Like their larger counterparts, small retailers are already gearing up for the holiday shopping season, which can bring in 20 percent to 40 percent of their annual sales, according to the National Retail Federation. While official holiday sales forecasts are due out soon, early estimates based on import volume at U.S. ports show that some merchants are anticipating a robust 2013 season.
Because I anticipate my Smart Answers in-box will soon be stuffed with questions from business owners anxious about preparing for the holidays, I compiled a planning checklist. Some tips might feel obvious to experienced business owners but they bear repeating.
Meet demand. Arrange to secure the inventory you’ll need at peak sales time and create a contingency plan to cover lost or delayed product shipments, advises Judy Coblentz, chief underwriting officer for small business policies at Travelers (TRV). “At a minimum, a contingency plan should include secondary suppliers and special delivery and discount options for customers,” she says.
Train new staffers. Beef up staffing at holiday time if needed, but make sure everyone is properly trained. “New employees may open the business up to unique risks and liabilities. Take the maximum time necessary to onboard and train seasonal workers to help prevent on-the-job accidents,” Coblentz says.
Go mobile. Smartphone-enabled sales are growing—and so is the chance to market to shoppers on their mobile devices. Online publication EMarketer says mobile devices will account for 16 percent of online sales in 2013. Text offers to customers on their smartphones on Friday that can be redeemed in your store or online that weekend, advises James Citron, chief marketing officer of Payvia, an electronic payment company. Offer shoppers loyalty programs or best-price-matched deals if they sign up for mobile updates, he adds.
Spruce up your site. Optimize your website for mobile device viewing and mobile payments, Citron says, and promote its address in your store. Making it more engaging and faster to load will keep customers shopping longer and buying more. Coach Wei, chief executive of website optimization service Yottaa, says you can improve website performance yourself right now, or ask your webmaster to do it, by compressing images and streamlining third-party “widgets” working behind the scenes. Make sure to include holiday products and sales on your front pages and include a seasonal countdown clock to emphasize timely purchasing.
Cultivate customers. Don’t forget that personalized holiday cards can help you connect with clients, vendors, and prospective customers. Laura Kozelouzek is CEO of Quest Workspaces, a New York City company that rents executive office suites. She sends digital JibJab cards that feature her employees. “Choose cards with personality and show how your brand is unique,” she advises.
Give back. Charitable contributions and donations of usable equipment or other goods are the right thing to do—and a smart way to claim deductions at tax time, says Pete Appello, executive vice president of small business banking at Capital One (COF). “Also plan an employee volunteer day to get your workforce into the spirit of giving for the holidays,” he advises.
Be sociable. Entrepreneurs work so hard they can quickly become isolated. All those party invitations pouring in over the next few months? Accept all, or at least some, so you can renew relationships and make new ones. Kozelouzek says she sometimes dreads her packed social calendar at holiday time, but cannot pass up the opportunity to build invaluable connections. “What’s better than to build relationships than over a glass of champagne?” she asks.
Celebrate safely. It’s great to dress up your office or shop for the holidays, but make sure decorations don’t become hazardous—especially if you host trick-or-treaters or holiday parties. Have extra staff on hand during busy times to deter theft and keep high-traffic walkways, doorways, and stairs free of decorations that could cause tripping. Also, avoid open flames: The National Fire Protection Association says Halloween ranks fifth in terms of days with the most candle fires.
Host a party. Thank your employees with a creative event that brings together rank-and-file employees and top managers. It doesn’t have to be expensive, says Ricky Eisen, founder and president of Between the Bread, a small catering company that has already booked dozens of 2013 company parties in Manhattan. Don’t invite clients unless they already have relationships with your staff and don’t ask employees to potluck it. “If you’re going to throw a party, treat your employees as guests,” she says.
Hold your party after work (not on a weekend) and do it early in the season, so it doesn’t invade family time. If you serve alcohol, put a pro behind the bar and make sure there are festive beverages for non-drinkers. “Let them hold a wine glass even if they’re not drinking—don’t hand out red cups with Coke in them. Everyone should feel festive,” Eisen says.
Think ahead. Most businesses have a lull during or after the holidays. Use that time to celebrate, and also to get on track for 2014. Review your progress this year and set goals for next. Update your disaster plan and your employee benefits, including pension plans or profit-sharing if you’ve had a particularly good year.