Having recently tried to tackle the issues faced by small to medium businesses against the big chains, I thought it might be helpful to perhaps pass on some of the advice I have received and those tips that myself and my fellow traders have found to be the most useful.
1:Remember your customers are people, not numbers.
This is as basic as it gets;no one likes being a reference number. It helps the business admin to have a reference for each transaction but to the customer, it removes the personal touch and makes them feel unimportant and unwanted. Smaller businesses are more likely to have regular and locally based customers. Being greeted by name and by someone who can recall what you discussed on a previous visit is enough to warrant the small percentage difference in price for a lot of people. It makes them feel special and for all of us, that is something money cannot replace.
2:We are neighbours.
Chances are that your customers are also locally employed, meaning that if you shop locally or live within your own delivery or service area, you may well be their customer at some point. Treat them as you would expect or want to be treated.

3:Small details make a big deal.
Large chains often offer prices we cannot match due to buying power. What they can’t always offer are the small details that a small business can. The inflexibility of a large chain system can work in your favour. If the customer is on your route home, why not offer to deliver personally after locking up?
A £299 freezer with a delivery charge and a delivery date only means the customer has to wait in all day for the goods and pay extra for the privilege plus losing a days wages or holiday.
Offering a £330 freezer with delivery on a weekend or after hours , especially if its a free delivery and removal of the old unit, will often clinch the deal.

4.First amongst equals.

Treat people as equals with equal knowledge in a different field.No one feels like spending money if they are made to feel inferior.

5.Team work continues outside the office.

In any business community, the small businesses must work together to a common goal.What helps improve the business environment in your area will help all businesses in that area. Consider joining a traders group, such as your local Chamber.Larger chain companies cannot or will not contribute to local issues, thus alienating customers who feel strongly about those issues.

6.You are your own brand.Sell the brand.

How many customers buy a product because of a recognised name? Brands sell. Make your name/company name recognised locally.People don’t talk about popping out to the supermarket, they go to Tescos or Sainsbury’s. Make your name synonymous with your service and product and people won’t consider the competition.Make sure people refer to your business by name rather than description.Sell the brand ,then the product.

7.Knowledge is power.

Train your staff and yourself. Be able to back up the written description of the product with more information that the customer won’t find on the ticket.I have shopped in large department stores where, when asked about a product, the staff could only read off the shelf ticket. I can do that myself. Educate your staff and any knowledge will translate as specialist training to the customer and therefore value for money. Importantly, keep the knowledge fresh:Update training regularly.Use your local school,college or training  facilities.

8.We are all unique.

Try some form of exclusivity. A number of suppliers will avoid competing with themselves by only supplying to one outlet in a given area. If they themselves are a small business (by comparison) they will have problems with supplying to large chains. Make an exclusivity deal and eliminate local competition. Promote that exclusivity. i.e.’Approved Stockist’ .

9.Can’t compete won’t compete.

This is one of the controversial tips. Some deals you won’t be able to match. Economies of scale mean that unless you are promising orders in huge amounts and often, suppliers simply won’t give you the same prices as the chains.The answer may be simply to not offer that product. Accept you cannot win and offer something else:An alternative or a different product line alotogether.Putting all your effort into trying to run with the big boys may leave you more vulnerable than running your own path and picking up customers that way.

10.If you love them, set them free.

Sometimes it is easy to put too much pressure on the customer for that first sale.The ethos that no one leaves without a purchase can make uncomfortable shopping for the poor customer. Sending them away with information and a feeling that you are there to help rather than just to snatch a deal will make them more inclined to return. If there is no pressure to part with money immediately, they will feel more at ease and happier to trust you and ,hopefully to invest in that trust.In furniture sales, I have found a rushed sale often results in mistakes and returns. A customer at ease and reassured after up to three visits before the final decision is more likely to have made a considered and therefore correct choice. The follow up visits and subsequent purchases prove that. Someone is more likely to return and pay that small percentage more for goods if the environment is a happy and comfortable one and they don’t feel under pressure to buy.

 

 

Advertisements

Breakfast Frenzy

May 14, 2009

This week has been a bit of a time shift for me simply because I am one of the worst people I know for early starts. Monday was the usual wake up at half seven, wake up again at eight then rush about getting fed and making myself presentable before leaving at quarter to nine. Tuesday came with a six o’clock start, rolling out of bed half an hour later and struggling through the usual routine nearly ninety minutes too early for my brain to recognise where, who or what it was. It was the day of the Inside Business Magazine Open Forum breakfast at The Winter Gardens . That was a dry affair, from the breakfast bap with a couple of greasy slices of bacon to the debate which turned out to be a chance for the board to talk at the audience. The breakfast which preceded the sit down forum was little more than a large foyer with a table of bacon baps and danish pastries served by two members of staff and accompanied by a coffee or tea. This meant standing and talking whilst trying to juggle a paper plate and a china cup and hand out business cards all at once. Not a wise idea and I’d recommend perhaps seating as a minimum.

