If it’s broke fix it! A lesson for the small retailer and any other small business owner.

I spent another fascinating hour watching the latest edition of Mary Portas’ programme, Mary, Queen of Shops yesterday. If you missed it Mary was trying to help a DIY retailer in Lightwater, Surrey whose business was struggling to such an extent that he is in danger of losing everything. As usual there were loads of lessons for retailers in particular, and small businesses in general, in this latest programme but it’s the reluctance to change a failing business that I want to concentrate on today.

Once again Mary was faced with an owner who opposed, or failed to implement, most of her ideas. Although his business is failing and Mary offered loads of suggestions to give him a chance to compete successfully he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make most of the changes.

We live in an age of rapid development and constant change. Small retailers have competition like they’ve never had before and yet so many remain wedded to their same old ways. This is invariably a recipe for disaster. Retail is a dynamic industry with the big boys getting bigger by being really sharp and aggressive in their desire for ever greater profits. Small retailers have to compete or die.

Retailing has become much more scientific in the last few years with lots of research into how customer behaviour can be influenced to encourage people to buy more. The big boys know this and use it to plan their layouts, their sales promotions and even the music they play. Sadly many smaller retailers continue with out dated layouts, poor signage, the wrong opening hours and no online presence. What’s worse many small retailers fail to capitalise on the biggest advantage they have over the big boys, their personal relationships with their customers.

Whatever line of business we are in we need to understand our customers and what they want and will be prepared to pay for. It’s important to remember that people don’t buy what they need unless they also want it. As small business owners we have to decide which of their wants are appropriate for us to supply. It isn’t appropriate for us to supply one off requests which are not consistent with what we do. (Who ever expects a DiY store to stock slippers?!)

We need to make it clear to customers and prospects what we offer and make it easy for them to buy. People won’t buy from you what they don’t know you sell. For retailers that means signage, displays (including windows) and marketing.  For other businesses it might be about the website, networking or direct mail.

It is all about communication and the small business has a huge advantage here. Owners should be talking to customers and to their staff. What do they think about our offer, what would they like to see change, what could we do to make their lives easier or more successful? One opinion is not enough but if lots of people have the same opinion it’s time to do something about it. So get talking to your customers now, it could be the making of your business.

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