can’t control what happens to the local, state or national economy. Nor can you control Mother Nature.

But you can control the experience someone has in your store. You can control the type of people you hire and the training they receive to be able to figure out those expectations and exceed them regularly. Do that and you’ll control your destiny as well.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Your local government would do well to understand the formula, too. If they would create an environment where the needs and expectations of indie retailers were met (and exceeded), they would see tax revenues begin to rise. Indie retailers typically have more staff and a higher payroll per sale than the chains. Indie retailers typically use less land and less local services (police/fire etc.) than the big chains. They also create character, draw outside traffic, and give local communities their charm. Yet, in the last twenty-five years, that opening story is the only time I have heard firsthand about a government trying to exceed the expectations of their most profitable “customers”.

What to Do With the First Quarter Blues

I went for a walk/jog down the Falling Waters Trail a couple days ago. It was sunny and in the mid-50’s. My dog, Samantha, and I enjoyed getting out of the house. There is something about those early spring days when you get that sense of renewal, that rebirth of energy. Of course, today, I stare out at five inches of snow courtesy of our bipolar vortex. Just when you think you’ve turned the corner on winter, Mother Nature smothers you with another blanket of white. So much for that rebirth of energy.

It’s easy to get the blues.

Image result for cabin fever clip artEspecially if you’re a fourth-quarter retailer. January feels like a relief from the exhausting marathon of Christmas. But by February, when the bills have all been paid and it doesn’t seem like any new cash is coming in, it gets to be a drag.

If you’re a jeweler or florist, you get Valentine’s Day. If you’re a toy retailer or candy shop you get Easter. But that isn’t a lot to carry you through the First Quarter Blues.

Here is a list of different things you can do during the quiet times to combat the blues.

  • Paint the store. A fresh coat of paint brightens the mood and lifts the morale of the staff.
  • Re-do all your signs. Print new ones, change wording, make them more fun and in alignment with your Core Values.
  • Work on new selling techniques. Hold trainings, do role playing, practice new techniques.
  • Make displays for out-of-your-category gifts. For instance, January-March are big baby shower months (no one wants to hold them in November/December because of the holidays). Put together an endcap of great “baby shower” gifts – even if you don’t sell baby products! A hardware store could do a display of “build your nursery the right way”. You could also do “gifts for the mom/dad-to-be.” Get creative. The same is true for weddings. The bridal shows are January-February. Bridal showers are March-June. Put together “bridal/wedding gifts” like board games if you’re a toy store (the family that plays together, stays together), or tool kits. I got a drill as a wedding gift from a thoughtful friend.
  • Get creative with your social media. Post often about a wide variety of things (not all related to selling your products). Have a contest among your staff. Make them all admins. Allow them two posts a day. See who can get more comments and shares in a week. Pay the winner $20. Do it for five weeks. It will be the best $100 bucks you spend on social media this year because you’ll see what kind of posts move the needle.
  • Have a contest of some kind. Maybe a raffle for charity. Maybe a “taste-test” where you put two competing products side by side. (I can see this for tools, for toys, for shoes, for cleaning products, for foods, for strollers …) Maybe a competition. We did a five-week March Games Madness where we pitted four games against each other for four consecutive Friday nights. The game voted the best each week made it to the final four. The fifth week we crowned the champion.
  • Spend more time networking. Send everyone on your team to different networking events.
  • Rearrange the floor layout. Stand at the front door and look around. See what catches your eye. Redesign the store so that your customers can see farther into your store. And make sure something cool and compelling is in those sight lines.
  • Clean and fix everything. Everything.
  • Make your bathroom cool. When George Whalin wrote Retail Superstars: Inside the 25 Best independent Stores in America, he mentioned the really cool bathrooms for 14 of the 25 stores.
  • Make a list of your top 50 or 100 customers with phone numbers. Assign them to your staff to call each person and personally thank them for shopping in your store. No sales pitch. Just a simple, “I want to thank you for being a customer last year. We truly appreciate your business. Have a great day!”
  • Make a goodie-bag for those same top 50 or 100 and personally deliver them. Free. No questions asked. (Thank you Brandy & Eric for this idea!)

