8 Paths to Selling Success

Shine the spotlight on new merchandise with these effective, low-cost strategies.
by : 

Cheryl Reeves

March 1, 2011
8 Paths to Selling Success

Adding hot new products to your inventory is always exciting, but when you’re an independent retailer with a tight budget and tight quarters, how do you merchandise, introduce, and promote these unknown brands effectively? To help you debut what’s new in your store, industry insiders—from manufacturers and merchants to a feng shui expert and a marketing whiz—share ideas and recommendations for getting your creative merchandising juices flowing.

1. Tap into manufacturer/designer resources

Think of manufacturers and distributors as your selling partners. Furthermore, don’t be shy about asking for complementary selling tools to help inform and educate your customers.

“We love to provide samples for store owners to try out,” says Jacki Smith, president of Coventry Creations, adding that her company is creating more and more point-of-purchase materials, such as signs and shelf talkers, to share with retailers.

Andrea Phillips, president of Zen-Zen Garden & Home, points out many wholesalers in the Fair Trade Federation (www.fairtradefederation.com) offer downloadable product information retailers can use to help displays convey key selling points faster. Beyond that, she says, you can talk to the wholesalers or scour their website for all the special facts about a new product or line.

In addition to offering pamphlets, display units, and samples for new products, some manufacturers have slightly flawed merchandise that can be added for free to a retailer’s order. “We might have a new product that was made in the wrong color, but nobody besides us would notice,” says Nora Monaco, CEO of AngelStar. “We’ll send it to a retailer who can, perhaps, raffle it off at an in-store promotional event.” Monaco says she always has a lot of extra stickers and bookmarks to send retailers, who can tuck them into customers’ shopping bags, possibly as a little thank-you bonus when customers purchase a new item. “Just ask us what we have that you can use, and we’ll send it along with your order,” she says. “We are so happy to help you with whatever you need.”

2. Empower your sales staff

Independent stores must have superior customer service to compete with larger stores, says Monaco, and salespeople who connect with customers, even just by pointing out what’s new in the store, can make a big difference. Preparation and education are the keys.

Before new merchandise hits your sales floor, staff should be ready to answer product-related questions, says Bob Negen, marketing expert and founder of Whizbang! Training. “One of the keys to having a successful store is well-trained employees. Beyond being just kind and friendly, being a truly great salesperson is about knowing how to uncover what customers desire, as well as being able to answer questions about products with authority.”

According to Negen, it is also important to find out what each salesperson’s strength is and develop it. “Maybe one person excels with one type of product and another employee is great with, for example, everything incense. Keep your staff informed and listen to their ideas so they feel valued and a part of the team. It builds enthusiasm—and that’s contagious.”

Product knowledge can turn any item into a bestseller, notes Smith, but only if that knowledge is used. On this point, Felicia Riccardo, president of Starlinks, agrees: “There are a lot of products with symbolic meanings, and from an educational standpoint, staff should be prepared to discuss [them] with customers.”

Sales staff at Bodhi Tree Bookstore in West Hollywood, Calif., have new product information at their fingertips via a message board. Co-owner Stan Madson says new items are listed on the store memo board, which is then reviewed each day during a short staff meeting before opening. His staff also keeps abreast of new developments in shift downtime. “Additionally, we verbally introduce new products, and where they are displayed, to our staff,” he adds. “And while the staff is showing the product to customers, they get additional exposure to the product.”

3. Stage an eye-catching display

The setting, mood, and arrangement of displays can either energize or deaden the impact of new merchandise. “You want to give a new product creative energy,” says Stamford, Conn.-based feng shui expert Christine Bové. She suggests retailers create vertically-oriented displays to move the eye up and down. “Also, use color when you can—a tablecloth, for example—to draw customer attention. But don’t compete with the product’s dominant color,” she says. “Understand that a big mistake is clutter. Take time to plan displays well. Less is more.”

Displays also serve to inform customers who may be new to subjects such as fair trade or metaphysics. “Not everyone who walks into your store knows about crystals,” Bové says. “Give enough details to make customers ask for more. Add signage.” One way retailers can get inspired when planning a display or staging a scene, she suggests, is to flip through design and art magazines for ideas. “Remember, the product has to shine or people will pass it by. Make it come alive.”

When creating and positioning new displays, try to locate the main focal point of your store. “Every store has what’s called a hot spot or a sweet spot where products move the best,” says Negen. “Maybe it’s the light or the flow of energy. Find that spot and use it.”

When Bodhi Tree Bookstore gets in a new product line, Madson features it in front-of-the-store display areas. “We also promote these new product displays by posting photos on Facebook and Twitter,” he says, adding, “We do try to group like items together or in one area of the store.”

4. Tell a product’s story

As a musician and the CEO of Woodstock Chimes, Garry Kvistad stresses the importance of hangtags and cards that impart complex information to customers quickly. “Our chimes are precision-tuned with specific melodies, so a hangtag conveys that effectively,” he says. He suggests retailers attach something customers can read to new products.

At Mystic Spirit Metaphysical Shoppe in Montclair, N.J., store owner Karen Aistars provides printed materials that explain all about new products. “For example, we have cards that say just what a candle or scent does and how it is made. People want all the information they can get.”

