A Fairhaven merchant was at a gathering of friends recently, when the talk turned to shopping and parking in Fairhaven. To his dismay, his friends had given up going down there because they said, “it’s so busy no one can find parking anymore.”
These are the same people who gladly go to the mall or downtown Seattle, and walk a further distance to get to a store than they would have if they’d parked three blocks away from a Fairhaven store.
Fairhaven in particular is suffering the impact of construction going on in nearly every block of the district. Until it is finished, some parking has been temporarily lost. New buildings will have underground parking for their business and residential owners, and all the condos have to supply their own parking. Where to put the cars though, is only one problem faced by local merchants.
Small, locally owned businesses in most towns have a tough time. Competition from enormous companies is paralyzing otherwise very astute small business owners. I see them in my marketing classes every quarter, looking for ways to keep their businesses alive and well. They are losing sight of the things that made them go into business originally.
There is such a thing as being in the wrong business at the wrong time. But there are ways to compete and succeed in a competitive market you’ve never dealt with before.
Specialize and target your market
Analyze what is selling well for you. If you’re a small business, you don’t have the space to carry everything the mega-stores carry. Look for the unique and go after that target market. Be more specific in your image, theme and purchasing.
Price is not the only issue
There are items people will price shop for, and items they will simply impulse buy. Small businesses cannot easily compete in price wars! If you constantly coupon and price cut, you may put yourself right out of business. Go for the quality and be sure your store amenities overshadow the price differences.
Recharge your customer service
The advantage small businesses have is complete control over their business. Hire good people, train them well and treat customers like gold. How often have many of us gone into big stores to be ignored and then herded into a line like cattle? Keeping your good customers is much easier than seeking new ones. Make sure they leave happy!
Make necessary improvements
Now is the time to remodel, clean, perk up the inventory and paint. Customers who sense decay will not come back. Don’t let things get run down.
Use your flexibility
Chain-owned stores and restaurants can not react as fast to local trends, problems, or markets. They often make decisions somewhere else. I got up one hot summer morning and decided to serve lemonade in my cafe. How many chains can make a decision that fast? Use that advantage to keep ahead of your competition. Use your ordering ability to keep up fast with local trends and preferences.
Keep customer-friendly hours
One of the biggest reasons malls have been so successful is that they are open long hours every day of the week, and people know that every single store will be open. It is frustrating to drive to a local business to find them closed on Sundays or Mondays, out to lunch or closed at 5:00. Owning a business means being open when people need you, not when it’s convenient for you to work. Customers will get out of the habit of coming in if they can’t count on you.
Step up the marketing
When the new guy comes to town, everyone is going to try them. It’s human nature. If you don’t want to be forgotten, keep your name in everyone’s face. If you’ve been around a long time, let customers know you’re still there and ready to serve. Advertise your assets in a variety of mediums and methods.
Shop other small businesses
Do your shopping with other local businesses. Customers vote with their dollars. People bemoan their favorite places going out of business, and then wonder why they didn’t go in more often. This doesn’t mean feeling sorry for little businesses that don’t do a good job, but rewarding those who do.
Taimi Dunn Gorman is the founder of The Colophon Cafe and The Doggie Diner. She is a marketing consultant and serves on the state-appointed Small Businbess Improvement Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.