With retailers gearing up for the biggest shopping season of the year, Los Altos merchants, worried about the slow economy, gathered tips from the more successful and experienced business owners on ways to improve sales.
Discounts, promotions and advertising notwithstanding, it’s all about cultivating personal relationships with customers that will keep them coming back, merchants said at the panel discussion co-hosted by the city of Los Altos, the Los Altos Village Association and the Los Altos Chamber of Commerce Nov. 9.Panelists included Larry Chu from Chef Chu’s, Craig Cousins from Cover Story, Dan Brunello from Le Boulanger, Chris Kendall from The Yum Yum Tree and Kim Auerbach from Zitune. Eamon Rooney, a certified business coach, moderated the panel. Approximately 20 merchants attended the event.
The panelists agreed that making a customer feel special is the single most important thing a business owner can do.
“Taking care of that one person you have inside your business is invaluable,” Chu said. “Make a personal connection and do something special for that customer.”
Discounts and lowering prices are always good tactics, but they do not make as much of an impact on customers as that personal touch, the panelists said.
“Customers are looking for a personal experience,” Brunello said. “People want to be recognized.”
“It’s all about one-on-one relationships between the owner and the customer,” she said. “Once you have a guest in your restaurant, you have to get them to come back.”
A satisfied and happy customer could mean good reviews and referrals, which could in turn translate to more customers walking in the door, Auerbach said.
While emphasizing the importance of customer service, panelists reminded business owners that margins are equally important.
“Reach out to individuals, but without giving away margins,” Cousins said. “Margins are very critical to our success, which is numbers driven.”
Keeping return on investments always in mind, merchants should “think outside the box” and focus on ways to make the shopping experience better and more memorable for customers, Cousins said. Some things are more important than others, like packaging the customers’ purchases, he said, adding that people remember and can immediately identify good, creative packaging.
Cousins said creative and timely window decorations and social networking are other inexpensive ways to attract new customers.
When budgets are tight and revenue is low, advertising methods must be creative according to Brunello.
“Dovetailing on the back of events means we don’t have to do a lot of advertising,” he said.
Auerbach said she agreed 100 percent.
“Even posting a recipe on the Web site or meeting the chef on the street during downtown events is very special for people,” she said.
Everyone agreed offering freebies is always a great draw for customers. But free does not mean poor quality – on the contrary, it’s got to be the best, they maintained.
“Put your best foot forward when you give stuff away,” Chu said. “Even if it’s a glass of wine or dessert for a customer’s birthday, make sure it’s your best.”
When Rooney asked the panelists about their hiring process, all equated great customer service with exceptional employees.
“You’re only as good as your employees,” Brunello said. “One of my biggest challenges is taking my ideas of customer service to my staff.”
“I invest a lot in employee training,” Cousins said.
His new hires undergo a two-week trial period, during which they receive intensive training in customer service and product knowledge. He also holds meetings with his employees on a regular basis to communicate his business and customer service policies.
Employees are customers’ first impression of any business. They can either make it or break it for the business owner, so it’s important to take care of them, panelists said.
“You have to treat your employees as you treat your customers,” Chu said.
The panelists urged merchants to communicate openly with their customers about the uniqueness of their business and solicit their input if something’s wrong so that it can be fixed.
“Downtown Los Altos has a unique opportunity to be a destination place,” Cousins said. “We should pool our resources and co-market our businesses to help one another.”