Likewise, Margaret Ann Lembo, owner of The Crystal Garden in Boynton Beach, Fla., personally designs product explanations. “I create my own little sheets about each gemstone so the customer is informed,” says Lembo. She also offers gemstone and aromatherapy sheets as giveaways for her customers. “The sheets educate the customers and sell products.”

Beyond physical in-store materials, your store’s website serves as a major conveyer of new-product information. “Have a content-rich, customer-friendly website,” advises Negen. “Then talk benefits, and talk regularly. Repetition plus frequency equals trust.”

Smith, too, advises retailers to develop a distinctive store brand and extend the look and feel of that brand to all your informational materials. “Matchy match everything: the cards, signs, inserts, everything. I hate doing that with my clothes, but with my brand I cannot match enough.”

5. Spread the word

It is easier than ever to broadcast what’s new at your store: email blasts, posting on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as an announcement-plus-photo on your own company website. However, doing it right is the key to success. “Email marketing is incredibly effective, but it needs to be about the customer more than you and your store,” says Negen. “Customers want to hear how this product can make their life better.”

And if you believe constantly emailing your customers is the best way to get results, think again. “Email blasts are great,” says Monaco, “but make sure you do them only every one or two weeks so it’s special.” Kvistad agrees. He often uses email blasts, but he says, “it is important to be sensitive to the amount of them you send so they stand out.”

Posting photos, blogging, and announcing new arrivals on social networking sites really spotlight new arrivals. “I use photo tours in my email newsletters, which entice people to come in and see all of what just arrived,” says Lembo, who adds that she uses Share This (http://sharethis.com) to Tweet and post messages on Facebook so that even people who aren’t on her email list learn what’s new in her store. She provides videos, too. “I use my Flip camera and provide short videos showing merchandise on the shelves, and I keep the videos five to seven minutes long,” she says. “People really like it.”

6. Plan an event

What better way to launch a new product than to hold an event? It need not be expensive, especially if you hold it in your store and utilize manufacturer sales reps or local experts with a passion for education as speakers. Many manufacturers will also donate prize items and free samples that can be used to fill gift baskets or swag bags.

“We love opportunities to help stores with events,” says Smith. “If there is a raffle or prize, especially for a charity, we would be happy to add to the pile,” though, she adds, Coventry Creations needs four to six weeks advance time to be able to fill a request for a gift basket.

Woodstock Chimes is always happy to participate in learning events, too, says Kvistad. He says retailers should give him at least a month advance time to prepare for participation. But a well-planned event can be a very effective selling tool.

Seminars and classes are quite popular at Aistars’ store, for example. “We do up to three events a month,” she says. “Besides selling products, they help us deepen our community bond.”

7. Rotate and re-introduce

To keep customers engaged, retailers should present their store as an environment that is always offering something fresh and new. “Keep the flow of energy moving so customers can look at items from a new perspective,” suggests Bové. Riccardo advises rotating merchandise quarterly. And Monaco concurs: “Get creative with themes, events like trunk shows, graphics. Don’t do the same old, same old,” she says. “Be inventive about showing off items in a new way.”

Madson follows this advice, frequently rotating displays at Bodhi Tree Bookstore. Recently, because of the ongoing economic downturn, he reduced inventory by about 30%. But he and his partners turned it into a positive: “This inventory reduction has opened up space on the bookshelves as well as on the product displays,” he says. “Our displays are now less crowded and a bit more artistic. The top shelf of each bookcase is now empty, and we can use it to display gift items such as statues and puppets.”

Capitalizing on point-of-service impulse buying to accentuate new items can make an even bigger impact. New products positioned near the register get a lot of attention, especially when they are accompanied by free samples or informational flyers. “One of the best ways to build the sales of a particular item is to move it, re-introduce it,” states Negen. “And watch the reports: your POS sales system will tell you more than anything else about customer demand.”

8. Ask for feedback

After customers purchase a new product, follow up with them via email or when they come back in to shop. You can also pass out surveys or ask for customer reviews. “New items are very exciting,” says Smith. “Pick a few customers to review new items and post on your social media, in your store, or on your website.” Staff picks are another way of getting customers interested in items, she says.

Sometimes, though, it simply comes down to the basics. “Just ask customers when they come back in to shop if they liked that new product they purchased,” suggests Monaco. “If somebody’s happy with something, they’ll let you know.”

Wow the Crowd: How to throw a new-product event on a budget

  1. Plan the event: Decide on theme, topics, and time (maybe a slow business day or evening to increase sales during your least busy period).
  2. Contact manufacturers at least six weeks in advance to request prizes, free samples, and sales representatives to appear at your store as speakers.
  3. Advertise: Create an email blast and post dates on social network sites and your store’s website. Slip event announcement flyers into your customers’ shopping bags at checkout.
  4. Serve simple and affordable food and drink that won’t make a mess or damage merchandise in your store: cheese and crackers, bowls of popcorn and pretzels, bottled water.
  5. Draw attention at the street with fluttering banners and/or balloons to attract people driving by your store.

Cheryl Reeves is a freelance writer based in New York, N.Y.