The customers will be back soon enough. You have new products rolling in. Take this time to plant the seeds for future sales by refreshing the store, training the staff, and getting creative with your marketing.

That’s how you beat the First Quarter Blues.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS I would love to hear your suggestions for additions to this list. I know there are some really good ideas out there. Help me share them with the world.

How to Look at the Big Picture

I always planned my staff meetings by finishing the following sentence:

This will be a successful meeting if …

  • This will be a successful meeting if we learn how to become better listeners.
  • This will be a successful meeting if we learn about new products.
  • This will be a successful meeting if we understand the difference between Relational and Transactional Customers.
  • This will be a successful meeting if we find new ways to build relationships with our customers.
To see the Big Picture, you have to envision what success looks like.

From there I worked backwards, trying to figure out the best way to get the point across and be able to call the meeting successful.

I hired and trained my staff the same way—by starting at the end and figuring out what steps to take to get there. My book, Hiring and the Potter’s Wheel, is built around a simple premise. Would you like your staff to be considered Beautiful, Useful, Strong, and Long-Lasting? Those are the words we use to describe the end result of pottery. If we follow the same steps as the potter, we’ll get the same end results for our staff.

I took the same approach to teaching sailing last summer. At the end of the week I wanted the kids to have a feel for the physics of sailing, but more importantly, the confidence that comes with knowing you harnessed the wind’s power to accomplish something. From there, the lesson plan was easy to create.

I do the same with my presentations. I start with the main point I want you to take back to your business and work on. Then I build the presentation around how to best drive that point home.

Many businesses forget to set goals, forget to define success. They did it at first when they drew up a business plan, but they never revisited that plan to see if the goal was met or needs to be revised.

If you want to see the Big Picture, you first have to create it. The easiest way to do that is by defining success.

  • This will be a successful year if …
  • This will be a successful season if …
  • This will be a successful training program if …
  • This will be a successful transition if …

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get there.” -Lewis Caroll

“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” -Yogi Berra

If you know where you want to be, you can choose the best road. Sure, there will be obstacles. Sometimes you won’t get there. But it is better to head in the right direction and fall a little short than to wander aimlessly.

Define the success you want. Then plot a course to get there.

“This will be a successful business if I enjoy going to work every day and make enough money to live comfortably.”

This will be a successful blog post if I have given you a tool to help you see the Big Picture.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Did you know the phrase, “The devil is in the details,” was originally “God is in the detail.”? Either way you wish to look at that idiom, the details don’t matter if you don’t first know what you’re trying to accomplish.

PPS You should definitely download the Free Resource Staff Meetings Everyone Wants to Attend and the accompanying Staff Meeting Worksheet. It will improve the outcomes of your meetings and trainings exponentially.

Something the Best All Have in Common

In every industry you have a handful of heavy hitters. These businesses and their owners have both longevity and a solid track record of sales and growth. They’ve seen it all. They’ve done it all. They’ve been involved in the industry, in their trade organizations, and quite often in their hometowns. They suffer from chronic hand-raising disease.

If you belong to a trade organization you can probably rattle off the names of those businesses and people in your industry quite easily.

The one thing I miss about my office at Toy House was the hutch full of books behind my desk.

The American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA) recognized this. They realized their Marketplace & Academy conference every year offered sessions geared mostly to small stores, new stores, green stores. They recognized that the big hitters were not being served, but instead were the ones mostly doing the serving. ASTRA reasoned that the stronger they could make these stores, the better it would be for the organization and the industry as a whole.

ASTRA invited sixteen of the big hitters together a few years ago to see how we could benefit from being together with our true peers. I had the honor of sitting at that table for that first meeting and becoming part of what we eventually called the Masters Circle.

After that initial meeting, our group took on a life of its own. We planned other meetings, visited each other’s stores, and shared information freely with each other. We not only became friends, we became mentors to each other, people we could rely on to answer questions and offer advice.

I noticed something about these rock star toy retailers that I had also been seeing from the stage as I did more and more workshops.

The best stores were all eager to learn more. The best stores had intellectual curiosity.

