---- R.H., Lillburn, Ga.
A: Impulse buys fall into several categories. Ideally, your marketing efforts and sales staff should jump on all the possibilities, because impulse buys boost profit margins and can make the difference between a store that scrapes by and one that turns a nice, fat profit. "If a customer comes into the store and goes out with one thing, that's typically not going to be making you a lot of money," notes Bob Phibbs, a consultant and author of a guide for small retailers called You Can Compete. "If, on the other hand, that same customer comes in and you sell her four or five items, you're going to make some money."
One kind of impulse buy occurs when someone who has never before visited your store sees a sign in your window advertising a sale, and turns into your parking lot to pick up that item -- or buys it later on your Web site. This is how banners, signs, flags, and other outdoor visuals turn passersby into customers.
HIT 'EM IN THE EYE. So, make those signs fun, eye-catching, bright, and informative -- and be sure your Web address is displayed and easy to read. Fostering these sorts of impulse sales like this not only sells an item, it may also turn that brand-new customer into a regular.
Another type of impulse purchase occurs when a customer comes into your store with one or two items on her list, and leaves with three additional purchases suggested by your marketing displays or salespeople. Think of it as the office-supply equivalent of asking, "Would you like fries with that?"
This kind of impulse buy is called "cross-selling" or "up-selling," and it occurs when the customer decides to buy a related product or a more expensive version of her intended purchase. Grouping related products together in displays, like putting the charcoal under the steak counter, is a good example of cross-selling. Pointing out the value-added attributes of the higher-priced model is a way to promote up-selling.
THE ART OF SELLING. If you have sales employees, make sure they're pointing out the features and the benefits of more expensive merchandise. They should do more than note that the price is higher -- they should explain the advantages of the more expensive model. Also, train your workers to cross-sell by teaching them which products are a natural match with your 10 most popular items, suggests Sam Parker, co-founder of the Richmond (Va.)-based Justsell.com.
"List your 10 biggest items, then list three adjunct items for each -- erasers with the pencils, for instance," says Parker. "Then list three additional items that are not so obvious but would make a nice sale. Train the sales staff...so well that it becomes a habit. For instance, when a customer asks where the copy machines are...automatically ask if the customer needs paper and toner."
Your in-store displays should support and reinforce the efforts your sales staff is making. Make lists of related products and place them near popular and staple items. Near the tape dispensers, for example, you might post a small reminder: "Do you have enough tape refills for the next quarter?" Near the clipboards, you might note: "January is coming up. Do you have enough pencils, paper, and sharpeners for taking inventory?"
GETTING EMOTIONAL. Finally, there is the unplanned purchase made during a mundane shopping trip. A customer who surrenders to a whim and picks up a tin of Altoids, an interesting new CD, a box of software, or a notepad at the checkout counter is typically motivated by an appealing visual display and an arresting product packaging, experts say. Displays in your register area and entrance should provide shoppers with convenient, perhaps amusing, cues, which should be changed frequently. If an impulse-purchase display is not working, don't hesitate to take it down and put up a new one.
As an independent retailer, you can't always compete on price with the big office-supply chains. Phibbs suggests that you can make up the difference by displaying your higher-priced merchandise in groupings with information that clearly spells out the features and the benefits your products offer.