Come 2009, I will have worked in a retail print and copy environment for a solid decade. In that time, the changes in technology, product, demand and marketing throughout the industry have been massive. Some things, however, will never change. Call me superstitious, call me over-analytical, but I believe when it comes to a retail environment, where you count on customers crossing your threshold and greeting you for the first time face-to-face, there are certain events that are completely out of your control, but that you can bet on to bring in or repel customers.
My bosses have always hated it when I make this claim, but once I noticed the patterns and started keeping track, my system hasn’t let me down. Yes, it means I can predict somewhat downturns or spikes in business activity. Yes, it’s true that no one likes for an employee to point out that things are slow or way too busy. Armed with this information, however, a thoughtful manager can plan for good times and bad to even out the traffic and make their business more profitable.?
- Rain attracts, Snow repels
No one wants to go out, or drive, in the snow. Especially when the destination is the local copy shop, a place viewed by many as the real-world manifestation of the doldrums as depicted in The Phantom Tollbooth. I have never seen days as slow and unprofitable as when there was even a little snow on the ground. Strangely enough, the opposite seems to be true of heavy rain. A logical person might think that any kind of bad weather would keep people away, but I have never accused consumers of being logical. Anything short of a snowstorm just seems to just poke the economic lion with a stick, as it were. Customers don’t have an excuse big enough to stay home from work, and they don’t like it one bit. Consequently they become more irritable, more demanding, and deadlines seem to be set a little sooner than they would otherwise be. Maybe they’re looking for reasons to get out of the office as well. Who knows??
- Pre-holiday rushes, Post-holiday blues
Let’s face it; no one wants to think about work while they’re on vacation. People want to ship off to bermuda or see their family without nagging thoughts about the mailing they needed to get done or their year-end numbers. The deadlines right before a weekday holiday are unlike anything you will see the rest of the year, especially the big ones like Thanksgiving and Independence Day. People will come in late, drop a ton of work on you, then flee before you can get your questions answered. Sometimes assistants will be your contact going forward, and if you have the luxury of a deadline NOT set on the last business day, it is the client’s flunky you will have to deal with (and they will be miserable if they didn’t get the nice vacation their boss got). If you somehow survive the pre-holiday madness, business will be completely pulled out from under you in the next week or two. The two biggest business lulls for retail print work are always late December, Late July into August. If you don’t plan for these slowdowns they can take you completely by surprise.
- “Digital Hiccoughs” put you out of business
The advent of web-based print ordering has?alleviated?some of the weather-based slow-downs because customers can just point and click instead of facing the storm. Having a well trained digital customer base, comes with its own frailties. Several times a year for reasons completely out of your control, your web server will crash, your email system will run into a glitch, or your routers and servers will go offline. Recently, an associate’s laptop just decided to stop seeing the ethernet in our shop and it took half an hour to get him back online. This sort of digital hiccough is a sort of snowstorm in and of itself. I’ll save best practice recommendations for another post, but the point here is that you can suddenly lose half your client base for the better part of a day, and no weatherman on the planet can tell you when it will happen.?
- Know your business’ patterns and your clientele.?
If your business caters to a large number of schools and governmental sectors, chances are your busiest periods will be September and January through the Spring. New budgets and ‘back to school’ times are your biggest allies. Other business sectors have their own patterns. Engineering firms bid on projects and do a lot of presentations in the summer. Non-Profits tend to seek generosity during the winter months and holiday seasons. Knowing who your customers are, and when they tend to buy lets you look for alternate sectors to pick up the slack. If you market effectively, you can eliminate your “off-season” by picking up varying sorts of customers who tend to buy at different times of year.
- Use promotions to drum up business during slow seasons or periods.?
Offer great sales or impulse buy discounts during your off-season to keep the presses running. You can plan your skeleton crew to work the holidays, but if you close down completely you are operating at a loss. Aim to cover materials, rent and payroll with attractive discounts. Especially if it attracts people who wouldn’t ordinarily be print buyers. Holiday cards, calendars, posters, and other gift items are good examples to battle a December slowdown. Keep a special sale up your sleeve for snow days as well. If you know a storm is coming, offer a web-special through an email blast that gives a limited time offer for orders placed over the web. If your customers are sitting at home spending time on the computer, they may as well be buying!?
- Keep in touch, digitally speaking
Speaking of the computer, training your customers to keep in contact with you through email is a handy practice for many reasons. Communication is conveyed in writing, you can maintain an up-to-date emailing list, and your employees can spend less time at the counter. Get your website to work for you. Websites are impersonal, true, but a well-designed site can also be your best customer service rep ever. Armed with all the info of several 4/4 glossy brochures, your website can keep in touch with clients, take orders, and put a face on your business 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.?
- When all else fails, go “Old School!”
A well-functioning and thoughtfully designed website, combined with promotions and good solid business trend management can be the cure for most ebb and flow issues. True, the technology itself can be a headache, but most retail print or copy shops don’t have corporate style IT department. During digital hiccoughs your staff might be too busy fixing the problem to deal with customers anyway. These are the times?maybe the few times left?when a manager should get old-school. Get out the customer list and start making phone calls. Pound the pavement. Get into your clients’ offices. A temporary computer setback might be just the occasion you need to get in contact with your biggest clients and see if they are trying to send you work. If not, catch up with what’s going on with their kids. Your customers will appreciate a human face or voice to go with their printer, and relationships do still matter.?
These are just some of the thoughts I’ve had on the matter, but?I would be interested in hearing others’ ideas, observations, and cures for sudden interruptions of service. Leave your comments below, and happy snow days!