At a customer service workshop I did in Manistee, MI a few years ago, the local shoe store—the rock star of their downtown retail scene—was at the workshop with a few of their staff. One of the other attendees asked, “Why are you guys here? You guys are like the best retailer in town.”

The owner replied, “That’s why we’re here. If we don’t keep learning new and better ways to do things, we won’t be the best retailer in town.”

Intellectual curiosity.

You don’t know what you don’t know. If you have intellectual curiosity, however, you have an understanding that there is a lot you don’t know.

Italian writer Umberto Eco has a personal library of over 30,000 books. Has he read them all? No. But by surrounding himself with such a vast wealth of knowledge, he reminds himself daily that he doesn’t know it all. He reminds himself daily that there is more to learn. It keeps him humble. It keeps him curious.

The good news for you is that you are here reading this blog. You are curious. You already have that one trait most common among the big hitters in your industry. Curiosity.

The other is longevity. Show me those two in a retail business owner and I’ll show you a heavy hitter in their industry.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS The Masters Circle continues to meet regularly. In fact, they are meeting shortly after I publish this blog. ASTRA made the introductions. Their intellectual curiosity has kept the group going. (And their humility almost kept them from calling the group the Masters Circle. Sometimes they have to be reminded of their accomplishments in the toy industry.)

Reconciling Yes and No

Teddy Roosevelt said, “Whenever you are asked if you can do a job, tell ’em, ‘Certainly I can!’ Then get busy and find out how to do it.”

On the other hand, Steve Jobs said, “It’s only by saying ‘No’ that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”

Yes and No – both valid answers!

Teddy wants you to take on any job you can. Steve wants you to only take on the important jobs.

Who is right?

Teddy is right when it comes to serving your customers. If a customer asks if you can do something for them that you have never done, you should seriously consider doing it. First, if the customer is asking, the customer must believe it is something you can do. Second, it meets and/or exceeds their expectations, which is the hallmark of WOW Customer Service. Third, it might just become the new calling card you need to set yourself apart from your competitors.

You should always be looking for new ways to take care of your customers.

Steve is right when it comes to advertising. It is easy to “dabble” in advertising, doing a little here and a little there, clinging to the false hope that the more different things you do, the more people you will reach to drive into your store. We mistakenly believe that advertising is simply a numbers game and the more people we reach, the more traffic we’ll get. Yes, it is a numbers game, but not all numbers are equal.

Roy H. Williams often asks the question, “Would you rather convince 100% of the people 10% of the way or 10% of the people 100% of the way? In advertising, both cost the same.” The goal of your advertising is to convince people to visit your store and shop with you. You don’t convince people if all you do is “dabble”. You simply annoy them. It takes time, frequency, and focus to convince the people you reach to finally decide to shop with you. You have to pick and choose your media carefully and then be in full in with that media. If you aren’t, you are wasting your ad budget.

Both are right when it comes to inventory. You need to follow Steve’s advice and make sure you first stock your store with the most important items. When cash flow is tight, focus on the must-haves. Focus on the items that customers come in asking for by name. Make sure you have plenty of the requested items and you’ll make the sales you need to keep the cash flowing. You also need to keep looking for new products and new opportunities. Unless you’re strictly in the commodities business, customers want to see what is new and fresh. If you don’t have new and fresh, you are boring your customers and eventually they won’t bother coming back.

After the must-haves, the second most important inventory spending should be on the brand-new. It keeps your store fresh, keeps your staff energized, keeps your customers returning.

Sometimes you have to follow President Roosevelt. Sometimes you have to follow Mr. Jobs. Knowing when to say Yes and when to say No is the key to your success.

Perhaps Neils Bohr said it best when he said, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS I used both quotes in presentations lately and it struck me how profound, yet at odds, they both seem to be. I also have found myself using both quotes in my own life. I have been asked to do a lot of new things lately. I have said Yes to creating several new presentations, different from the homerun talks I do. I’ve also said No to some opportunities because they didn’t push forward my main industries of speaking, writing, and consulting. I think knowing when to say No is truly an art, one in which I am still the amateur, but I am learning. How about you?

