With German Christmas markets a festive draw in city centres throughout Europe, ‘tis the season to eat bratwurst and browse for gifts. For the sixteenth year, the much-loved German Christmas markets have returned to Manchester, boasting an array of wonderful stalls run by small businesses from the North West city and beyond.
With more than 300 stalls in such proximity, competition is rife. The pressure is on to win over consumers and market traders have learned many valuable business lessons over the years. We spoke to three traders to find out what they believed were the most important business lessons they’ve learned from trading in such a competitive environment.
Phil Fowler owns a small local business called Popsters, which transforms old records into clocks and coasters. A labour of love for Phil, Popsters only trades face to face at the Manchester Markets, selling online throughout the rest of the year.
Phil believes that to catch the eye of potential customers you must bring unique products to the market. But while Popsters’ vinyl gifts are one-of-a-kind, he knows that having a one-off product on its own is not necessarily enough to seal the deal. “It’s tempting to think that because I’ve got a unique product, that’s all I need,” he says. “You can’t get my product anywhere else, but actually I’m still competing with everybody else who’s got a gift item to sell in the same price bracket.”
Another key lesson we learned from the Manchester traders is the importance of getting to know your customers. Standing in a customer-facing environment, seven days a week for five weeks solid means that traders get plenty of face-time with their customers. All three interviewees were unanimous about the importance of building good customer relationships and listening to their feedback.
Ken Jackson, from handmade gift specialists Timber Treasures, comments: “I think having a good relationship with customers is vital. Having a nice chat with them, keeping them happy – even if they’re not buying – you still need to try to maintain a good rapport with them.”
Similarly, Graham Kirkham, from Garstang-based cheesemakers Mrs Kirkham’s, advises: “Listen to what your customers are telling you, time and time again. Even if it’s criticism – don’t take it in a bad way.”
Listening to the customer is only half the battle. Acting on their feedback is imperative to success. Graham adds: “As a result of feedback, we’ve introduced more blue cheeses and more soft cheeses. Refresh your stall, refresh what you’re doing, keep it interesting and keep your customers interested.”
These traders spend a great deal of time vying for public attention in a crowded marketplace and the lessons they can teach us are pertinent no matter how big or established your business. Keep these three basic business principles in mind if you want to maintain a competitive edge and thrive in 2015.
Copyright © 2014 Aldermore Bank. Visit the Aldermore Bank blog to watch a video of festive interviews with the Christmas market traders in Manchester.
Beliefs drive reality and they are intrinsically linked to our values – the things that are most important to us. What you believe to be true you make right by finding evidence to support it.
So, if you believe that your target market is struggling at the moment and has no money to spend on your product, you’ll easily be able to prove that to be correct. And yet if you were to say to yourself that your target market is making more focused buying decisions, you’ll take a different approach to your next sales or marketing conversation. Whatever is true doesn’t really matter. It’s the attitude and energy you take to it that will make the difference.
“If you believe you can, or you believe you can’t, you’re right” – Henry Ford
Thank heavens our brains are wired to filter information according to relevance. Without that filtering we’d have more than two billion bits of information flying at us at any given second. How paralysing would that be?
Because of this filtering, we’re wired to focus on what we decide is important – our values. This focus drives behaviour and therefore business results. So, what we believe – and then say to ourselves is the truth – can mean that we don’t see evidence to the contrary. This can act as a positive or a negative, depending on what your beliefs are.
To make sure you are doing all that you can in this area to create success, begin to notice whether your beliefs are acting as ‘cheerleaders’ or ‘critics’ by considering these questions:
“What are the beliefs that you are running in terms of your customers, your product, your team or the market in general?” Grab some paper, make a list and then ask yourself…
“Are these beliefs building strong foundations and motivating me and my team to grow the business or are they looking for flaws and reasons that things go wrong?”
Whatever your beliefs are you have choice. You can make a change. Change your thinking and change your reality.
For many small businesses, being ‘local’ is their USP, but some have also come to realise the value of promoting themselves further afield.
By staying local, you can build your business in a community setting, helping you to have strong links with your immediate catchment area of customers. When you throw growing amounts of competition and the economy into the mix, the idea of staying local becomes harder to maintain. Competition from larger companies makes being a small fish in a big pond seem like a bad thing, so somehow SMEs have to find a way to compete without losing their local USP.
One key way to ensure you keep up with the competition is to create the impression that you are bigger than you are. You may be operating out of your home or possibly small premises, with only a handful of employees, based within a small area, but by creating the right impression you can quickly promote a much bigger presence. What’s more, consumer trends show that customer trust runs hand in hand with the size of the company (ie the bigger you seem, the more trust you’ll gain).
A way to do this is to use a non-geographic telephone number. Large companies have used non-geographic numbers as their contact numbers for years, attracting customers from all over the country.
Research has shown that consumers are more likely to contact a business if they have an appealing geographic location. For example, it is unlikely that a customer living in London will call a Leeds-based company with a local area code. So, if you are advertised as nationwide, you are immediately more appealing. Just by taking the geographic tie away from a business’ contact number you can attract more customers, making this a great tool for SMEs.
With cost restraints, it’s not always possible to hire new staff or pay for new equipment to deal with increased sales enquiries, but something as simple as a professional voicemail and highly efficient customer service will help. Quick response times and personalised service will not only bring you new custom, it will build long and happy relationships with your customers.
Written by Katherine Evans of 08Direct (supplier of non-geographic 08 and 03 telephone numbers).
1. Focus on who your ideal customer is - those who are loyal and high spending - and make sure that everything you do is with your customer in mind.
2. Focus on cost cutting. Remember the old saying: "Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves." There are services to make this easier for you that don't cost a thing - check out Make It Cheaper for instance, which could enable you to make savings on your utilities.
