I have grown to respect successful retail store operators in recent years. It takes a special entrepreneurial mind, intensive drive, capital and cleverness to build a location business that works. It is a juggling act of advertising, managing employees, holding the line on costs and promoting like crazy to find customers to cover overhead. It takes a sixth sense to find the right location at the right cost and the right commitment of years. Add to that the unique conflict inherent in our industry that does not exist in any other retailing: the customer can only be served correctly by going to her home. Only in her home can we coordinate color with her furnishings, or see firsthand the impact of late afternoon sun streaming from the south, or head off the challenge of baseboard heating with full length draperies. There are important decisionsófunctional, architectural, aesthetic and human preferenceóthat can only be sensed and addressed in the home. Yet, how do you balance at-home service with a store location?
Today, as never before, the cards are stacked against stores. More chains and independents are closing than at any time in recent memory, possibly more than at any time since window coverings retailing was born in the 1950s. At least that is my impression from reports around the country. Every month another owner tells me he or she is closing the store to operate from home.
What has changed? Aside from the fact that all retailing is hurting, fundamental changes are shaking our industry more than others. Start with consumer advertising. Customers arenít responding to traditional newspaper ads. It doesnít drive body count to the store or even to the phone to dial for an appointment like it once did.
Should you close the doors?
Closing the store can be a positive and successful strategy. Itís all in the numbers: $400,000 in sales is not enough to pay rent of $1,500 a month, an employee to stay in the store, and advertising to promote traffic. Add all the costs and there is nothing left for the owner, especially if another person is selling and receiving commission on half the sales.
On the other hand, a $300,000 business operated from home with the owner selling and a part-time bookkeeper can be highly profitable. The trick is to keep sales at least two thirds of the level they were before closing the store. The biggest risk: Customers think you are out of business and will pass the word along to their friends.
HOW TO DO IT RIGHT
The key is to overcome the emotional grief of closing the doors. If you have been in business for years it is much like losing a relative or close friend. You actually might go through the five stages of grief: Denial (this isnít happening to me!); Anger (why is this happening to me?); Bargaining (I promise Iíll be a better person if...); Depression (I donít care anymore); Acceptance (Iím ready for whatever comes).
The problem is, when you are torn up with the emotional trauma of losing the store along with physically moving all the samples and things (where do you put all that stuff?), it is hard to think and plan rationally. So, if you are going to do it, use this checklist to turn lemons to lemonade and make a short-term loss into a long-term benefit.
ē Donít apologize. You are making this move to serve customers better. Tell them how this will give you more time to meet them in their homes, not require them to come to the store. Explain that most of your customers were requesting at-home service, calling on the phone and asking you to bring samples to them. Tell how staying in the store during business hours prevented you from serving customers where they needed you: in their homes.
ē Plan ahead. Announce your move two months before you close. One dealer had a party in the store a week before closing. Invite customers, suppliers and friends. Let them know you will always be there, giving better service than ever. Give out refrigerator magnets in the shape of a van with your personal name and phone number.
ē Send mail every three weeks for the first three months. Prioritize your customer and prospect list. Invest $300 a month for mailings (about 500 names a month). Send the same message repeatedly: You are moving to serve your customers better... you are now available days, evenings and weekends at the convenience of your customers. Offer a Preferred Customer Gift Certificate of $50 for any product you sell. No strings, no minimum. Itís a gift not a discount.
ē Call every past customer the first 30 days after you close. You can reach or leave messages for 100 customers a week easily. It will take only about an hour a day. It is smart business to be sure customers know you are still there to serve them. And, itís smart therapy to get your mind off the grief of closing and focusing on other people and their needs.
ē Build your Web site as your business location. Be sure you are registered with Google, Yahoo and all the search engines for your community. Show photos of satisfied customers smiling happily next to the great window products you sold them. Even better, have someone else snap the picture with you and your customer together, both smiling. Get the photos before you close the store. Be sure they are on your Web site before shutting the doors for good.
ē Send e-mail messages weekly for 60 days. Before you close get e-mail addresses of every customer and friend. Reassure every person every week that you are still around and ready to serve. Tell them to get the word to their friends: You are giving better service than ever. Without store hours you can meet customers in their home at any time convenient for them.
This article is based on Steven C. Burstenís actual experience with sales and financial information working with hundreds of window coverings businesses. Bursten is co-founder and CEO of Exciting Windows! a network of experienced and aspiring window coverings professionals. He also co-founded the International Window Coverings Exchange, Window Coverings University, and WCU Online, and is the founder of Interiors by Decorating Den. Whether you are a sole operator of a personal business or manage 50 window fashions consultants, this series will help you improve sales and increase profitability. Bursten encourages questions and comments at steveb@ExcitingWindows.com