Many small-business owners dread the sales slump that can come with the dog days of summer. But instead of just counting down the days to the holiday season, companies should look at the slow periods as the prime time to set up their business for success, whether through in-store experiences, big marketing pushes or staff training.
Claire Bruce, founder of Cape Girardeau, Missouri-based jewelry line Sloan and Themis, and Reid Stone, chief strategist and founding partner of New Orleans-based marketing and publicity firm HEROfarm, spoke to OPEN Forum about ways to make the most out of the sluggish weeks or months.
What are some strategies you use before the slow season hits to ensure you still have business coming in?
Claire Bruce: Our busy months start about the end of October and go nonstop until the end of May. During the months that we're high on the hog, being very conservative with our cash is a must, because once people start going on vacation, purchasing a more luxurious item takes second or third [seat].
The next thing we [do] is get people to sign up for our e-newsletters. Once we've acquired those customers, whether it's online or in the store, we can continue to talk to them for a fraction of a cent. Our weekly newsletter really helps us catch those people if they're in town—having that weekly reminder via email is really important.
Reid Stone: No matter what industry you're in, if you really dig in, there's an event [or] a national holiday for every single day of the month. All it takes is 30 minutes to an hour of really finding those things that apply to you. We have several calendars for our different clients. We go through the next 60 to 90 days and say, "Hey, let's make sure we have something for Ernest Hemingway's birthday."
Slow months [are] the time to really get out there. No one else is reaching out to your customers, because everybody is taking the summer off. Claire mentioned newsletters—that's a perfect example. You need to be the only voice in the room talking, because no one else is. Treat those customers like gold. They're the ones who are still buying from you; they're the ones who have been with you through the good months and the bad months. Do something nice for them. Maybe it's a super discount, maybe it's a buy-one-get-one. Just show that little bit of effort, and you can really solidify them for life.
What do you do to drum up traffic?
Bruce: We actually send a handwritten thank-you note if we have an online order, which has been very successful for us. One of the things we do in the newsletter as a nicety for our best local customers [is show them] our new products a week before everybody else. They get the first crack at it because we only make so many of each product, and they get a chance to buy them at around 20 to 30 percent off.
Claire Bruce, founder of Sloan and Themis
Stone: Give them a peek behind the curtain. People love to see how the products are made, what you're doing and how you're gearing up for winter business. Another easy thing we do is make different types of content that people can really absorb. You're doing them a favor by giving them information that's actually valuable [and] not hitting them with a sales message.
How does marketing play into your slow month strategy?
Bruce: We really have been successful with marketing via Facebook. We know our customer target pretty well: the type of education she has, where she works, what type of brand she buys. With Facebook marketing, I can actually pick that exact woman out from the millions of women out there to see our ads. We're able to get that really granular, targeted type of advertising and direct response on which one of our taglines or photos is working for a particular collection.
We [also] do print. If there's a local blog or magazine and they need some sort of product for a photo shoot, we're more than happy to supply them. It's free advertising and it's more widely trusted than an advertisement.
Stone: She hit the nail on the head: Being able to see who your customer is [is important] because it may not be exactly who you think it is. It may be someone in a different income bracket or someone with kids, someone without kids. You want to be able to describe this person.
Working backward from that, find out what they interact with on a day-to-day basis. Maybe they pick up the local magazine, maybe they only go on a particular blog, maybe they're only on Facebook or Instagram. We tend to think of Facebook as the end all be all, but in fact Instagram has become huge.
Reid Stone, chief strategist and founding partner, HEROfarm
Bruce: Whatever you choose to do, understand what it's going to take to drive traffic during that season. It's important, because when you're actually having to spend that money during your lowest sales period, it really, really hurts.
What are other ways you reach new and old customers during your slow season?
Bruce: A long-term strategy we've used for the last three years has been planning an in-store event. It's usually something we would not carry during the rest of the year, [so] we can actually go out and activate a completely different customer and be successful. We do it twice a year. We've contacted our suppliers and they've given us a shipment of beads and stone pieces for us to sell to other artisans in our community. It drives people to the store and helps us build up good vibes by supporting other artisans and giving them access to the types of things they might not usually get.
For a lot of people, their automatic [reaction] when they think of an event is discounts, but we don't really discount because the price is set by the supplier. The novelty—and that it only happens twice a year—[makes] people actually mark it on the calendar. It's like training my customers to look forward to that event so they build it into their schedule.
Stone: Something else is partnering with other brands that aren't necessarily cannibalizing your brand. Partnering and programming is huge, because it [attracts] separate, built-in audiences. They win, you win.
And just traditional PR. The tricky thing about public relations is you have to make sure it's not junk sales-y, that it's newsworthy. Maybe you're supporting a nonprofit or doing something that's very different from everyone else in your industry. It becomes worth putting into a news publication. But traditional PR is worth its weight in gold, because you're in the same space as a $500,000 ad in that same magazine or newspaper or TV.
Some owners say it's OK to have slow times if you're using that period to gear up for the big holiday season. Do you agree with that, and if so, how do you prepare?
Bruce: Sometimes it's nice to have a day or two that's a light day, just so you can have a full thought without having to help someone out. We've actually used the slow period for a development day. It's a day where we sit and plan what the rest of the year is going to look like. We try to plan six months out. We also go through our manuals and ask, "What's our procedure for shipping? How do we do this? How do we do that?" to train people and empower them on the job. You can use it as a time to take someone and expand how they contribute to the business. It can also be good for thinking about marketing and how you're going to approach the end of the year.
Stone: If you know you're going to have a slow time, take some time off. That's a big trap a lot of small-business owners get into; we really overwork ourselves. We never turn off. There really is something to unplugging and letting your subconscious take over—that's when our best ideas come. It's important to take a moment, breathe and really look at [your business] objectively. Because you get so bogged in the day to day, you never actually get to stop and go, "Wait, what if we asked the supplier to renegotiate our contract? We've been paying the same amount for the last four years." That's just one of those things you don't think about. But maybe there's a different way to go about it.
Bruce: To that point, we sometimes will use slow days to do what we call pruning. We'll either prune products or services we've signed up for. We really look at it and say, "Is this important? Is this performing the way it should?" Instead of [thinking of slow days] as a source of panic, you can actually use that as a freebie day, when you can go out there and get things done and return to your family by 5:30 in the afternoon as opposed to 7:30 or 8 p.m.
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