Happier Holidays in Store

Create an unforgettable holiday shopping experience to build loyalty and momentum.
by : 

Sirona Knight

September 1, 2012
Happier Holidays in Store

In the classic holiday movie, Miracle on 34th Street, Kris Kringle, acting as the Macy’s Santa Claus, promises a child a particular toy fire engine. The child’s mother admonishes Santa by telling him Macy’s is out of stock on that toy. In his affable way, Santa tells the mother she can find the fire engine at Schoenfeld’s, one of Macy’s many retail competitors. What sounds like a crazy idea eventually becomes a marketing gold mine. It shows that Macy’s puts the customer first, above profits, which makes for a great holiday in-store shopping experience.

This concept still rings true today. Your retail customers want to feel important and be treated as human beings, no matter how much money they spend in your store. The secret to creating a great holiday in-store experience revolves around superior customer service. You need to make every customer feel they are getting your utmost attention. After all, you are there to meet their needs and desires with your products and services. It’s important to connect with shoppers so they enjoy your store and come back again and again as loyal customers.

The in-store advantage

As a brick-and-mortar retailer, your main advantage is providing service in ways that reassure, support, and excite your customers. How many times has someone thought about buying a product online, only to wonder if they are really paying for what they think they’re getting? Online pictures and descriptions can be misleading or incomplete. With a brick-and-mortar retail store, shoppers can see, feel, and try what they’re buying.

For retailers this means they can engage customers in hands-on ways—something online sites cannot do. When a customer is looking for a particular product to buy as a gift, they can go into a brick-and-mortar retailer and examine the product firsthand. They can get a better sense of whether the item meets their needs, and then if they want to buy it, they can take it home with them immediately, rather than waiting for it to be shipped.

To take your service to the next level, set your sights on alleviating the stress of shopping for an entire list of friends and family. Offer help, assurance, and tools for every customer to find what they’re looking for—and what they didn’t know they were looking for.

Create signs featuring fun personality types and place them with displays of suggested gifts (e.g., Merry & Bright with candles and books on happiness; Silver Belles with items suited to older women; Tiny Tots with kids’ books, puppets, games, and toys). Train yourself and your staff to ask helpful questions of customers who seem stumped about what to get someone. For example, you might ask what the customer’s favorite shared memory is with the recipient, what the recipient does for a living, or what their hobbies are. Then make one or two product suggestions based on the answers. Customers also love to know what the most popular items for giving are, so consider displaying a “Santa’s List for Good Girls and Boys,” with your top sellers or recommended gifts in each merchandise category.

Helping your customers find the right gifts for the right people is a service they’d be hard-pressed to find either in big-box stores or online. An added touch would be for your store to wrap the presents for the customer at no extra charge. Who wouldn’t love that kind of personal, caring service enough to mention it to their friends?
The holidays are often a hectic time. There are a lot of crowds, and people are trying to find special gifts for all those on their shopping list. By being particularly helpful and patient with customers’ questions and concerns, you can enrich their shopping experience, and increase your sales at the same time—not to mention building positive word of mouth. It’s a win-win!

Winter wonderland

A couple years ago, I walked into a small gift shop during the holidays, and they had wonderful decorations, a beautiful tree, lights, holly, pine, and wreaths of cedar. The store smelled fabulous. On the counter, they had a teapot with cups beside it. I picked up a cup, poured some tea, and was delighted by a spicy orange flavor that I still pleasantly associate with the holidays. Because of this experience, I bought several boxes of the tea as well as other gift items at the store, and I have become a lifelong customer.

Decorating for the holidays should be a conscious effort to make your store an environment that appeals to all five senses in a cohesive, enticing way. The easy, if obvious, solution is to rely on traditional, well-recognized colors, symbols, smells, sounds, and flavors to transform your store and get customers in the gift-giving and -buying spirit. Incorporating these elements into your store conveys that unmistakable “holiday shopping destination” message without you having to say a word.

Start with colors—orange and black for Halloween; brown, russet, and gold for Thanksgiving; red, green, and white for Christmas. Ribbon, tinsel, ornaments, pine and cedar boughs, wreaths, nuts, fruits, mistletoe, and lights are some of the items you can use to visually decorate your store.

Certain scents, such as pine, cedar, vanilla, cinnamon, frankincense, and orange pekoe can be used to wrap your customers in warm holiday ambience as soon as they walk through your door. But, be careful because some people are allergic to scented products. It’s best to offer as natural a scent as possible—essential oil misters, for example.

Holiday music always adds to the seasonal shopping experience. Select music that reflects the tastes of your customers and the theme of your store; if you have a serene environment, perhaps Native flute versions of holiday classics; if your store is more modern and hip, try light jazz or fun, contemporary holiday songs. Consider the music you play to be an essential part of the decor—its style should match the style both of your store’s brand and of your seasonal decorations.

Get creative

While taking the traditional route is a great option, surprising customers with unusual or fun and exciting themes can keep them coming back and telling their friends about your store. Generating a buzz in your community by simply being creative with your holiday decor? Yes, it’s possible. Because, again, the customer’s experience while they’re in your store revolves around their emotional reaction, whether that’s nostalgia, fascination, warm-and-fuzzies, or quiet serenity.

The great thing about the holiday season is it gives you an opportunity to experiment. Don’t be afraid to bring out your inner child—the one who loves whimsy, fun, and creative flair. For Halloween, consider themes such as Harry Potter, where you decorate in a Hogworts motif; steampunk, which combines fanciful industrial age inventions with turn-of-the-century style; dark fairyland, in which the world of sprightly fairies and mystical dragons is color-shifted to the darker tones of purple, black, and midnight blue; and magic act, where items associated with stage magicians (top hats, gloves, stuffed rabbits, wands, playing cards) are used as props for your merchandise.

