Welcome to my blog dedicated to my Elizabeth House Shop Talk Series. I have worn many hats in my life and continue to do so. One hat I wore for several years was as a shop owner. I had zero experience, zero dollars, and zero connections. The Internet and blogging were practically non-existent back then and shop owners back then were not willing to share. Books were too complicated because my questions were so basic (and almost too embarrassing to ask!). I had no clue what I was getting into and to be honest, I had some resentment that I had learned so much the hard way because I truly had no one to turn to. I swore to myself that if I ever learned a darn thing, I would pass it on to others because there is no such thing as a stupid question. I am willing to share my experiences as a store owner, consultant, buyer, vendor, stylist, and designer. Basically, we all want the same thing - to create, to learn, and be happy doing it. I hope this blog brings you a little joy in knowing that you are not alone and that there is at least one person out there that has "been there done that" who didn't have a clue and has lived to write about it. I love to talk shop and the biz of business continues to intrigue me.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Time Isn't Always Money

Feeling on top of the world are you? Retail season almost over and you are just itching to show the world what you are made of aren't you? I loved those days when "granny panties" were thought of as cute and not a devastating reality of comfort over fashionable. But really, how many of us really end up in the emergency room with our pants needing to be cut off anyway? But I digress... (and no, that is not a photo of me...had it been, I would have been dragging about a bolt of fabric...)

Question: How are you going to spend all that extra income you are currently making during your holiday sales? Or what about that load of cash you made on Black Friday? And don't even get me started on your after holiday mark-down frenzy of shoppers that will be knocking down your doors with credit cards waving in the air looking for those sales. With all that cash in the bank, I am sure you are planning a huge advertising campaign to start off the new year with, right? Oh, I'm sorry, wrong blog, for a minute there, I thought I was writing a blog to Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig or Nutri-System...because they are the only companies that I would bet on that will have a good cash flow in January and February as the annual diet of nearly every American starts every year (and ends abruptly every March).

But for the rest of the retail world of reality, sales, cash and shoppers are never steady or a sure thing and especially in this economy it is especially important to plan ahead on how to get the word out about your store, to keep customers coming back, and the big questions is: How to do this cheaply and effectively?

Recently I was invited as a guest speaker to speak to a group of women business owners in a cute, vibrant town here in Missouri who had that very question. They wanted to know how to get their name "out there" and what are some of the best ways to advertise and more importantly, the avenues that produces results. I thought I would share with you some of ways I got myself out "there" and hopefully there may be an idea or two that may be of use to you, or at the very least, inspire a new concept for your particular situation. Every one's situation is different and set of circumstances create new opportunities to try different things. Below are just a few ways that I tried with the little that I had to work with.

First, I will start with the obvious. Go to your Chamber of Commerce and make sure you are on every free local business guide and local website. Next, look at your local paper and find the Home section and usually there is at least one day where an editor or feature writer addresses a home issue (or a topic that relates to your type of store). Once you identify the type of articles that the newspaper features that caters to your interest, then send them an informational packet of your business.

Informational Packet (or also known as Press Kit or PR kit) can be a variety of things. Also, many also send the electronic media type as well. Both are important and both can be very simple and inexpensive. Most importantly, make yours stand out. At the very least, have a sheet with an overview of your business (the who, what, where) and a two or three (max) statement of what your business is all about. It could be something simple like: The Restful Nest is a comfort-inspired boutique for those seeking cozy home furnishings, locally handcrafted home decor, and soothing senses for the soul. Organic lotions, soaps, and body oils are part of the bath and body collection. Gift certificates and custom gift baskets are available and orders accepted on our website www..... you get the idea. Include a brief list of products (unique products!) that you sell, any services you offer, and most importantly, all contact information. Yes, I know the last is obvious, but you would be surprise how many times a website or email address is left out. Finally include a short bio of the owner and a photo of the owner. Always, always, always, include a couple of product shots, interior store shots, exterior store shots and keep them up to date. Have all photos on disks at all times. Include your business card, and any other press you have received as credentials. So to sum it up:

A Press Kit (at a minimum)

A business overview
A business who, what, where, when
Store hours, phone number, location
Owner bio, photo
Store photos
Product photos
Product list
All this in a nice folder
And all this on disk as well

Keep it simple, short, clean, visually appealing and neat. You might want to send an email to let the editor know you are sending it so they may look for it.

Now, who do you send this to? You send this to all your local design or home magazines. You offer to the editor story ideas and the use of your inventory for props. You offer it to local newspapers for the same. You send it to possible charity events, home show events, design events, or whatever your store is related to, get involved in the community.

Now....word of caution: Before you send ANYTHING out...make sure you have your ducks in a row. Editors always need stories and you may get calls before you know it. Many times an editor of a local magazine will send an assistant over to hunt down a prop or to do a quick shoot for a little story at the last moment and without even calling you ahead of time...they just show up! You want your store to always be photo ready. And always give the photographer a disk of your own stock photos...many times they will use those photos and that gives you a little more control of what may be used in the feature.