Few Things Go As Planned

Back in the early 1990’s I ran a wilderness trip program out at YMCA Storer Camps. I had a team of trip leaders who would plot out backpacking, biking, rock climbing, and canoeing trips around the Midwest and Ontario. One of the planning stages for the trip leaders was to build an itinerary showing what they would be doing each day, where they would be camping each night, and what goals they hoped to accomplish on the trip.

Papa Moose and family on the Missinaibi River, Northern Ontario 1987

Before each trip I would go through their itinerary with them, making sure the trip looked sound on paper. Then I would have them fold up the itinerary, place it in a Ziploc bag, and stick it in the bottom of their rucksack to only pull out if necessary.

Rarely if ever did a trip turn out exactly as it was written on paper. Flat tires, flash flooding, lost canoes, or other unexpected obstacles would always throw the itinerary off track. Sometimes the itinerary had to be adjusted to meet the needs of the group. One of my bike trips added an extra 100 miles to their trip because the kids had the skills to make that extra jaunt. There was always something.

What I learned through this exercise was one simple lesson—the future will not turn out exactly as you planned.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for it. The two most important days of the itinerary were the first and last. The first set the tone, the last got you home. What happened in between was subject to change at a moment’s notice. A skilled trip leader knew when to adjust the itinerary to make the trip fun for everyone. A skilled trip leader expected to make changes mid-stream and was prepared to do so.

So here is my best New Year’s advice to you.

2018 will not turn out how you planned.

I’m not being a Debby Downer here. In fact, 2018 may surpass all your wildest dreams. Or it may take a hard 90-degree turn down a path you never imagined that might be the best path you ever could take. It may be close to what you thought, but there will be plot-twists, obstacles, detours, re-routes, and even a dead-end or two along the way.

That’s okay.

It is impossible for you to foresee that much of the future to meet every challenge perfectly prepared, knowing what will happen before it happens. (If you had that skill, you likely wouldn’t be reading my blog.)

With that said, you still need to plan your itinerary. You still need to plot out where you are today and where you want to be at the end of the year. You still need to put down a plan for how you will get from Point A to Point B. Without a plan, I can promise you won’t get anywhere close to Point B.

A skilled retailer will plan the following:

  • Marketing: What events, what advertisements, what other ways will you draw traffic to your store? At the same time, how will you measure new, unforeseen opportunities as they come along? What will you need to see to jump at an opportunity or take a risk with your advertising and marketing?
  • Staff Training: What skills do you want your staff to learn and strengthen in 2018? At the same time, how will you deal with the sudden change should you lose a key employee or two along the way?
  • Customer Service: Where are the holes in the service you provide and how will you raise the bar for 2018? At the same time, how will you spot new opportunities to surprise and delight customers in the future as their bar of expectation rises as well?
  • Inventory Management: How will you raise margins and turn ratios (to increase cash flow) while keeping prices attractive and keeping enough inventory on the shelf to maintain sales levels? At the same time, how will you respond to fads? What criteria will you use to jump in whole hog when something is going hot (or jump out quickly when something has died?)


A skilled retailer like a skilled trip leader knows that the goal is to start the year out on the right foot and make it to the finish line intact. What happens in between will never match the plan, but if you’re prepared, will be a helluva lot of fun.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Those four categories will be the main focus of this blog for 2018. My goal for the New Year is to prepare you to see the opportunities, the detours, the 90-degree turns, the obstacles, and the dead-ends for what they are so that you can navigate through them or around them. Sound good?

A Little Forethought Keeps Little Things Little

When I was a kid, I loved riddles. I especially loved the gotcha riddles where if you didn’t pay attention to everything you were sure to get it wrong. One of my early favorites was,

“What weighs more? A pound of feathers or a pound of gold?”

Once I learned the devil was in the details, I would never answer a riddle until I heard it several times, always paying attention to every little detail. Another of my favorites was,

“You’re the driver of a bus. The bus goes west one mile before turning right. Then it travels two miles, drops off one person and picks up three. The bus turns right again and travels 4 miles, dropping off six and picking up five. The bus turns left and goes a half mile dropping off two and picking up nine. What is the bus driver’s name?”