For the Christmas season, some themes you might consider are Charles Dickens, where you use a 19th-century England theme; Renaissance, with the lush feel of that historical period, perhaps done in rich jewel tones and shades of gold; Jack Frost, in which everything from your windows to your store’s Christmas tree looks as though it’s covered in frost, ice, and snow; nature’s wonderland, featuring birds, deer, and other winter wildlife in snowy forest scenes; starry night, using midnight blue and sparkling white in combination with star shapes and motifs (a great idea for both Christmas and winter solstice); and retro Christmas, with props such as red wagons, American Flyer sleds, toy trains, and vintage toy packaging from the ’50s and early ’60s.

Less traditional color themes also can give your store a unique look. Try indigo, gray, and silver or cinnamon, dark chocolate, and paprika for Halloween. Red and green for Christmas are certainly traditional, but why not consider alternatives, such as shades of gold and cream, pale blue and shimmering white, chestnut brown and light red, or rosy pink and silvery gray.

These are just a few ideas in a universe of possibilities. Want more inspiration? Look around you. Let a book, a card deck, a piece of art that you carry be your starting point. Visit other stores and notice their displays—are there colors, shapes, styles that draw you in? Browse the internet for artwork and themes that capture your interest and evoke unmistakable emotions; then imagine what you could do to carry that into your shop’s decor.

Jingle all the way to the bank

Creating stunning, holiday-themed displays that highlight your products doesn’t have to be expensive. You can acquire a nice-looking artificial tree with a selection of eye-catching ornaments at garage sales and secondhand stores for a small investment. The great thing about it is you can re-use your decorations every holiday season and add to them each year.

Set up a Yule or Christmas tree adorned with a variety of interesting and dazzling ornaments—or use your products, such as inexpensive jewelry, suncatchers, small windchimes, and festive greeting cards or postcards. Underneath the tree, you might place an assortment of your larger merchandise and drape some ribbons around it.

Remember to be creative and think beyond the conventional for innovative, inviting decorations. Also be aware of the demographics of your customers and decorate and celebrate accordingly. Scan a few books or check the internet for the customs of different ethnic and religious groups. Be respectful of your customers’ traditions, and greet them with holiday verbiage that will make them feel welcome and happy when they enter your store.

Host events they’ll remember

Another way you can create an outstanding holiday in-store experience for your customers is to schedule in-store events. These events can include classes and workshops as well as informational sessions that teach people the best way to use some of the products in your store. Examples include workshops on massage and healing and classes on meditation, affirmations, and yoga. If you get a new product in your store, you might want to schedule an event where you demo the product and let each of your customers experience it firsthand.

During the holidays when things are more stressful, what customer wouldn’t enjoy receiving a free service from you or any practitioners you might contract with? Imagine being treated to a mini neck massage by a trained therapist, or an essential oils consultation, tarot reading, or chakra revitalization with an expert practitioner. Consider hosting an event in which you partner with one or more practitioners, such as a massage therapist or psychic intuitive, to offer a series of these mini-sessions to customers who would love a little holiday pampering. Something like this benefits your store, your customers, and the practitioners, who will gain both free advertising and new clients from the event.

Plan a holiday party where you invite all the people who shop in your store to join in the festivities. You can offer food, drink, and a place to gather—namely your store. People can bring food if they so desire (e.g., cookies) or just come and enjoy the event. Consider providing music, author signings, a gift contest or raffle, or free readings during the party. The idea is to create an event that goes above and beyond the physical boundaries of your store and becomes the glue that binds a community together. The more you do it, the more people will frequent your event, until it evolves into an anticipated annual event and community tradition.

Consider staging a whole series of events labeled under the banner of the 12 days of Yule or Christmas. Schedule 12 events that evolve upward into the holidays—everything from costume parties to guided meditation sessions. You can include musicians and mini concerts, chefs and delicious nibbles, and authors giving talks or reading from their books. Use your imagination and make it festive and fantastic. You can specify what criteria you want for every one of the 12 days, thus creating a joyful, warmhearted experience you and your customers will fondly remember.

Wow the crowd

Ultimately, excellent customer service and treating the people who come into your store with patience and dignity is what makes a “wow” shopping experience. The “wow” effect is not expensive. It can be as simple as offering a genuine expression of interest, helpful advice, cookies, spiced apple cider, or coffee and tea to your customers. Having an interest in what interests your customers, and serving their needs with the right products and customer satisfaction, are the key elements of superb service.

We are all social creatures who crave human interaction. This is one of the big reasons brick-and-mortar stores will be around for a long time to come. They provide human contact, genuine connection, and goodwill. These are the main things that give brick-and-mortar stores an edge over their digital counterparts. It’s easier to relate to a human being than a faceless computer or outsourced customer service department, particularly during the holidays. Being able to connect with a person when selecting gifts brightens and lightens your customers’ holiday shopping, and is in positive alignment with the spirit of the season.

Top Ten Ways to Deliver Consistently Great Customer Service

Good customer service habits aren’t just for the holidays. Keep the following fundamentals in mind throughout this season and all the seasons to come.

  1. Help shoppers find products
  2. Be pleasant, smile, and uplift shoppers’ spirits
  3. Patiently answer all questions, explain, and advise
  4. Check stock often and have ready alternatives for out-of-stock items
  5. Have extensive product knowledge
  6. Do demos of products
  7. Provide exceptional product quality
  8. Offer discounts to your returning customers
  9. Ensure products are accessible and displayed in a pleasing way
  10. Handle problems and returns with grace and understanding

Sirona Knight (www.blueskylink.com) is a freelance writer and the popular author of numerous books, including Faery Magick and The Shapeshifter Tarot. Illustration: Jessica Snow