Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Holiday Season—Super Bowl For Business: Don’t Fumble!

A friend of mine was on an airplane once and struck up a conversation with a fellow businessman. They were talking about, well, business, and this other guy told my friend,
“No matter what kind of business you’re in, a lot of what you do depends on going into or coming out of Christmas”.

The more you think about it, it’s true. My friend had a wholesale lumber business at the time and did not think the holidays really applied to him, but he started thinking more and more about how they should. He could very easily fine tune his marketing to cash in on the money changing hands during and because of Christmas. That’s the key.

Christmas comes once a year, and it offers an opportunity to look upon your business in a fresh way. Retailers ought to see it as the same kind of thing as a Grand Opening. Even if you sell summer garden supplies wholesale, if you don’t take advantage of the buying mood Christmas affords, you really ought to have your head examined.

Years ago in retail, having a well-stocked store was crucial for the holidays. Retailers did not worry about putting everything on sale—this was the time of year when you had captive shoppers who simply had to buy something. So it was also a time of year retailers made profits.

Wal-Mart and online shopping have changed that—this is why you see so many sales going on from Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) up to Christmas, maybe New Year’s Day. But it is still crucial for a retailer to have the goods even if they are not making as much margin on them, because how the retailer appears during the holidays will affect return traffic for the rest of the year and into the future.

Think about the chaos that happens during this time of year. If a retailer is running out of best selling goods, if he or she is short staffed, mismanaged in any way shape or form, how do you think the customer is going to react? What will the customer think of this store in April, August, or even next holiday season? Any fool can see that being on your toes during the holidays is going to pay dividends, just as it would during a Grand Opening.

Face it: a lot of retailers ARE in a chaotic state of affairs during this season. It separates the men from the boys. If you arrive at the Super Bowl and fumble in the opening drive, throw interceptions in the second quarter, lay down on defense in the third quarter, and generally poop out because you’re out of shape in the fourth, you are not going to win. But if you’re prepared, you win both in retail and in the Super Bowl.

The holiday season is the Super Bowl. You have all year to realize this. Don’t fumble!!!

Wholesalers and Sales Reps need to be on their toes too. How? The best way is to accommodate the winners you have as accounts who are preparing properly for this time of year. And go a step beyond accommodating them, train and educate them as well.

Here are the ways how:

Marketing Materials
· Right Way: have your catalogs, brochures, whatever you use for lead generators or informational needs, ready to be sent out by September 1st. I know, you’re complaining about department stores putting Christmas decorations out before Halloween. But think about that: do you think they expect shoppers to shop that early? Not really: but they do want to tell those shoppers that they, the store, is prepared. The same thing happens with priming your accounts in September and October. If they receive a new catalog and start preparing early, they will be better prepared when the customer crunch comes in late November. A store full of customers in late November is not the time for a retailer to be doing a thorough order for your products and lines. He should be free to wait on customers and nothing else.

Smaller, fill in orders can be done in November and December, but to do those, the retailer must have an idea of what’s moving, and he/she’ll have a better idea of what’s moving if they base that on a large stock order done earlier in the fall.

· Wrong Way: catalog and brochures released December 1st. You’re playing catch-up at this point. If you get orders, they will be done with half attention, half effort on the part of the retailer. Mark your calendar in June of next year to be on time (September) for having your print materials ready.

New Products
· Right Way: similar to your marketing material, have these ready to go in September. Some industries, like fashion, show products at trade shows almost a year in advance for large chains to buy in time for the holidays (or, for that matter, other seasons). Rolling out new items early gives accounts plenty of time to order them and get a read well before Christmas.
· Wrong Way: releasing any time after November 1st. This is not the time of year for market research and moving planograms around to accommodate something new. The movie industry can get away with Dec. 24th release dates, but odds are you can’t.

Sales Calls & Meetings
· Right Way: sales calls and meetings relating to the holidays should be held well in advance. For major chains, summer, maybe September at the latest. If you are a rep selling to wholesalers, you want to prep them so they are ready to meet with their accounts at that time, so your meeting may occur in the Spring or a year in advance. However, support staffs for major chain stores generally have slow schedules in the weeks around the holidays, and if a meeting concerns matters and issues for the coming year, that could be a good time to schedule a sales call.

· Wrong Way: any time after mid November for individual stores is a bad time to impose your presence on a retailer. That’s when they should concentrate on customer service, not listening to your spiel.

Shipping Schedule
· Right Way: have plenty of order pullers and shipping staff trained to the max to handle the extra business you should be receiving. Step it up a bit—if your usual in house time is three days, make it two. Come out with a schedule and notify all your accounts and reps (and you reps notify accounts too) to get orders in by a certain date to get shipments by Christmas week. Have warehouse personnel constantly monitor what is in house—no orders piled up in the “to do” tray. If there is a stack of boxes labeled for a particular account sitting for more than one day they should know exactly why—credit issues? Awaiting prepay? It should be shipped if there is nothing holding it back.
· Wrong Way: blasé attitude like it’s just another time of year. Giving some problem issue to someone else to do—in other words, all employees, if a customer or rep calls in wondering what is taking so long for an order, don’t give it to someone else to do. As Ross Perot once said, “If you see a snake, kill it. Don’t wait for some meeting to discuss the issue or think someone else will do it.”

Since the trend of holding huge holiday sale events at retail became vogue, the December holidays for smaller retailers have come close to disappearing…but many of these independent retailers are finding the period after the holidays to be just as important, if not more so. Reason? Gift Cards is a big part of it. But as a sales rep or wholesale vendor, be aware that “the holidays” can be considered to be a longer period now…almost Halloween to Valentine’s Day.

Anything that generates foot traffic at retail should be taken seriously, and the holiday season is the most traditional event of this type. Another, more recent phenomenon of traffic generation is the “tax free weekend” many states have adopted in order to encourage sales of school supplies/apparel (Texas started this) to hurricane season preparation (as in Louisiana). Even if a retailer does not sell the goods that qualify for tax free status, they can and should join in on the fun. When you think about it, saving 8% sales tax is not a big deal—would anyone respond to an 8% sale”? Yet they do, and many retailers go beyond 8% to attract shoppers. These events have whetted the appetite of shoppers so much that neighboring states (like Oklahoma) had to stage their own “tax free weekends” because local merchants were sick of seeing migrations to Texas every year at that time.

This shows the importance of that lemming-like mindset shoppers can possess with events like this. So why treat the Christmas holiday season like it is any other time of year? You know traffic is going to increase, you know customers are going to shop (and they will shop for items for themselves as well as gifts). They will be in the mood to spend money, no matter how dire the economy, and they’ve done so for 2010 years! It’s the Super Bowl, don’t fumble!

Prepare for this season and help your accounts prepare for it. It is the most crucial traffic generating time of year and no opportunities should be wasted.

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