by Robert Lerose.


It doesn't matter whether you run a brick-and-mortar store or an online operation: To boost sales at the register, the process should begin from the moment a customer enters your establishment or visits your website.


White-in-article.jpgButWait_PQ.jpgFor retail stores, first impressions are especially important, beginning with the "decompression zone," the space where the customer makes the transition from the street or the concourse of a mall to the store itself—such as the 3' x 6' space inside the door where a mat might sit.


Because customers are in a period of adjustment from the outside world to the store's environment, this is not the time to aggressively sell or bombard them with messages.


However, there are things a business can do to facilitate this transition to its advantage.


"[The store] can change the texture under people's feet, which gets them to slow down faster. That's the reason why mats exist," says Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. "It can manage sight lines. It can adjust lighting levels. It can also use some physical cueing as to where somebody slows down and what they see first."


How the customer reacts to the changing environment in these few seconds can influence their mindset for shopping. For instance, Underhill says that it's appropriate to greet customers, but it's a mistake to immediately ask if they need help, which could elicit a negative response.


Lead from the front

After studying the shopping habits of thousands of customers over the years, Underhill found that most stores work better with a counter-clockwise circulation pattern. One theory ascribes this to the fact that the majority of people are right-handed, (and thus are more apt to act on their right side) while another says it's due to the prevalence of driving on the right side of the road. Regardless of the direction, all stores should be clean and organized, he adds. Customer service, which should be highly visible and engaged, begins from the top down.


"I can't stress enough that a small business owner has to lead from the front," Underhill says. "He or she is providing leadership to the rest of the staff in terms of the level of customer service that's delivered. You need to remember one reason you wanted to be in retail is to have people-to-people contact."


One problem of modern life is the overabundance of options. Choice is good, but too much of it can lead to paralysis and lower sales.


Underhill's research has found that selling five great things at checkout is too distracting for consumers, whereas two great things are appropriate. For example, you could offer a basic package that whets the consumer's interest, and then push a well-accessorized luxury package.


Also, every store should change the items they merchandise at checkout on a regular basis, depending on the number of consumer visits, according to Underhill.


"If I'm a small local independent drug store, I may want to change out every two weeks. If I'm a local wireless store, maybe I do it every month. If I'm a local convenience store, I might even do it daily, based on the kind of road I'm sitting next to," Underhill explains. "If you think about a small convenience store in a rural setting, where you may see the same customer more than once a day, having some subtle changes in the register offerings is part of what brings a level of freshness to it."


Focus on core strengths

It's natural to want to push ancillary products or do cross-selling at the start of a buying relationship, but some businesses achieve better results by waiting and growing their operation first.


Take SurePayroll, an online payroll service for small businesses. Today, it offers a number of products and services in addition to its main payroll business. But SurePayroll held off from adding those products and services for the first three or four years of the company's existence until it had a larger customer base and could spend the additional resources and energy to go after their existing clients.


It comes down to focus.


"You can't have an online payroll service unless you're online, so I could potentially sell you website hosting services because I'm an online service," says Michael Alter, president and CEO of SurePayroll. "But my customers aren't likely to buy that from me. It's not a natural thing for a payroll company to sell. So you've got to make sure there's a true natural linkage, not a linkage just because you can make money in it."


According to Alter, SurePayroll has added more than 35,000 small businesses to its customer base since being founded in 2000. It uses live sales reps and encourages them, through incentives, to generate cross-leads for other sales forces in the company. They're trained to use a variety of tools to find out where a customer is open to buying something new.


"Certainly asking them what else they need is clearly an opportunity," Alter says. "Some of it is trial and error. If it's a logical add-on, they're more likely to buy it from you than to add another vendor to their mix."


Businesses that run an automated e-commerce site, such as Amazon, can also use technology to upsell by offering special offers or showing other products purchased by customers with similar tastes.


Investing in lifetime value

At a time when independent stores are under serious threat from the larger chains, Zane's Cycles in Branford, Connecticut makes sure that customers are greeted when they walk in and has employees float around the store in plain sight—paving the way to healthy sales and enduring loyalty.


"My average sale when I first started 20 years ago was $250 to $300. Now, I'm guessing it's got to be in the $700 to $800 range," says Tom Girard, director of retail operations. "I just sold a $14,000 bike. You can buy a BMW motorcycle for that."


A 14-foot copper-top coffee bar and a new section with clothing, bikes and accessories specifically for women reinforce the store's helpful, family friendly vibration. 


Founded in 1981 by current owner Chris Zane, the eponymous store has pioneered policies and procedures that result in a sale and a pleasant, enjoyable experience for the customer.


For example, they offer a lifetime warranty on each bike and its parts that exceeds the manufacturer's limited terms. They also guarantee the lowest price in the state for 90 days after purchase. And, customers have 30 days to test a bike without risk. If they're dissatisfied for any reason, Zane's will take it back unconditionally and give them full credit towards another bike.


"There's truly no reason why you shouldn't buy a bike from us," Girard says. "We kind of analyze the customer in a short five minutes, what kind of ride [they want], and what they're going to be doing. Then we figure out how to guide them through what's going to make them comfortable. You want to make it as pleasurable as possible for them."


Zane's policy of servicing any bike it sells for free for as long as the customer owns it—a $75 value every time a bike is brought in for a tune-up—enriches the customer experience and also doubles as a shrewd strategy for igniting foot traffic.


"They have to bring the bike in, so they have to walk through the store. They have to then come back and pick the bike up when it's done. I get them in the store twice to look at all the new stuff by offering free service," Girard explains.


"It doesn't matter if [we] spend an hour [with a customer] on a three-dollar [purchase]," Girard says. "If we made that guy's or that woman's day easier, they're going to come back to us and they're going to buy something from us. Whether it be big or small, a bunch of small transactions add up. But there's always a big one in there, if you think of the lifetime value of a customer."

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