Getting Customers Back in the Door

Who's to blame if sales slump at your retail store -- and how do you go about fixing it?

My small clothing store has always done well in this college town, but in 2005 I had a terrible time getting traffic through the door. We had constant promotions, held fashion shows, expanded online, and advertised, but sales were dramatically slower last fall than they've ever been. I've recently instituted a per-hour sales quota for my employees, but I don't know if that will help. Any suggestions?

--S.S., Lawrence, Kan.

Simply instituting a sales quota isn't likely to solve your dilemma, experts say, especially if attracting shoppers is at the root of your troubles. After all, even the most charming and attentive clerk can't close a sale if there are no customers coming through the door.

Think instead about what may be behind your drop-off in traffic as compared to previous years. Remember that last fall was a tough time for many companies, with the Gulf Coast experiencing Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath and consumers wrestling with increasing gas prices. What else has changed locally that may have affected your sales?


  Have you got a new competitor nearby? Has there been a drop in college enrollment, or is there increasingly high unemployment in your area? Identify anything that may have affected your sales and come up with a response to it, suggests Ben Tenn of Tenn Consulting in Northridge, Calif.

Next, evaluate your store as objectively as you can. Could there be a reason that it has developed a bad reputation? Have your employees been rude to customers or ignored them? Is the merchandise old? Have you recently remodeled or changed some policies that may have turned off customers? Is the place sparkling clean and attractive?

"Take your store apart and really clean it," suggests Bob Phibbs, a sales and marketing consultant who specializes in small retailers. "I mean move all the racks away from the walls, get rid of the gray dirt in the corners, polish the racks with furniture polish until they shine. Then put the racks back in a new order. Go through all your merchandise and look for dirty left sleeves (where customers handled your garments as they went through the racks) and either get them cleaned or cleared out at a significant discount -- like 60%."


  Phibbs also suggests that you put together new fashion combinations using your existing stock, replace any burned-out lightbulbs so your interior and exterior lighting is at full strength, and clean your display windows of old banners and signs, replacing anything there with just one eye-catching outfit. "The best retail is like our homes: comfortable, friendly, and a place we go out of our way to return. [If your customers are not returning], I suggest that there's a reason, and the answers are usually within your four walls," he says.

Rather than speculating about why your former customers aren't returning, try asking them, suggests Tenn. "Call or mail those who shopped your store in the past," he says. Ask what they like and dislike about the store, and what has brought them back to shop with you in the past. If you don't have a mailing list, start one now.

"Many retailers fail to capture good information on their customers, which customers are often eager to share," says Curt Clinkenbeard, director of the University of Kansas Small Business Development Center in Lawrence. "Start by capturing better information and communicating more with your existing customers." Once you have a customer list established, send out a communication every 60 days, though it doesn't always have to be notice of a sale.


  It might also be enlightening for you to pull together a group of customers and ask them to help you brainstorm ways to improve revenues and overcome the recent slump. Treat them to lunch or dinner at a restaurant, or host a sandwich buffet for them in your store after hours. Similarly, Clinkenbeard suggests that you survey your employees for their thoughts on the downturn in business and ask them for solutions.

Once you've gotten a handle on the factors contributing to your customer scarcity, come up with a plan to overcome them. Then you can focus on new training for your employees that will help them close more sales with any new traffic you're able to generate.

"If you aren't in your store most of the time, you may be dealing with shrinkage from employees discounting your wares or plain out stealing merchandise," Phibbs warns. "If you have the same staff over time, they can become lazy. Sometimes they need retraining -- sometimes it's just time to go."


  A small clothing store should be capitalizing on the kind of personal customer care that's not available in the big-box stores or online, Clinkenbeard says: "Become obsessive about creating an amazing retail experience."

Finally, visit your local Small Business Development Center (SBDC) for additional marketing advice, Clinkenbeard suggests. "Marketing is one of the often overlooked areas that SBDCs can greatly help with," he notes.

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