By Karen E. Klein Q: I own a small antique store specializing in glass and china from 1900 to 1960. When other stores need to bump up sales or get rid of stale inventory, they run sales. We have tried this approach, but have found that our customers don't even show up. They will come in after the sale is over, but not during. Do they view items on sale as having no value? How can I increase sales and clear inventory without alienating my customers? -- K.W., Santa Rosa, Calif.
A: It's likely that your customers simply don't see the value in a highly specialized collectible when the price is marked down, says Bob Phibbs of The Retail Doctor. Unlike new merchandise, which can be very enticing when sold at a discount, antique buyers feel that a high price reflects an object's greater worth. Notes Phibbs: "Having a sale is probably not the best way to unload stuff, since you are a niche-within-a-niche."
"I would recommend gifting your customers with a private sale," Phibbs urges. "They get a widget, or a certificate they can use within the next six months, if they come into the store during a specified time period." Don't worry too much about alienating your customers. That's only going to happen if you have a special event and they aren't aware of it, he says.
To keep your customers in the loop, use your mailing list to notify customers about the special events you stage. If you don't have a mailing list, start building one by collecting customers' names in a guest book or recording their information from your sales receipts. And don't make the mistake of sending them nothing but promotions or advertisements. Instead, think about investing in a bimonthly newsletter, regular e-mail updates, or old-fashioned "touching base" postcards.
BUILDING THE RELATIONSHIP. "The important lesson that anyone who sells needs to take to heart is this: Consumers are on advertising and promotional overload, and have been for some time," says John Delmatoff, of PathFinder Coaching, who adds: "We're used to being treated like a single transaction rather than having a managed relationship with the people from whom we buy things. In order to get the attention of someone, the seller has to act like there's a vital, ongoing relationship in place, not just a series of transactions from the past."
How to treat customers with whom you have an ongoing relationship? The difference between just doing transactions and having a relationship with customers is like night and day, Delmatoff says. For instance, in order to effectively manage a customer relationship you should try to "touch" your buyer about seven times over a 12-month period. You could do that by giving them advance notification of a new antique shipment coming into the store, sending them holiday or birthday cards, or e-mailing occasional "inside advice" on trends and developments in the world of collectible glassware.
"I don't belive that sellers who effectively manage customer relationships will ever have any difficulty in getting those customers to come back to the store," Delmatoff says. "And they'll spend a lot less on advertising, trying to talk to people who have absolutely no interest in buying."
Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.