Volunteer as much as you can in local events to get your name in programs. Or donate items. I donated gift certificates all the time. For a while, I probably averaged 50 - 75 certificates a year. I donated beautiful gift certificates offering one hour of my consulting services. This got my name all over town in all sorts of charity event programs and many of the times the certificates were never redeemed so it was really free. They were just auctioned off or bought for the cause at the event itself.

I also did show houses a lot when I had a store. This was very time consuming and can be expensive. But it got a lot of publicity and it showcased my work. My work always ended up in local magazines, and in all three cases, my work ended up in national magazines. The photos were already taken, they were just submitted to editors of magazines.

Always get the latest editor list inside the magazine (they change often) and email them with a query letter and samples of your story idea or read their magazine and see if there is a regular feature you may be able to fill for them.

Finally, pool together with other store owners and buy a combined ad. Now we are finally getting to the paid stuff. Everything I mentioned above is all FREE! I rarely paid for all my major ads. I did however, pay very regularly for ads that came out at least twice a month in the local paper. I did it non-stop for 5 years. Study the ads in the local magazines and newspaper and see which ones catch your eye and why. I can tell you right now which ones will stand out without ever opening a single magazine or newspaper. It will be the ad that is clean, shows your unique personality, has a good photo (does not have to be color) and the print is good and not always lot of it. Studying ads was a favorite past time of mine (and still is when I have time). But sometimes, having an unique ad isn't always enough. It is important to realize where you ad is placed in the publication and what the other ads surrounding your ad will look like. Most of the time, this is not possible and unless you have a large advertising budget to pay for placement, you won't have a say. However, if you study a particular publication long enough, you may get a feel for the sort of advertisers that regularly place ads and what they look like. This may help you decide who you are competing with in space, looks, and how you may make your ad stand out just a bit more (change it up just a tiny bit) to help yourself out in that particular publication.

Now for the sake of "teaching by showing" I am going to go out on a limb and show an example and by NO MEANS do I mean to imply that any of these ads are in need of "fixing." In fact, many of them are my favorite store owners and vendors who, I feel have ads that express their personality and business perfectly. I feel safe in using this example just to show a point and nothing more. So, back to my point of ad placement. When researching where to spend your hard earned dollars on an ad, take a look at what type of ads are already in that publication. It is very smart to place an ad in a publication in which the readers are likely to be your customers, but at the same time, you want to make sure you get noticed. So for or example, if you had just quickly glanced at the back of Romantic Homes, and saw these ads, what do you see in common?

Do you see it? There is a lot of PINK in almost every single ad. You see, each ad is very pretty and very unique...on its own. But, once the ads are all on one page (which makes it affordable) they begin to resemble one another simply because of the color. So now what? You say that your ad and logo are normally pink and so now are you suppose to change things around just to stand out when I am just about to tell in a moment to be consistent with your ads? What is up with that? No, I wouldn't make any drastic changes, of course, but I would take note of what type of placement I am getting, who is around my ad, and how I could make mine stand out a bit without losing my "look" or personality. It might be something as simple as changing the boarder to a deep brown or using an actual photo (very crisp) of a product instead of a graphic, or maybe even using my aging (but smiling) mug shot to welcome readers to visit my website...who knows. But the point is, no matter how thoughtful and pretty your ad is (and by the way, I think all the advertisers hit the target perfectly for the market of readers for this particular magazine), if it is on a page filled with other very thoughtful and pretty ads, then there is a risk of not getting the attention that you deserve and worked hard to earn.

Which leads me to another very interesting topic that I never really understood in all the years I have been doing this. Like I said earlier, I really do mean it when I say I study ads. When I owned a store, I did it for business reasons and research, but I now I continue to do to see trends, and it is a little passion of mine. Something I have noticed over the years is that so many business owners seem to have ads that look so much alike! I never understood this. I would look at our local magazines (which are very nice) and month after month I would just be amazed at how the local fashion boutique ads ALL had the same feel, same color family, same font family, and even similar layouts. Locally, I would see so many of the same qualities in one form or another: Photo at the side of the ad of with a young, chic skinny girl posing with lots of white space in the background surrounded and edged in brown and pink colors (and now lately blue) with text on the right side of the page and the store's logo and info in a colored banner along the edge of the ad. Lately it seems to be trendy to make the store's information in CLEAN, TINY, ALL CAP FONT. When there is a sale in the ad, the trend seems to be to have one large photo of a product and then tiny print of store info at the bottom in a banner.

Now, I am not saying these are bad ads. Not at all. In fact, most look very clean, classy and done very well. The problem is (in my uneducated opinion) is that so many of them look so much alike that if I were to cover the stores' names, it would be very hard to guess which ad belonged to which store. This is nothing new. I have noticed store ads looking a lot alike for years now and I always wondered why. Does one store see a great ad and then go about designing an ad just like it because it is so nice looking? Or, are all the stores using the same marketing firm that has very little creative juice to actually come up with original layouts for many different clients? Are store owners wanting to fit in and not stand out thinking they will look more legit with an ad that looks like all the others? Do store owners feel a little lost in ad design and turn to see "what's out there" and feel more comfortable just doing what appears to sell because, hey, they see it in a nice magazine so it must work? I think it is yes to all those questions. I address building your business look and making it your own in another Shop Talk that may assist you.