The forum wasn’t. It was billed as an open debate but realistically would have required a full day of debate rather than the hour or so that we had. The panel were all very educated in their fields but didn’t actually answer many of the questions the audience were asked to submit beforehand. The range of subjects that were covered was very limited, mainly due to time constraints. A much lengthier debate would have received greater plaudits.

After that, I returned to my day job as a mild mannered retail store manager, filled another day with paperwork, customers and fair trade coffee before going home to a hot meal and a night of bad tv and emails.

The following morning was another six o’clock start for my own Chamber breakfast. In conjunction with Michaela at The Alasia Restaurant, Weston Chamber, or rather just myself, had organised a breakfast to encourage more interaction between town centre businesses and to draw more members for the chamber itself. The publicity for the restaurant was an added advantage and the chance to link up with a new chamber member in Michaela made it all very satisfying. As opposed to the previous day, the feast on offer was incomparable. We were greated by the owners themselves and offered a hot drink on arrival. The restaurant offers a vast range of teas and a very good coffee and as we were encouraged to our seats,grouped in fours, we found platters to share filled with exotic and fresh fruits. This was follwed up with plates of mixed toasts and a selection of preserves. During the breakfast, I introduced the co sponsors, hosts and speakers for the event. Andrew Brown and Lawrence Russel of Albert Goodman Financial were welcomed as speakers and gave us some very useful insights and advice whilst Debbie Staveley of b Clear Communications held us all rapped as she drew us into the inner macinations of the PR world.

Our sponsors, without whom the breakfast would not have been possible were Chawner Grey Solicitors and Buildbase builder’s Merchants. Both sponsors were very generous and made very welcome partners in the first breakfast of this kind the chamber has organised. We hope to work woth both sponsors in the near future and to repeat the undeniable success of this venture.

I attended a Business Club meeting on tuesday evening and, despite being let down by one speaker due to communication errors, we all left with a strong feeling that a lot of the present crisis was not only brought upon by the greed of a few, but could have and should have been easily avoided.

The main talk was given by Andrew Brown of Albert Goodman Financial planners.

Andrew is by nature a gregarious and exceptionally contagious person, his manner of discussing things that would leave most highly qualified financiers baffled in terms that the layperson can relate too is beyond comparison.

He brought along a small handout detailing some basic advice from another associate from Albert Goodman, Nick Hancock, which read:

Approaching the Tax Year end and many company accounting year ends, it is worth while considering tax planning.

The following are a few ideas;

  • Pay pension contribution prior to 5th April

  • Utilise full £50,000 Annual Investment Allowance

  • Use full £9,600 Capital Gains Tax Annual Allowance

  • Create a capital loss from sale of assets

  • Delay sales to following year

  • Bring forward revenue expenditure, for example repairs of buildings

  • Issue dividends pre 5th April

  • Pay spouses and/or children wages

  • Consider profitability for Tax credit purposes

  • If profitability is falling,consider reducing tax payments on account

  • Think about spreading tax payments over 12 months

These points in themselves raised a few eyebrows and prompted some serious questions, all which were dealt with comprehensively by Andrew as were the many, many questions that followed.Some of the points that were explained were how and why we got into this crisis, what it has meant positively for us and what we can and need to do now to limit the devastation.

One thing that has happened, quite clearly and publicly , is that the rate of inflation has collapsed. The pound in your pocket is worth the same as it was  some months, even a year ago. The halt in inflation and the collapse of the housing bubble has meant that first time buyers are once more able to take faltering steps towards the housing market, something that was unthinkable as little as 12 months ago ,unless you were a commune.

When the changes brought in by the Thatcher years allowed ordinary working people to buy their own homes, we all thought it was a great thing, a liberation for the masses. In reality, what has happened is that those with the money have bought up all the available property , forcing the prices up beyond the reach of those ordinary folk creating a baron landlord society with the few owning the majority.

The collapse has brought prices back down to a level where the process can restart.

Variable rate mortgages have disappeared, withdrawn by susceptible banks and leaving many people now paying little more than interest only mortgages. The extra spending power that brings may, it is hoped, kickstart the retail economy .

Car manufacturers are struggling to keep factories open to the extent that they are in some areas offering new cars at below cost prices, choosing to lose less money by not closing factories. Also , contracts are now being offered on shorter terms to those who hire company cars or vans, again at below cost prices of up to £100 subsidies.

It may feel as though we are heading into bleak times, but don’t be too distressed, every silver lining may have it’s cloud but there are some bargains to be had, just take the time, and importantly professional advice, and manage your accounts closely. You may find that your lifestyle costs can be dramatically cut, your mortgage minimised and some debts cancelled if you were miss sold a mortgage or endowment package.

Some people were apparently so pressurised into taking up new credit cards that they never received the proper paperwork to read and agree to at the time. If you were one of those people, contact Andrew or Albert Goodman Financial advisors, you may be able to write off that card debt entirely.

After his impressive talk on Tuesday, I have asked Andrew, already a Chamber member , to give a talk at a future Chamber meeting. I will of course, alert all readers nearer the time.