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Without meaning to, retailers spend a lot of time telling their customers to go elsewhere. This is an old problem, broadly excused/justified by the “can’t please everybody” manta. Recently, I’ve realized that technology is giving us new ways to be rude to potential customers. Last year I bought an iPhone; so I’m now one of those people who checks email quickly while I’m walking somewhere, am sitting stuck in traffic or while waiting for another family member to finish their transaction in a store. (If this is making you feel smug and superior, stop—there are many people who use their smart phone to multitask like this — more every day — and we’re all potential customers.)

eat read tweetWhat I notice through this iPhone’s iview of the world is that every time I come within range of a wireless router I see it on my phone. A window pops up to tell me the name of the wireless network and whether it’s open or locked. Essentially, every one of these windows is a popup ad for your store, an opportunity to get me inside your doors or create a positive impression for your business. If the window says “XYZ Store” and has the open network symbol, I have a good impression of that store planted in my mind or maybe I remember I wanted to buy something and go inside. If the network is locked, I get a negative impression of that store because I feel like this locked network message is essentially telling me to go away, and nobody likes to be told to go away. It feels like you don’t want my business. I know that’s not the intention, but nobody likes to be told to go away. I’m constantly multitasking through my phone (again, like so many of us these days) so I’m constantly seeing these go away messages from stores, and through repetition they make an impression and are making me less inclined to shop at some places.

Think about it this way: if you spend good money on branding and PR intended to build a positive impression of your business, but potential customers are being told to go away every time they walk by the store, you’re throwing your money away.

Another way we create poor impressions in the eyes of our customers is online, through an infrequently updated or slap-dash online presence. A MySpace site where the only new content is the random wall postings of teenagers suggest the store doesn’t care about the impression it creates, and makes you wonder what other corners it’s cutting? A Facebook site that hasn’t been updated in over a year, might make you wonder if the store is in trouble – anyone can find 3 minutes to update Facebook once a week. Opening hours that turn out to be inaccurate when you try to find the store are the kiss of death. A map or address info that is incorrect makes the store hard to find for people using their phones as a GPS, and tells them you really don’t care about the customer.

There are so many small things that create a bad impression and are so easily fixed that not to do so looks like complete laziness and indifference to the customer.

The physical environment of a store isn’t immune to turning off customers, too. Think about all those No signs: “No Cell Phones,” “No Food,” “No Unaccompanied Children” or “No Dogs Allowed.” We don’t like to be told no. We might not have a dog, be eating any food or be inclined to let our children out of our sight, but the sight of all those negative messages makes a bad impression.

With the holiday season coming up, take a few minutes to think about what your store’s layout, your wireless network (or lack thereof), and your online information says about your business. In a tight economy, nobody can afford to be seen as unfriendly towards families, dogs, online shoppers or anybody with a phone. If you’re sending out signals that these customers aren’t welcome, you aren’t going to have many customers left.

A few ideas how booksellers can combat negative messages:

  • If you have a wireless network that you cannot or prefer not to open for public use, make sure it does not have your business name on it.
  • If you can open your wireless network, do so, and use the network name to your advantage. Consider a message like: “Fresh coffee inside,” “We’re Dog Friendly,” “[bestseller of the day] Now Available Inside,” or  “Eat, Read, Tweet.” The network probably doesn’t extend much past the sidewalk in front of your store, so your business name is probably unnecessary.
  • If you don’t have a wireless network, invest in one. It’ll build goodwill and encourage people to linger longer in your store.
  • If you install or open your wireless, let people know. It’s one more service to the community, and  creates a positive impression, even among those who’ll never use it.
  • Take out your own phone (or an employee’s) and walk around your store. Any black spots? Move the router until you have optimum coverage.
  • Look at your Facebook, Indiebound or MySpace profiles. Make sure the store address, opening hours, and any other basic info is correct. Make sure there is an inviting, recent store photo.
  • If you have given up on Facebook, your blog or any other social network, add that fact to the page. Say you’re no longer updating it, and link to your store website. Customers who want to do business shouldn’t have to guess or search to find this info.
  • Look at all your signage. Does ‘no’ predominate? If so, rewrite everything in more positive terms. “No Cell Phones” becomes “For the comfort of those reading, please take all calls outside.” “No Food” becomes “Sticky fingers and books don’t mix. Please keep all food in the café/outside.” “No Dogs” becomes “Working dogs only.”
  • indieboundappExcessive rules and instructions make your store feel more like a school or institution, and most of us chaffed under those conditions as teenagers. Don’t evoke those feelings in your customers.
  • Download the Indiebound app (or ask a friend/employee with an iPhone to do so) and look at your store’s info. Thumb the address to bring up the map to your store. Is it correct? If not, correct the address. Make sure you know that any directions to your store posted online are correct and updated.
  • Not on Indiebound/Facebook/online? Most other bookstores are. You look out of touch and less professional in comparison.

The holidays are when many customers enter your store for the first time, or use your website for online ordering/information gathering. First impressions count, so take a few minutes to make sure your store and online presence creates the best first impression.