When thinking of paying for an ad, you don't have to be wizard at this and most likely you may have to pay someone to design it, but remember, you have the final say so you must do your local homework. But remember the basics. You DO want to stand out. You want to get your message across without a lot of clutter, but with this clean line look being so popular now, going to the extreme may have lost a little of its appeal so don't scale down so much that you lose your personality. Unless you are very modern or that was your look along and you were just ahead of the game and the rest of the industry just caught up with you! :-)

Study ads in your local area and decide which you like and don't like and why. Are they easy to read? Do you know in an instant which ad belongs to which store owner? Is contact information easy to see? Are the boarders clean? All these things are important. And one last note. Never accept the rate card price for a newspaper or magazine ad. That is the price the salesperson gives you upfront first. Those prices are always negotiable and the rate card is just a starting point. I should know because yes, once upon a time, I use to sell advertising and so I speak from experience. Many times, an extra ad can be thrown in or maybe it can be ran a little longer or even be offered in color at the same rate. You just have to ask about it.

Also, when it comes to ads, please be consistent! I have seen too many business owners change, and change again their logo, their look, their font, color and so on and when their ads come out over and over again, there is no equity built in to their name because no one really recognizes them. Find out what works and stick with it. Make sure you can read it in print, on line, in a magazine, in newsprint, in a program, on a business card, on a postcard and so on.

And then there is the blog world, emails, websites and all of that. That wasn't so necessary when I owned my store. But for now, if I had my store today, I would definitely have at least a website to at least give people contact information even if that contact information was to just lead them to your blog, which is easy and free to maintain. If you can do more, then great. But now we are talking about much more expense, more time to update and maintain and so on. You have to use your time wisely.

There are so many other ways to advertise, but this is a start. Once you get some local ads going, then if you want something national, that usually comes to after you get some local articles. But practice doing all this locally before you do anything nationally. You may only get one chance and you don't want to blow it with a national editor. They are extremely busy and get tons of emails and snail mail. Be prepared to wait a while before you get a response and then be prepared to go at the last minute as things change so quickly in the magazine world.

Now, having said all of the above (whew!) I am going to be perfectly honest and let you know that all the articles and features that have been written about me or my store have not, in all reality, produce any real extra income. It is great for the ego, and for credibility, but when it comes to the bank account, not too much increased (unless you have a very busy online store up and running, then maybe). But like I said, early on in my store owning days, online stores were not nearly as popular and blogs were almost non-existent. But like you, it is nice to see our business in print, but financially, it had little effect. And from talking to some fairly big-time store owners who regularly are in the "big-time" mags, they too tell me that all the press doesn't lead to bigger bank accounts at all.

If you are one of the very lucky few who can afford a real PR person to handle all of this for you (and I wasn't) and you don't have to take the photos, or write the bios, or get the mailings out or down load the photos to disks and so on, then that is wonderful because it all takes so much time. But, most likely, it will be you that does it. But once you have it done, then it is easy to just whip out a kit, and get it in the mail. But for those of us who aren't in the position to hire a person to do every single job that needs to be done (run the store, do the bookkeeping, answer the phone, create displays, order inventory, design our ads, create PR kits, keep up with the mailings, design the website and maintain it, change out window display, shop for inventory, spend time with customers, the list goes on and on...) unless you can hire someone to do all of the daily duties of owning a shop, then the best advice I can offer is to spend your time wisely on how you want to advertise. It is time consuming to do it right. And ask yourself if you just want to be recognized or do you want more money in the bank. Because each of those ways takes a lot of time and there are only so many hours in a day.

I hope this helps give you some ideas and know that I wish you only the best. And I would love to know that your sales this retail season were really so good that you don't even need to read this post because you can afford to hire a PR person to take care of all this for you. I, unfortunately, never got quite that far.

But, I did learn a lot! :-) I learned the hard way, the expensive way and the time-consuming way. I hope I am able to save you some of those troubles. And I learned that there are many other ways (better ways) of doing things. I was just blessed that God took mercy on me and decided to help me limp along and make things happen. He is good to me and I am not sure why sometimes. But He is good to us all if we just ask, have faith, and know He gives us just what we need just at the right moment every time....in His time....not ours. (That is the hard part for me. Always was and still is ....sigh...)

Happy $elling and I am proud of you,


Secret Leaves said...

Excellent post, Elizabeth. I couldn't have said it better myself. :)


PS. Humorously, the capcha I had to type in was "undie." Ha!

Elizabeth said...

Thanks! I might "say" it better, but you most certainly "do" it better! You should know - you taught me a lot... undies on or not (and I don't want to know) :)


The Tattered House said...

Thanks so much Elizabeth. Just found by way of a friend and I'd like to think of myself as a creative retailer (aka always wiped out!!!). Anyhow, my business partner and I are currently working on our press kits and I stumbled upon this invaluable post. Thanks so very much for laying out the necessities....your newest follower. Sandy...

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