Contributed Column

Sales Smarts

by John Von Bargen

A Holiday Policy
That Lasts All Year

Editor’s note: John Von Bargen’s holiday tips for retailers are good advice for businesses of all stripes, year-round.

Well, here it is December already. For most of us in retail, the fourth quarter -and December itself - represents a significant percentage of our annual sales. How prepared are you to make the most out of the holiday retail season? Will your customers be seeing you at your very best this season? More often than not, the answer can be no.

In truth, the mass consumption of the holiday season represents a far larger slice of the retailing pie than December alone. The proliferation of gift cards and the still-increasing trend of gift certificate-giving has pushed the holiday retail season well into the new year. Recent reports indicate that most retail sectors now experience an average of 10 percent of their annual sales in January.

The true gold (no pun intended) of the holiday season is the high percentage of first-time shoppers the holiday traffic delivers to a retailer. The best investment in building next year’s holiday sales is to capitalize on capturing the repeat business of this year’s first-time shoppers.

As we all know, you only get one - two at best - shots at gaining a customer, and loyalty cannot be taken for granted. Likely, with all the doom-and-gloom retail forecasts we’ve been hearing about that are stemming from increased gasoline and home heating costs, this will prove even more true this year.

The “Holiday Shopping Forecast” from Purdue University noted, “While consumers have adjusted to $3 per gallon gas and have kept spending, high gas prices act like a tax on retail spending.” The report goes on to say this will result in “fewer visits by consumers,” making that first impression even more imperative to establishing long-term relationships.

With the increased traffic comes a full set of challenges unique to the holiday season. While customers are plenty and they’re ready to buy, they’re often short on time, stressed or frustrated by the intensity of their shopping experiences. Unfortunately, we, as retailers, and our employees are often affected the same way. Obviously, this is often not the ideal situation for creating the best first impression, delivering killer customer service and beginning a meaningful relationship with that oh-so-important new customer.

So: How do you maximize the potential for repeat business in this climate? Here are a few tips:

Back to Basics

Make sure employees unfailingly adhere to the basics of retail: hellos, smiles and thanks always go a long way and are especially appreciated during the holidays. The Golden Rule is a good precept any time of year.

Train Up

Make sure that staff are freshly trained (and retrained) on core product, presentation, stocking, display, pricing and profit centers. Confidence and security in product knowledge will help keep morale higher during this busy time, as well as maximize profits.

Staff Up

While many retailers traditionally staff up during the holidays, many others have a tendency not to, especially when sales forecasts are less than wonderful or the economy is tight. If you can’t staff up (or even if you do) consider split shifts to break up the day and give employees time to decompress. I believe this is vital.

Provide Incentives

If you don’t already, tie your sales staff into an incentive program for the holidays. It may be a small percentage of the month’s sales if the goal is met, time off, a gift certificate for dinner out. Having something to focus on besides the long and more grueling hours can pay big dividends and increase employee loyalty.

Make Time

Time off is the least expensive incentive available for most companies and often the least used. Try adding extra or longer breaks into the day to relieve stress; and the promise of an extra afternoon or day off (with pay) at the end of the busy season is a great incentive. The better we are able to treat our staffs, the better they are able to treat our customers.

The holiday season can be overwhelming in retail, and it’s often easiest to just push through it the best you can. It’s a lot more effective - and profitable - to develop and execute a simple, internal program that will continue the whole year through and ensure that you’re not just making the sale, but you’re also making customers. •

John Von Bargen is the president of Von Bargen’s Jewelry LLC, with locations in Burlington, Springfield and Stratton, Vt., and Hanover, N.H.

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