By Stephen A. Ross
The IPCPR Annual Convention & International Trade Show is far more than just an opportunity to spend a few days learning about and buying the newest cigars, pipes, tobaccos and smoking accessories. It’s also a chance to network with industry peers and share tips on good practices over a drink and a smoke at the end of a long day on the trade show floor.
Sometimes it’s good to hear from voices outside of the premium tobacco industry. For many years, the IPCPR has organized seminars presented by retail experts from other industries to communicate lessons they have learned in their own businesses. This year, Dave Ratner, owner of Dave’s Soda and Pet City and author of Creating Customer Love: Make Your Customers Love You So Much They’ll Never Go Anyplace Else!, presented two seminars, “How to Get and Keep Good Customers” and “12 Things to Do As Soon As You Get Back to the Store.”
A member of the National Retail Federation board of directors and the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association board of directors, Ratner started his business selling sodas from an abandoned gas station in Hadley, Massachusetts, in 1975. After buying a dog, he expanded his store’s offerings to include pet supplies and created his own line of pet foods. Today, his business has expanded to seven locations and he employs 150 people. In 2010, he earned the National Retail Federation Silver Award recognizing his contributions to the retail industry and he was inducted into the Massachusetts Retail Hall of Fame.
Ratner attributes his success to one simple formula: identifying who your customers are and then taking good care of them from the first moment they step into your store.
Taking good care of customers begins with asking a few basic questions. Is your store easy to get to and does it have good parking? Are you open when customers want you to be open? Is your store clean inside and outside? Do all the light fixtures work? Do all the point-of-sale materials and signs look fresh? Is your store merchandised in such a way that it makes it easier to shop?
“Encourage add-on sales,” Ratner told the audience of IPCPR retailers. “Think how much more business you would do if every customer spent $1 more. Put impulse items near the cash register. [While your business might be predominantly male-oriented], ask your wife or girlfriend to shop your store for tips on merchandising it in ways that might help your female customers feel more comfortable in the shop.”
Once you feel comfortable with your store’s appearance, you’re ready to market your business to attract new customers. A little basic research—learning who your customers are, what they’re interested in buying and where they live—will make your marketing dollars more effective.
Ratner suggested that retailers should consider ads on local talk radio stations, especially sports talk stations.
“Buy one or two days a month and then make those days your own,” he said. “Buy seven or eight ad spots on those days. Do the ad yourself if you have a great personality, but have someone else do them if you feel uncomfortable doing them, because a bad ad is worse than no ad at all. Only talk about one thing in the ad to ensure that your message gets to the audience. The price is very reasonable and usually presents a good return on your investment.”
Buying ads is just one weapon in your marketing arsenal. Retailers should also consider renting a list of subscribers to magazines that might appeal to cigar smokers, such as hunting and fishing magazines or magazines that are devoted to people who are getting married or having kids.
Retailers should have a presence at home shows and wedding shows. They should speak at Rotary Clubs and other organizations and become active in those organizations. They should also identify business partners that sell products that have similar customers.
“Partner up!” Ratner exhorted the audience. “Get other people to do your marketing for you. Perhaps you can create relationships with liquor store owners, wedding planners and local restaurants. Who can you team with to add value to your store? Do what you’re best at and let someone else do the rest.”
Like attracting new customers, keeping them requires a little basic common sense. Get a customer’s contact information and purchase history so that you can develop a relationship with each customer and then use it.
“Getting a customer’s information and then never contacting them is like going out on a date, having a great time and then never calling your date again,” Ratner told the audience.
Hire friendly employees who are willing to do whatever is necessary to guarantee that your customers have a great experience inside your store. Ratner suggested that retailers offer to carry packages to the cars of female customers. He also suggested that, if a customer wants an item that you don’t carry, find it, buy it and then deliver to the customer.
Quoting Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ definition of your brand being what people say about you when you’re not in the room, Ratner explained that “customer service is defined by dealing with problems. I have every employee sign two pieces of paper when they’re hired declaring that they understand that their job is to make sure that the customer has such a great experience at the store that he or she will tell his or her friends to shop there and that each employee is empowered to solve customer problems on the spot.”
While your customer service may be unsurpassed, your prices might not be the lowest, especially in the competitive premium tobacco market when traditional mom-and-pop brick-and-mortar stores compete with Internet and catalog companies. Should retailers match the lower prices available on the Internet when a customer brings up the difference?
“Yes,” Ratner said. “If you don’t match the price then you risk losing the customer forever. If you do match the price then you have the chance to get the customer to buy something else. Focus on your store and worry less about your competitors.”
Retailers can make the pain of matching lower prices hurt less by monitoring their own expenses. Ratner encouraged the audience to check their credit card processor expenses. And when shopping processors, he suggested giving a potential processor two to three months of receipts to estimate how much their service would cost.
While ensuring that your customers get great service, it’s also important to make sure that your inventory is fresh. Ask your customers what else you should carry, and always have new things. Let your customers know when new products arrive in the store, and reward them for their loyalty by creating a frequent buyers rewards club in which they receive gift certificates.
While attracting and keeping customers might seem like a daunting task, all it takes is a little bit of common sense and a willingness to dedicate some time each day to putting that intention into action. The reward for all that effort will be a stronger business and a more loyal customer base.
More Ratner Tips for Business Success
- The minute you think you’re doing great, you won’t be.
- Always welcome customer feedback.
- Ask yourself, What is my competition doing better than I am? Then do that thing better.
- Keep in contact with your customers, but “don’t send out stupid emails.” Make each contact with your customers worth their time.
- Never be out of stock.
- Don’t sell things on social media. Use it to create a community for your customers and to announce news and events.
- Empower your employees to solve problems on the spot.
Dave Ratner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.