Miss that first detail and you miss the whole riddle.

The Toy House Team during our Summer Fun Sale

This Friday, every year, was a detail day. Tomorrow you will be as busy as any day of your year. You’ll likely have to fight to get a break just to eat some cold leftovers (unless you were smart enough to cater lunch for the team). You’ll feel overwhelmed at times. You’ll feel pulled in several directions at once. The last thing you need tomorrow is to have to take care of problems that can be nipped in the bud today.

The night before a big day we replaced all the cash register receipt tape with fresh, full rolls. We checked the ink levels on the registers and in all of the pens nearby (and made sure there were plenty of pens nearby). We restocked all the giftwrap paper we used to wrap gifts and had extra rolls on standby. We checked all the tape dispensers, refilled all the staplers, and made sure there were plenty of our yellow note pads at every register and phone.

Those all seem like simple things that should be done every night, but on Friday nights especially, the team is tired and wants to go home. Those few minutes spent, however, make a huge difference when there are lines at the register the next day and everyone in line has somewhere else to be, too.

I’m not a detail guy by nature. But I understood at an early age the importance of paying attention to the details and seeing how they would payoff in the long run.

Tomorrow is going to rock and roll. You’ll have your moments. And if you take a little time tonight to take care of some little things, those little things will remain little things and not blow up into big things tomorrow.

You might even get a moment for a quick bite.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Murphy’s Law states that the register will run out of receipt paper at the worst possible time. Doesn’t it always seem like it takes twice as long to change the paper when people are waiting in line staring at you than it does when no one is at the counter? That is stress making you feel that way. You have enough stress already. Eliminate that one before you even get started. You’ll have plenty of days in January to use those partial rolls of paper.

Two Pictures to Make You Feel Better (Or Worse?)

I started writing this blog August 9, 2008, shortly after my first gig as a public speaker for the retail industry. My first post was about a Christmas present I received and the announcement that I would be playing guitar in public* for the first time at the Nomad Bookhouse.

(*Apparently back then I didn’t consider playing guitar in church as part of worship “playing in public”.)

By October of 2008, a group of us local business owners had launched Jackson Local First, our Shop Local organization for the community, and my blog changed. From that point forward it was less about toys and Toy House and Phil, and more about you, the indie retailer and small business owner finding new ways to compete with national chains and the Internet.

Since those early days (and you can find every single post archived on my website) my goal has always been to help you feel good about being in this career by showing you concrete ways you can compete and win, while also giving you the background information why those ways work. If you are new to this blog, you might want to sift back through some older posts. There are some true nuggets tucked away for those willing to look. (Okay, so maybe you’re a little busy right now. Put it on your calendar for January.)

This post, however, might not make you feel all that great. I’m going to post two pictures taken in the two malls here in Jackson.

Here is picture #1 …

This picture was taken on the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend—a typical shopping holiday—in Westwood Mall at 11:30am (anchor stores of JCP, Younkers, and Walmart). Notice the lack of shoppers. Now, in all fairness, Jackson is a county filled with lakes, so it is possible the lakes trumped shopping. You could roll a bowling ball the length of that mall without fear of hitting anyone.

Here is picture #2 …

This picture was taken last night at 7:46pm in our other mall, the bigger, busier one with Toys R Us, Target, Best Buy, Kohl’s and Sears as anchors.

Once again, this could be the result of the economic woes in our county and the shrinking population—the two factors that led to our choice to close shop. Or it could be a symptomatic problem with a much bigger cause. (What I find most amazing in this pic is that this is the “walkers” mall and there isn’t even a group of walkers pacing the corridor.)

Malls everywhere are in decline. This problem was reported heavily in 2016. And now with the Retail Apocalypse of 2017, you can expect traffic to decline even further.

Like I said, this may not make you feel better, especially if you are in a mall location.

Here is why you should feel better.

The decline in mall traffic is really caused by two things—cellphones and incredibly poor customer service. Cellphones have replaced meetups. You don’t go meet your friends at the mall anymore because you’ve been texting them all day long. Many people thought teens hanging out at the mall would be a bad thing. It wasn’t. Someone had to drive those teens (malls weren’t typically located in high-density neighborhoods). Parents who drove their teens to the mall would often stop in so as not to waste a trip. That familiarity led to future trips.

