Email: Big Return for Small Shops

A story was printed in our local fishwrap to the effect that my wife’s favorite “shop around the corner,” the Atlanta Science Fiction and Mystery Bookshop, would close if business didn’t pick up soon.

We hustled over, and I thought that while we were browsing I might offer some hints to the owner as to how the web could help him keep his doors open.

Unfortunately, I never got a word in edgewise. Some loudmouth had beaten me to it and was regaling the poor man, in a loud voice, about how he needed a fancy web page, a mailing list database, and streaming video.

The shopkeeper was having none of it. Too many of his friends had already lost their businesses thanks to overly ambitious forays into cyberspace, he said. Every idea drew an objection. There’s no time; there’s no money; I barely have time to stack the shelves, he said. (And, in fact, there were half-opened boxes here and there around the place.)

As I was checking out, however, the troubled shopkeeper did ask me for my email address to add to his customer database. The man did have a Clue, as I like to say. So I promised my dear wife this column with some ideas for him.

That customer database is a key asset, and its names must be treated with respect. So start by sending customers one mailing, repeating what was in the paper, and offering a 15 percent discount to those who come in after printing their email and buy, say, $50 worth of books by, say, Halloween. (He already gives frequent buyers a 10 percent discount.)

That’s not all. Ask those you’ve emailed if they’d like regular emailings and, if so, how often they’d like them. Ask their advice on how to keep the shop open, and listen carefully to what they say. Put the best of those ideas in your next email, scheduled for early November, which will include a few gift selections and (perhaps) introduce a “reading club” based on a newsletter.

I’d emphasize that the shop should make it hard to get on this list. Only offer the emailings to regular customers who’ve given you their email address voluntarily in your shop. If it’s a premium membership offer, it’s going to be read, and it’s going to be acted on.

It’s also vital that you truly listen to the ideas generated by the email. Some will no doubt be bogus like those of the loudmouth in the store. (All computers have a delete key.) It may be that only 10 percent will be helpful. But people want to feel they’ve been heard, so thank them all. And that 1 idea in 10 could be wildly profitable.

When I go into any small store, I like to converse with the owner or employees. That’s why I’m there and not over at Barnes & Noble sipping “crappuccino.” The small store is usually a specialty store, its offerings have depth, and the shopkeeper knows his or her products inside and out. If you can keep that dialogue going, you will generate a huge amount of cash for minimal effort.

What small stores need from cyberspace is a big return on a small investment. The fancy databases and video streams can wait.

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