A Look at How Retailers Can Weather the Recession

According to recent research, retail sales have fallen over the last month even as the back-to-school shopping season gets into high gear, and industry forecasters claim that this does not bode well for the upcoming holiday season either.


(Image Credit)

So the looming question for retailers big and small continues to be how to maintain or even increase sales in such a dismal economic environment.

A month ago I posted this article that briefly examined how some restauranteurs were managing to succeed despite the weak economy. In a similar vein, although the retail industry as a whole is suffering, there are several hot pockets of consumer spending that continue to draw brisk sales. A few big discount retailers, such as Wal-mart, have been able to capitalize on these trends and are focusing on several strategies to keep these consumer dollars rolling in.

Though small retailers may be more limited in their scope then the big discount chains, by studying their strategies, there are several valuable lessons that small businesses can learn and implement. Perhaps the most important of these strategies is that retailers are paying close attention to shifts in consumer attitudes and behavior and then adapting to them.

Here is a brief look at what some of the successful retailers are specifically doing:

1. Focusing on value. Today’s consumers are tech-savvy, bargain hunters looking for the best bang- i.e. value- for their buck. Retailers are concentrating their inventory on what people still need to buy, and then providing it at a low-cost or with some other added value, such as extensive customer support.

2. Promoting a unique brand. It has become increasingly important over the past two years for retailers to differentiate themselves and/or their products and services from those of their competitors.

3. Using aggressive, low-cost marketing tactics. The role that the Internet is playing in consumer decision-making and spending has not been overlooked by retailers, and it is all the more attractive given its low cost. Successful online marketing campaigns include: sending out emails, maintaining a website, offering online coupons, and registering with online directories and Point of Interest databases.

4. Offering promotions. The goal of a successful promotion is to get customers in the door where they will either spend money on other items or services or they will remember the experience and be more likely to frequent the business later on. Some promotion ideas include hosting or promoting events, offering a themed sale, or providing free products or services.

5. Focusing on customer convenience. Retailers are paying attention to how customers are choosing to make their purchases and then building up these areas. Are customers, for example, using cash as opposed to credit or shopping online as opposed to physically showing up at a brick and mortar location?

6. Initiating cost-cutting tactics and tight inventory management. Even the most profitable retailers out there these days are paying close attention to wasteful or redundant spending and are making sure that capital is not being tied up in unnecessary inventory supplies.

7. Forming partnerships. Some stores are forming partnerships with each other, whether banding together to pool resources or reduce overhead costs or offering discounts to each other’s customers.

How to Win Over Your Customers in the New Year

If you are like most small business owners, then chances are your ’08 holiday sales were a bit lackluster. But don’t despair. By introducing a few changes in the way you operate your business, you can brighten your outlook for the new year.

As a follow-up to my previous post on creative marketing techniques, here are a few low-cost strategies to develop customer loyalty.

Tip #1: Promptly respond to customer inquiries.

Make it a priority to get back to your customers. When customers feel that they and their concerns are important to you then they will be more likely to give you their business. Even if you don’t have an immediate answer to an inquiry, you should try to acknowledge receiving a customer’s e-mail or voice message within 24 hours, and inform the person that you are looking into the request or already taking action on it.

Tip #2: Make sure out-going correspondence is clear, concise, and professional.

But… it is not enough to just respond to your customers, you must also pay attention to how you respond to them. Voice messages, emails, and letters should be clear and concise. The time for elaboration is either in person or when speaking to someone directly on the phone. Make sure also that any written correspondence is spell-checked and free from grammatical errors, and that the response is relevant to the inquiry.

Tip #3: Look for where you can give a personal touch.

Handwritten notes, special “birthday coupons”, personally addressed and targeted emails, and no-obligation follow-up phone calls, can make a big impression on your customers’ minds and will measurably improve your customer loyalty.

Tip #4: Reward repeat business.

Give your best customers preferential treatment, such as small coupons or rebates as well as flexible payment options.

Tip #5: Seek ways to involve your customers in your business.

Try to get your customers involved in improving and promoting your business. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to talk to your customers. You can speak to them in person when they come to your business and ask them for suggestions, or you can ask them to fill out a quick questionnaire, or have a suggestion box. Here again follow-up is very important. Even if you do not end up using a customer’s suggestion, you should let him or her know that you considered it. You can also get customers involved in promotion by, for example, having them forward emails to friends in exchange for a discount at your business, or you could run contests for the best logo or T-shirt design.

How to Avoid Being Screwed by Customer Service (Part II)

Read How to Avoid Being Screwed by Customer Service (Part I) first.

A supervisor can help you. They have:

  • More ability to provide perks/freebies/refunds
  • Power to put a note (good or bad) in the file of someone else you spoke to.
  • Special training to deal with customer grievances to prevent them from escalating to the higher echelon/legal channels.


If you are obnoxious and just seem like you are out to get something, then it is unlikely that you will succeed. If you yell and threaten, it is also unlikely you will prevail. Unless you are a lawyer, the supervisor probably knows laws relating their industry better than you do.


  • Be polite.
  • Use the person’s name as often as possible.
  • Take thorough notes.
  • Be honest.

How Your Side of the Call Should Go:

  1. Thank the supervisor for taking your call.
  2. Briefly summarize any positive experiences you have had or have heard about their company.
  3. Calmly and correctly outline your issue from the beginning.
  4. Describe the response you received from the customer service agent.
  5. “How do you advise we solve this problem so that I can feel good about your company again?”

Next Step: Lawyer

If you don’t feel that you have been properly treated, and you still want to put up a fight, then you can take your notes to a lawyer to see what your options are.

Good Luck!

How To Avoid Being Screwed By Customer Service

Whether you are on the phone with the airlines or you bought some defective merchandise, there are many situations where you might hope for a better resolution than the customer service agent “helping” you is able to offer.

What are your choices?

1) You can give up.

2) Use expletives and throw the phone across the room.


3) You can use what my mother taught me are the six most powerful words in the English Language when dealing with customer service.

May I Speak With Your Supervisor?

If you want to be polite, then you can say, “Please.”

Now that you’ve said it here is how you may still be screwed and the best ways to avoid it…

1) Sure, please hold a minute. Oftentimes, the minute will drag out for 20 or 30 minutes. To avoid this, at the beginning of any conversation with customer service personnel, ask for the employee number, the first and last name, or the the first name and the name of the call center. Each company has it’s own policy of which identifying information should be given to customers.

2) Hang Ups. Yes, even the most professional sounding “customer service” agent might hang up on you if you have not gotten identifying information first. Before begining your complaint kindly ask for the agents name and number if possible.

3) “My supervisor will tell you the same thing I did.” The first response should be, “Well, please let me try.” If they persist, then your response should be: “If your supervisor did not have any more power than you have, they would not be your supervisor. Please, may I speak to your supervisor.”

4) “I don’t have a supervisor.” Your response should be, “Oh, then are you the CEO of XXXX (Whatever company you are calling)?”

5) General stalling. At a certain point, if the person will not transfer you, you need to ask them point blank: “John, employee number 12345, are you refusing to transfer me to your supervisor?”

6) Pretending to help. Sometimes the agent will pretend to have resolved the issue just to get you off the phone. Later you will realize that the problem has not been corrected and you will need to call back and begin the process all over again, most likely reaching a different customer service agent with no record of your previous conversation. In order to avoid this have the agent fax to you a signed document stating your case and the proposed actions/ resolutions. Remain on the phone until the fax is received. Make sure it includes all the important information and official company mentions (logo and contact details). Keep a log of all your dealings with the company about the issue.

Check back for part II… “what to do once you are on the phone with the supervisor”