Unfortunately, those days are long gone. The mall is no longer a meet-up, drawing its own traffic. You have to want to shop there to even bother making the trip.

That’s where the stores, themselves, have failed. Too many mall stores relied only on the mall and its anchors to draw their traffic. They never knew how to draw traffic themselves. As the malls drew less and less traffic (and/or the anchors kept expanding their departments to eat into the mall stores categories), these stores cut back on personnel to match dwindling sales. Of course, that led to a downward spiral in what was already poor levels of customer service.

Is it any wonder that Outlet Malls, where Transactional Customers don’t expect any service in the first place, continue to draw traffic while traditional malls suffer? When someone else is drawing your traffic and options are fewer, you can get away with poor customer service. That type of retail climate no longer exists.

Nowadays ALL retail is destination retail. People only go to shops by choice.  Since independent retailers have always been destinations by nature, you are best suited to win the brick & mortar dollars of today (of which by last count there are still over a trillion of them). You win in this game by being the destination, the store everyone wants to go to because it is fun, exciting, worthwhile, important, friendly, helpful, surprisingly delightful.

Those pictures aren’t meant to scare you. They are meant to inspire you. The malls didn’t lose to the Internet just because the Internet exists. They lost because they didn’t take care of their customers.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS This does beg the question … If you are in a mall, should you move? The answer is complicated. If you truly have created a destination store, you can make it work almost anywhere. If you are paying mall prices and not getting mall benefits, however, you might want to contact a realtor and see what is out there. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of location later, okay?

Now is Not the Time to Panic

Long before there was ever Cyber Monday, there was Letdown Monday. You worked incredibly hard gearing up for Black Friday (and now Small Business Saturday). You planned events, did marketing, trained the staff, decorated the store, and had a nice busy weekend. Then Monday hits and you wonder where all the customers went.

You feel a little letdown. You feel a little worried that you didn’t get enough momentum to carry you through the season. You worry that Cyber Monday is stealing your dollars while you sit there feeling helpless. You start to wonder why you didn’t put more energy into building your own website, or why you didn’t plan a lot of deals for Cyber Monday to keep the customers in your store, or that you have too much inventory, or that you don’t have enough inventory.

In the immortal words of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Don’t Panic!

Image result for hitchhiker's guide to the galaxyI know the feelings of this week. I lived it for twenty three years, and lived with it for another twenty seven. The slowdown from the busy weekend gives you too much time to think about what you might have done differently, what you haven’t done, and what you’re afraid might happen.

That’s a natural reaction, but not all that productive. I’m here to put it all into perspective.

First, let’s talk about the slowdown. It is a natural ebb of the season. Happens Every. Single. Year. The busiest days of the year are typically:

  • Saturday before Christmas
  • December 23rd
  • Second Saturday before Christmas
  • Black Friday/Small Business Saturday
  • First Saturday in December

This year the 23rd of December happens to be on a Saturday making it extra special. Also you get a bonus of having four Saturdays in December prior to Christmas. Still plenty of big days to get the sales you need. You just won’t get many this week because there are too many days before customers truly get into that Christmas mood. This year, with Thanksgiving extra early, you have a long season. Expect a little customer (and staff) burnout.

The slowest week of your season is this week.

This is not the week to panic. This is the week to prepare. 

In a marathon race everyone sprints off the line. That’s Black Friday. Then they settle into their strategy. That’s this week and next. Finally, they go into their kick down the homestretch. That is your last two weeks. Now is strategy time. Now is preparation time.

