GREENSBURG -- Small businesses must embrace modern technology and attract customers through Facebook, Twitter and other social media if they want to succeed in today’s changed business environment, according to a retail expert who visited Greensburg Friday.
Marc Willson, retail and restaurant industry consultant for the Virginia Small Business Development Center, said that small businesses also must adapt to changing needs of customers, by, for example, staying open later to accommodate today’s families. In most families, both spouses work, Willson said, which means they do not have time to shop at a local store before 5 p.m. Instead, they go to big box retailers, which tend to be open around the clock.
“Get found and be open,” Willson proclaimed as his mantra.
If businesses take just one thing from the seminar, Willson said, they should move their business day by two hours and open at 10 a.m. instead of 8 a.m., and close at 7 p.m. instead of 5 p.m., because about 70 percent of in-store spending occurs after 5 p.m. and on weekends.
Willson visited Greensburg Friday to present a seminar on “Staying relevant to a changed customer,” which was hosted by the Greensburg/Decatur County Chamber of Commerce, Main Street Greensburg and the Southeast Indiana Business Development Center. Willson’s retail experience includes work for Earth shoe, the book selling industry and Circuit City. He also owns consulting firm The Willson Co.
Willson listed four steps for businesses to enter the digital era:
1. Create a website. Businesses can do this themselves or have one created for them at relatively low cost. A website is critical, Willson said, because nine of 10 customers will find the business on the Internet before they set foot in it. Websites should display a photo (or short video) on the homepage, while subsequent pages should include information about the business and its owners. Willson suggested that long-established businesses highlight their longevity because it indicates trust. The website also should include a photo and some personal information to create a better connection with customers, Willson said.
2. Create a Facebook page for your business. Willson said a lot of business owners have told him that their revenues increased after they launched such a page. Business owners should post something on that page at least three times a week.
3. Make sure your website is mobile enabled so that people can easily browse for information on their smartphones.
4. Pay attention to online review sites such as tripadvisor.com, urbanspoon.com and yelp.com. Americans use such sites as their primary tool to make decisions about where to stay, shop or eat, Willson said. Businesses should ask their customers to write reviews on such sites and to “like” them on Facebook. If you have a bad review, respond to it, apologize and ask to be given another chance.
Willson said that small businesses can compete against national chains by listening to their customers and impressing patrons with their expertise and dedication to service.
Businesses primarily fail because they are undercapitalized, meaning the business owners do not have enough cash to get their business through the difficult early months, Willson said. It typically takes one to two years before they become profitable.
And business owners must be experts on their financial situation, Willson said. Business owners have to know how much money they need monthly to break even, and how much money they need to earn in good months to make up for the bad months.
“You can’t run a business and not keep score,” he said.
While the recession has made people more cautious about spending, changing demographics are providing some opportunities for small businesses and small towns. Many young professionals today like living where they can work, shop and eat, which has prompted lots of apartment construction above downtown shops and restaurants and has lured more businesses back from the suburbs to the city centers.
Small business owners can take advantage of such trends by establishing a relationship with customers, Willson said, because it is much less expensive to keep a current customer than it is to find a new one.
Good service includes greeting customers and letting them browse before approaching them about a sale, he said.
And, Willson said, “in a small town, you ought to know your customers’ names.”
Jeff Emsweller, executive director of the Chamber, said he thought Willson’s speech was excellent, and that he wished the seminar had been attended by more than the roughly 15 guests. He said he understood that especially small business owners may not have been able to afford staying away from their business for two hours, but given the critical information Willson provided, the truth is they probably could not afford to stay away.
Dale Huntington, owner of Huntington Jewelers, 122 E. Washington St., said the seminar gave him a lot of useful information and suggestions about how to improve his business.
A second-generation owner of a small business, Huntington said he still conducts his business in a lot of ways as he has for decades, and Willson has made him realize that he has to strongly consider engaging customers through social media.
Susan Burkhart, of Doerflinger Insurance Agency, said she, too, thought Willson offered a lot of helpful tips, especially concerning setting yourself apart from competitors, focusing on customer service and branding.
“Everybody who owns a small business should have been here,” she said.
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Questions business owners have to be able to answer to increase their chances for success: What is your business? What need does it fill? Who is the customer? Why is it special? Why is it better than the competition? How is that communicated (in 30 seconds or less)? Source: Retail expert Marc Willson, principal of consulting firm The Willson Co.