Saturday, November 27, 2010

Retail Commerce, Don't Just Survive, Thrive. 5 Steps

By Rick London

One of my best years was when I turned thirteen. My first job was in sales at a friend's dad's record store in downtown Hattiesburg, Ms. Sales were a simple thing then. A customer, generally, had heard a song on our local radio station, rushe din, usually the following weekend, and wanted to hear a bit of it on the built in record player. If it was the right song it was usually a sale. Every Friday I got paid in my choice, records or cash or both. I often went for the money as I figured I could buy more records. Oh, I also received a discount.

The next six years seemed like a blur (they were actually called "teen years", and finally after college, I took a variety of employment, but always seemed to end up in retail or design. Now I am cartooning and product design. Four years ago, I opened my first online retail store which sold (and continues to sell) tees, mugs and such bearing my offbeat comics.

I studied at an online university from 2002-2006 to learn IT and business, but even it did not prepare me for what was to come. How does one deal with customers in which, more often than not, one is dealing with a computer rather than a human?

Almost a half-decade has gone by sinnce I opened my first online shop, and I now have four more and over 200,000 licensed gifts and tees. Since I do not stock inventory, I use manufacturer/dropshippers who print and deliver my goods, so I have to choose carefully. With my core manufacturer, I made certain I have access to all my customers names and mailing addresses so that I can stay in touch for sales, promotions, etc. If you are able to do that, please do. But don't expect that kind of respect from the major online POD's (Print On Demand) firms such as Zazzle, Printfection, Threadless, etc. Here are my 5 steps to online retail survival and even make money.

1. Become "Mr. Or Ms. Knowledge. This does not mean "know it all" or "guru". It simply means to catalogue useful information and purveying it to others through blogs and article marketing. Eventually existing customers and new ones come to rely on your for good info and google your name. Writing blogs such as this often come from a combination of both reading and experience, and just know that experience provides much greater information (over read material)

2. Twitter, facebook and other social networks are excellent ways to stay in touch with existing customers and meeting/converting new ones. Many try to dictate the "right" and "wrong" way to do this. In reality, what works for "Fred" will probably not work for "Barney". Social media is truly not a one-size-fits-all world. Many well known brand businesses use the totally personal approach of having a person trying to juggle all the balls in the air engaging in one-on-one dialogue 24/7. Other companies have so much information, they use a real human person to "tweet" all the while having pre-schuduled "news tweets" going using such systems as Hootsuite or Twaitter, and Social Oomph. These are also ideal for smaller or mid-size firms that may be on a limited budget but want to have an online presence throughout the day and night. It is particularly effective for my firm since about 50% of our orders originate from Europe, and are processed when in the early morning here in America.

3. Think globally, act locally. This is one that I procrastinated for a long time, and my wife found a way for me to want to give it a try by creating a very attractive "thank you" packet that we sometimes leave with someone in the service industry who has treated us well. The presentation she created is so unique, it has already proven effective even after only handing out a few of them. We have noticed large orders originating from our own hometown. I don't spend as much time on this as I believe I should and plan to utilize it more often. I am used to working online but my goal is to balance that. I will report again in a few months to let you know how it is working.

4. Put a reasonable price tag on your merchandise. This time the bubble appears not to be busting. More and more people are appreciating the convenience of shopping online. But just like in physical stores, people like a good price. One has to profit to stay open, but one has to price it within reason so that the market can afford it, or the market will easily shop with your competition.

5. Don't open until you have an inventory. When I say inventory I don't mean ten or twenty items. Whether you are using a POD manufacturer or making your products locally or dropshipping someone else's or becoming an associate, fill your page with salable images. I did not start selling until I had a few hundred items in my shops, but it is different for everyone. Now that there are thousands, they are picked up by all the major shopping channels such as Google Shopping, The Find,, etc. People rely on these sites for useful retail information and comparison. Fill your store, then open.

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