  • Put a little extra time into training your staff. Work on role play, on greeting customers, on working with multiple customers at the same time.
  • Put a little extra time into decorating. Sure, you got it done for last weekend, but now is a good time to tweak it, upgrade it, spruce it up. Make it extra special because for the next few weeks customers will actually have the time to appreciate it more than they did in the frenzy of last weekend.
  • Put a little extra time into merchandising. Highlight the high-profit stuff you really want to move. Put the stuff they come in asking for by name at the back of the store so that your customers travel past everything else to get there.
  • Put a little extra time into Social Media. Start polls. Compare two items side by side. Share heartwarming stories. Tell the backgrounds of you, your store, your staff, your vendors, etc. Don’t make it about discounts or drawing traffic. Make it human and interesting,
  • Put a little extra time into you. Do something nice for yourself this week. Your staff can handle it. Take some time to go shopping (if you haven’t already). Take some time to catch a movie or go to a show or go outdoors. Those little things will keep you refreshed for those last two weeks that will be busy enough.

If you are worried about your inventory, keep this in mind. The last week before Christmas will be approximately ten percent of your entire yearly sales. If you don’t have enough inventory for that, then do some buying this week. Other than restocking a few hot items that will sell well after Christmas, too, trust your inventory levels and go have some fun.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS It is too easy to second-guess everything based on last weekend. Unfortunately, that’s the worst barometer you have. The only time to properly analyze the season is after it is over. Right now your only job is to prepare this week to make those last two weeks the best ever.

More Advertising vs Better Customer Service

Today I spoke to the Marshall Area Economic Development Authority (MAEDA) about Raising the Bar on Customer Service. This is one of my favorite talks because it is filled with ideas you can use right away to start making a difference for your customers and raising the level of their delight to the point that your customers start talking about you.

Isn’t that the true goal of any business—to give your customer such an amazing experience that she can’t wait to tell someone, can’t wait to come back, can’t wait to bring her friends with her?

If that isn’t your Customer Service goal, it should be. It is the only goal that is sustainable long term.

This is me helping Kingman Museum “Raise the Bar”

I spoke to this same group last May about Making Your Ads More Effective, the presentation based on my newest book coming out (soon!) That is another of my favorite topics because it shakes to the core any mistaken beliefs you might have had about advertising, and teaches you how to get people to notice your ads, remember your ads, and act on your ads.

Advertising and Customer Service are two areas where you can stand out the most compared to your competition. But when resources are limited, which should get the majority of your focus?

The dream for any retailer is to have exclusive, high-demand product that no one else sells. You have that and all you have to do is run an ad and start printing money. Unfortunately, the Internet killed that dream for the vast majority of retail. It is highly likely that you won’t have an exclusive on your merchandise ever again, and you likely won’t have the best price in town (not that you should ever want to be the lowest price in town).

The second dream for any retailer is the falsehood perpetuated by the movie Field of Dreams.

If you build it, they won’t come.

You have to build it, talk about it (advertising), and make it spectacular (customer service).

  1. Build it
  2. Talk about it
  3. Make it spectacular

That’s the order the customers see.

But for you, the order should really be …

  1. Build it
  2. Make it spectacular
  3. Talk about it

When you think in those terms, that third element—the talking about it—could be done by you, or better yet, by your customers.

  1. Build it
  2. Make it spectacular
  3. Get your customers to talk about it

Before you spend another dime on advertising, spend the next dime on training your team.

Spend the next dime on figuring out new ways to surprise and delight your customers. The best businesses are fueled by a high level of repeat and referral customers. Repeat business comes from great customer service. Referrals come from surprisingly delightful WOW customer service. Once you have that, then you can spend some money telling the world what you built. Then they will come.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Yes it is the slower way to build your business, but it is also the stronger way to build it because the customers you win are much more loyal than the customers you buy. Right now you have the advantage of the larger crowds of shoppers for the holiday season to win more customers. Don’t miss this opportunity. You could also think about it in reverse. What happens if you spend a lot of money to attract large crowds before you make it spectacular? They won’t be back, but your advertising money will be down the drain. You’ll have to spend more money to attract more first-timers.

PPS Yes, I do one-on-one business coaching to help you find where you can raise the bar on your customer service. Yes, I do presentations to large groups of businesses like the wonderful crowd today. Yes, I do half-day and full-day workshops that not only talk about the broader picture, but also include in-depth ways to find and train the kind of staff that can consistently offer the experiences that people talk about to their friends. Give me a call or send me an email. Scott Fleming, the MAEDA director said, “I was sad to see your last slide. I really didn’t want this presentation to end.”