3. Focus on your product, pricing and promotions - think about that ideal customer; make sure everything you present to them is aligned to their needs and wants and is clearly priced. Run engaging promotions that increase sales, don't drain margin and don't devalue the brand.
4. Make sure you are online. You don't need to be trading online (but it helps) but you do need to be findable. Spend some time to ensure you can be found for what you offer in your area. Make sure you add your business to Google places and as many free directories as you can. When people search for [category] in [Town] you want to be on page one! Add your business to www.independentshops.co.uk/.
5. Make sure you get social - retailers are using tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube and blogs to stay in contact with customers. If you're not yet familiar with using social media then chose just one and learn how to use it. You'll soon find your feet, but if you do need a bit of help getting started, there is a free downloadable 'how-to' guide available at www.independentretail.co.uk/resources
Clare replies: “Many people start retailing almost as a sideline and discover that it's consuming more and more of their time. Of course, if you're running a business alongside a full-time job you'll be getting income from both. Making the leap to being a full-time business owner - moving from employment to entrepreneurship - is never easy and only you will know when the time is right. Assess what income you need and how you'll achieve it and make sure you have the financial buffer to cover the transition. It's often valuable to join a local networking group to meet other local business people. You'll meet people who are in the position you'll be in when you make that leap and you may get a great deal of advice and support from the network as well.”
Clare replies: “One of my greatest frustrations is the amount of money that seems to be thrown at start-ups and schemes to support start-ups but how little there is to help established businesses to keep going. I work with a privately funded organisation, Enterprise Rockers, and their mission is to support micro businesses (ie those with fewer than ten employees) to keep going once the honeymoon phase of start-up has passed. There is almost no support for established businesses from the government, and their stance on business rates for retailers in particular (of any size) is crippling. Banks are getting better; the anecdotal feedback I've had is variable - it seems that the success rate with banks has more to do with the business owner's relationship with their local business banking manager than it has to do with any specific bank or banking policy.”
Clare replies: “I think the UK has huge entrepreneurial spirit and achieves an enormous amount. It's sad that much of the media focus is on super-star entrepreneurs like the BBC Dragons and not on the real-life entrepreneurs. The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has a campaign called Real-Life Entrepreneurs, and I've agreed to champion that for them. This is all about recognising the micro businesses that work hard to support themselves and perhaps a couple of employees, who earn a reasonable living and enjoy a reasonable life.
“These real-life entrepreneurs won't make millions overnight; they won't be bought out by mega brands and they don't need investors to accelerate their growth. They're like the vast majority of entrepreneurs: people enjoying what they do and making a decent living. It's important to celebrate these people and recognise their achievements - the thousands of plumbers, decorators, designers and web developers who work freelance are probably more valuable to the UK economy than one of the celebrity entrepreneurs! It's important that we acknowledge that when talking about the mix of UK small businesses.”
Clare is well known by most independent retailers as a 'voice of the industry'. With years of experience creating awareness for our high street shops, retailers and traders she is one of the most trusted experts in the UK. To read more advice for her visit www.retailchampion.co.uk
This article first appeared on the Towergate Insurance website and was written by Jonathan Falgate.
Complaints are great. Although there is a tendency to do the same with complaints as with a medieval runner bringing bad news from the battlefield – blame the messenger – this temptation must be avoided at all costs. Complaints are the best and most unvarnished source of customer feedback. That’s when they are read in the raw, uncorrupted by staff editing, “summarisation” or by any other subtle bias from your customer surveys.
It’s much better to hear from a customer, and have the chance to fix things, than for them to bad mouth you behind your back, or even worse, broadcast your failings for others to hear. A customer who has been able to complain, and feels that the complaint has been taken seriously has already reached the first base in changing their feelings about your organisation. They are then much less likely to spread their complaints more widely.
Customer complaints highlight problems with people or processes, often way before other indicators show red. You can then fix them before they cause too much trouble. It’s all too easy to glide blithely along while significant problems are developing, with no recognition at management level. Complaints help to shatter the peace, for the better.
If you don’t already have a customer feedback facility on your website, consider introducing one. Ideally hosted by a third party so people know that the comments are authentic. You’ll get positive and negative input, and make sure you respond to the latter saying how you’ve tackled the issue.
Research has shown that customers with issues that are resolved quickly often become very loyal, which is good for all involved and often helps boost the bottom line. In other words, listening and fixing complaints creates better customers, and better customers are more profitable.
I have heard time and again that a business like mine needs a face. Well, the worrying thing is...whose face would it be? I guess it would have to be mine!
Now that I’m breaking even and orders are steadily increasing, I need to look at how I can promote the message that I want to shout about: about how amazing Mexican food is. I don’t want to preach about it, I just want to share recipes, mouth-watering ideas for creating food and drink to impress your friends, and a bit of the history and the nutritional properties.
And there is some absolutely fantastic news for the cuisine: UNESCO, the branch of the United Nations that is best known for its list of World Heritage Sites, has just awarded the Mexican cuisine the very prestigious status of “intangible cultural patrimony” along with Chinese cuisine. The French cuisine has been turned down twice.
The superior methods and ingredients used to prepare traditional food such as Mole sauce tamales and salsas are a sharp contrast with the processed cheese and sour cream-covered nachos and cardboard-like hard-shell tacos that many people outside the country typically confuse as Mexican food. I would love to inspire foodies to try a variety of new recipes and ingredients.
Not being such an internet whiz, I will need lots of advice to use the internet era to inspire the foodies who want to try new things. Your suggestions will be welcome.
You can find out more about Marcela on the new interactive business website www.inafishbowl.com