4 Ways to Get Holiday Shoppers to Shop Small

By Linda Morris Gupton, Staples® Contributing Writer

With so many options for shoppers, it can be a challenge to get them to buy from your small business. But if you're smart and take advantage of what makes a local retailer distinctive, you can set yourself apart from the crowd.

Here are some tips to attract more holiday-season shoppers to your store:

Tip #1: Promote your hometown status

It's easy to think people know you're a locally owned small business, but don't assume! "Promote that as much as possible," suggests Anna Ghosh, marketing and communications director for BALLE, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. Create signage for your storefront and use marketing tools like email marketing, social media, advertising and local coupon books or loyalty card programs to spread the word about your local roots. Participate in national awareness campaigns like Small Business Saturday, as well as local campaigns sponsored by your Chamber of Commerce, trade association or economic development authority.

It's important to network with other local businesses about how you can work together to increase awareness, says Ghosh. Join with other local businesses to offer mutually beneficial special offers, sponsor a food truck rodeo - convenient for harried holiday shoppers - or be a drop-off location for a holiday food drive. Collaborating with other owners builds your business network and extends your reach to new potential customers.

Try This: Encourage current customers to do some marketing for you. Ask them to check in on social media when they're in the store and mention that you're locally owned. Or create a referral program that gives them a discount or other award for sending customers your way.

Tip #2: Highlight your differences

A key element in a successful marketing strategy is identifying and building on what makes your business distinctive in the marketplace. For many small retailers, that often means offering customers options they can't get elsewhere.

For example, to set her business apart, Tina Smith, owner of Bravo Boutique in Concord, NH, stocks dresses that aren't available at the larger department stores in her area so customers have the choice of something unique and different. She also provides a lot of consultation. "I help my customers dress head-to-toe, and they really appreciate that individualized attention. I'll walk out my shop door, run into a customer and she'll tell me all about the party she went to and how much she enjoyed wearing the dress she bought from me," Smith says. "You don't get that personal connection from a big department store."

Over at Heritage Bicycles in Chicago, they offer custom rides - and coffee. The crew builds bikes to customers' specifications using a design-your-own-bike app. "The customer gets to pick the color, speed settings, wheel set - every component is personalized to that person's comfort and riding style," owner Mike Salvatore explains. To satisfy his desire to create a community gathering place, he even integrated a coffee shop. This encourages customers to hang around and attracts people just looking for great coffee - whether they're bikers or not.

Try This: Identify the services and products you have that others don't and emphasize those in staff training and marketing.

Tip #3: Support other local businesses

Don't forget to walk your talk. Support other local operations by sourcing them and encouraging those business owners to shop with you too. For instance, Salvatore purchases the components for his custom bikes from other vendors and artisans in his Chicago community.

Leading by example also allows you to educate consumers about how buying local creates jobs and provides tax revenue to support social services. "Every dollar a customer spends with us has a ripple effect in our local economy," Salvatore says.

Research shows that each dollar spent at a local, independent merchant generates up to four times as much wealth in the local economy. Statistically, communities with a strong local business economy also have higher levels of civic participation and lower rates of chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes.

Try This: Acknowledge your local business connections on your Web site and in store to reinforce the importance of shopping small to your customers.

Tip #4: Build relationships with your customers

Think beyond the quick transactions of the holiday season. "In this age where everything is done by credit card, or over the Internet, it's easy to lose your connection to the customer," says Jay Clark, co-founder of SilverGrass Marketing in Chicago, IL.

But, according to Ghosh, the truth is that "relationships matter most of all. Most people would prefer to do business with people they know and trust."

In a 2012 national poll conducted by the American Planning Association, respondents said that having locally owned businesses nearby is the number-one factor in creating an ideal community.

"The relationship with my customers is key," Salvatore says. "I know my customers' kids and where they go to school. I live in the community, and that really creates a bond with my customers."

Try This: Get to know your customers better by asking questions and taking great notes. Consider investing in a point of sale system or contact management software that lets you collect personal information and email addresses quickly and easily so you can use the data for personalized marketing.

Use these tips and take advantage of the unique opportunities you have to offer shoppers a distinctive, local flavor this holiday season - and throughout the upcoming year.

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