"On occasion, an astute retailer will leap ahead of the pack by using special publicity and promotion to build business and personal recognition." So says the marketing people at the U.S. Small Business Administration. Their experts make almost the same report each year.
It is a fact that not many specialty stores or interior fashions professionals achieve any consistent degree of public recognition in our rootless and uncaring society. A few retail shops and individuals do manage to become well-known in their market areas. They remain profitable for various periods of time. Then, for vague reasons, they fade slowly back into the homogenous majority. Their customers desert them and go elsewhere.
No group understands this behavior of the marketplace better than our stars and celebrities whose fame and income relies on the continuing support of their fans. To retain this adulation and compete against other current and upcoming celebrities, they must hire publicity agents to prepare and release "news" about their many comings and goings.
Sometimes, the news value of a media release must be stretched to arouse the interest of fans or customers. In some tabloid publications, the news may even be fabricated. But, whether truth or fiction, the more outrageous a star's comments or conduct, the more his or her fans and the media seem to be interested.
What do celebrities' stories have in common with the recognition efforts of small businesses? The similarities are many, even to the point of occasional fiction -- especially when it comes to pricing.
Successful merchants, large and small, know they must compete consistently to build and maintain their sales volume. Here are the basics they use:
1. Paid advertising -- consistent schedule of advertisements and commercials in local media (newspapers, radio, television and directories). Planning and using an effective advertising program is difficult and costly for any business. But for most retailers, it is the most reliable way to develop and hold profitable sales levels.
2. Alternate advertising methods -- includes less costly communications options, such as all-important word-of-mouth referrals, direct mail (letters, postcards, etc.), telemarketing, in-store signing, premiums and networking. The costs may be less than the first method, but much personal time and effort is a necessity.
3. Publicity -- using regular news releases about store and personal events to gain unpaid editorial space or time in various local print and broadcast media. As with the first two options, this program must be used on a regular basis to be effective.
Basics Usually Work
Using the above essentials effectively should bring you a satisfactory volume of business. But not always. That's the perennial marketing problem for any retail or manufacturing firm. The basics may not be enough.
Customers may be lured away by a variety of other factors; competitive discounts, new stores, new malls, more creative marketing campaigns. Maybe, regular customers simply want to shop around. Today, customer loyalty is gossamer thin. Often, it is equated with lowest price.
At this point, some retailers give up the struggle. They tire of the constant planning and expenditures needed. They decide to cut costs and make-do on their reputation for a while. Eventually, the slow decreases in customers and sales force them out of business.
Others may drop one of the basics, usually costly advertising, and expand their efforts in other areas. They rely more on alternate advertising methods, especially networking, with an occasional media publicity release added. They manage to get by on their good service reputation with sales to their regular customers and new referrals.
4. Pricing -- reluctant retailers sometimes decide to expand their selling efforts by lowering prices. They resort to competitive warfare by offering discounts, rebates, close-out sales and similar selling incentives.
Their sales may rise temporarily as profits go down. Survival will depend on those customers shopping for the lowest price. Usually, only the big mart operations are successful at this long-range pricing battle.
5. Special promotions -- many merchants try more creative approaches in the form of store or product sales incentives. No room here to outline even a few of the myriad kinds of sales promotions. There is a 532-page encyclopedia, published by the National Retail Merchants Association (NRMA). In it, many hundreds of special sales and good will promotions are listed. No two are exactly alike. Most of them are variations of fairly standard ideas: anniversaries, holiday events, tie-ins, shopping benefit of all kinds.
Effective sales promotions require significant expenditures for displays, signs, ads, contests and personnel back-up. Also, all such specials, whether successful or not, involve much planning time. Cooperation from suppliers and coordination with local media and officials are necessary. Some stores tie-in with local celebrities, show homes or builder's models. Some may become involved with product promotions endorsed by famous media stars.
Not for All
Extravagant promotions may be too much for an average specialty store retailer or designer. Not many small firms have the resources needed to plan and put on such big, splashy events. But, any store or individual can make small waves to attract attention.
It is always possible to become better known in your market area. If budget is available, try expanding your use of the basic marketing steps, noted above. If your budget is too limited, as most are, try more aggressive public relations tactics.
You need boldness and ingenuity to stand out from the crowd. These concepts alone stop most small merchants. Even when they have the resources, training and skills needed, most still "don't want to make waves." Apathy, fear of embarrassment, lack of time or know-how, whatever -- one can always find a reason not to act. Resisting change can be very traumatic for anyone.
So, most avoid changing their business routines. They prefer to continue to provide good service and hope business will continue and improve by itself. Or, as noted above, they accept slow or no growth and manage to stay in business, at least temporarily.
6. Aggressive public relations -- more audacious retailers don't wait. They decide to use more hard-hitting tactics by expanding their efforts to hold regular customers and gain new ones. They do more to cultivate prospects willing to pay extra for their decorating and installation expertise. They amplify their communication procedures, especially those alternate advertising methods, as listed above.
They expand their public awareness programs to gain recognition for themselves and their store or studio. They add such concepts as:
Holding window decorating clinics and installation workshops.
Making more talks and personal presentations to business and builders' groups, women's clubs, civic and social organizations.
Preparing feature articles for submission to various editors of local newspapers and magazines. Some, with the ability to do so, prepare their own materials, including photographs of their own professionally decorated installations. Others hire freelance writers and photographers to help them. The same materials can be used for desktop newsletters and mailers.
Contacting radio and local cable television show producers to volunteer their expertise for existing or potential decorating call-in programs.
Such public relations attempts don't cost a lot of money. Yet, they can gain you almost immediate recognition with long-range profitable results. The point is that expanded public relations activities can really work for you.
None of the above concepts are new or original. Retailer articles by editors and writers of this publication report monthly on such sales-building activities by astute store owners and industry decorators/designers. Regular columnist Kay Pegram and other noted industry experts also have explained the ways to benefit from similar programs.
Become a Character
Finally, if you want to break through all the communications clutter, try using even more daring subjects. Some talented industry professionals aren't afraid to tackle controversial subjects. In fact, they relish the opportunities to speak their minds. And, like the remarks of some national celebrities, the more shocking their comments, the more attention received from prospects and media people.
For best results, such comments should be basically true, even though they are only your personal opinion. Here are some comments that convey this idea:
Most American homemakers have no idea of how to decorate their interiors tastefully. Most American homemakers don't know "what goes with what" for their interior colors and furnishings. Americans drive fancy new cars, but their home interiors are usually a mismatch of eclectic junk. Most Americans prefer fussy Americana or drab eclectic interiors.
You get the idea. Use them if you want to -- or dare to. You may want to tone them down a bit. The point of aggressive marketing is to help you stand out from your many competitors. Some firms and individuals have learned that the basics, along with a good measure of creativity, is necessary to compete successfully in today's changing global economy and differing cultures.
John J. Lichty is a consultant and senior editor for Draperies & Window Coverings magazine. He has more than 30 years experience in the planning and administration of various consumer, trade and retail advertising programs.