Okay, I am about to be blasphemous. Are you ready?
Being independent doesn’t necessarily make you better.
Being independent CAN give you the competitive edge in a number of ways and THAT can make you better, but only if you understand why and truly take advantage of it.
Most of you know already why you can be better. Things like more breadth in your selection, better customer service, special programming, creative merchandising, unique atmosphere, hidden gems, community outreach, and a clean bathroom (usually).
We also all know what kind of pressures we are under as independent retailers. This is a very difficult business, and we are encountering new market forces all the time that are squeezing our margins, eroding our profits, and making us question our sanity for loving this business in the first place. Sometimes it seems impossible.
However, it is vitally important that although you carry a very heavy weight on your shoulders, you do not transfer even the slightest bit of it onto that most sensitive of creatures—your customer.
This can be very hard. We have all had a moment when we want to take a customer by the shoulders and shake them after an exchange like this:
Customer: I was in here six months ago, and over there on that table you had a book with a blue cover, and I think it had something to do with history.
Bookseller [warming up fingers over keyboard]: Can you tell me anything else about it?
(Bookseller spends fifteen minutes with customer, and after umpteen searches, finally determines title and author of book, which has become a surprise bestseller following an NPR interview and temporarily OS but due in at any moment.)
Bookseller: Would you like me to order it for you?
Customer: No, that’s okay. I’ll just order it online.
This is when you want to sit the customer down and treat them to a brief but impassioned primer about the history and economics of the publishing industry.
But here’s the thing: a big part of successfully capitalizing on your edge as an independent retailer comes from moving beyond the strictly moral argument about buying independent. You don’t want them to buy from you just because you are independent. (Well maybe you do, but they won’t unless the next sentence is true.) You want them to buy from you because you can do it better. You’re never going to be able to compete on price. Your edge is quality and service. You need to sell your store as well as you sell your books. Make your store the bestseller.
It all has to do with positive delivery and understanding the difference between features and benefits. Shifting the customer’s psychology from one to the other will have a profound effect on the bottom line. A positive message sends a signal to your customer that you are a fun, successful business and a good place to shop.
For instance, here’s a feature: We special order books. Here’s a benefit: When you order your book with us, not only do you get it just as fast, but we can recommend the perfect book to follow it up.
Features are the nuts and bolts of your store, while benefits are the emotional payoff.
For every feature, you can find a benefit, and when you communicate about your store, the benefits should be much more prominent than the features.
Back to our customer above. How could we have used “benefit thinking” to convert that opportunity to a sale?
Instead of the simple “Would you like me to order it?” try “If I order it for you now, I can get it faster than you would online, and I’d be happy to hold it. In the meantime, we stock a great section of history books. Can I make a suggestion of something we’ve really liked?”
With this response you’ve done three things: you’ve pre-empted the idea of buying online, you’ve listed not one but two benefits of your store, and you’ve shown excellent customer service.
Here’s three exercises to help you define and make use of your benefits:
- Pick up three pieces of printed material that have to do with the store. Ads, flyers, postcards, mailers, whatever. Do they list features, or promote benefits? If they are listing features, how would you write about the corresponding benefits?
- Make a list of all of the features of your store. Then make a corresponding list of benefits. Even if you have been in business for many years, touching base with the benefits of shopping in your store is a valuable exercise. When you train your staff, make sure they know the difference.
- Brainstorm five of the most difficult customer service situations where you lose sales. See if you can come up with benefits-related responses to turn the sale around. Make these responses standard among your staff.
Make selling the store as important as selling a book. Don’t take it for granted that your customer knows why your business is special. A positive, can-do attitude will go much further with your customers than any explanation of how tough a business it is.
A Word About Buy Local
When I talk about letting go of your moral argument above, I am not talking about making the case for Buying Local. If you have a Buy Local campaign in your community, you should be participating, and if you don’t have one, you should consider starting one. The American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) is a great place to start for resources, as is the Shop Local page of the ABA website. Buy Local campaigns are tremendously positive, and have all kinds of great side benefits for both you and your customer.
But even here you can apply a little positive psychology. Most Buy Local materials list the reasons why a customer SHOULD buy locally. These arguments are all good, but from a consumer point of view they can feel a little bit like medicine. No consumer wants to feel guilty because they make an occasional purchase online, or had to pick up a product at a chain because they couldn’t find it anywhere else. Heck, there’s probably no one reading this that hasn’t made use of Amazon from time to time, if only as a books-in-print
Sweeten the spoonful for the customer. They are already in your store, supporting you, so why not give them a little praise for what they’ve just done! Download the ABC Buy Local counter talker, and see what I mean. By shifting the message slightly, you can make all of the same points in a way that includes the customer and makes them feel good about their choice today. Much easier to swallow from the consumer point of view, and it will create a positive association.
By Kristen McLean- © 2007 All rights reserved. Please contact ABC for permission to reproduce