Social Media: New Golden Age for Retailers?

by Dan Hutson on June 8, 2009

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photo by army.arch

My wife and I owned a small bookstore in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a little over four years. We bought it from a woman who had started it more than 20 years earlier and was ready to retire. Without dredging up too much painful history, I quickly learned that I had let emotion trump logic and failed to do the due diligence that would have sent me running in the opposite direction.

I bring this up because, after swearing off ever again getting into any kind of bricks-and-mortar retail situation, I’m actually feeling the itch thanks to social media. (If my wife ever reads this, don’t worry honey … it’s a mild itch at best.)

The more time I spend using social media, the more I’m convinced that we are entering a new golden age for the independent local retailer. Yes, big boxes and category-killers have decimated the ranks of the indie retailer over the past few decades. But social media may help to level the playing field. Here’s how:

Relationship Building
No one does a better job getting to know their customers than a good local retailer. I learned my customers’ names, got to know their buying habits and learned what was happening in their lives during the short time they spent in my store. Social media offers the tools to extend that learning process beyond the store. Relationship building time can extend far beyond face time. Back in the ’90s Don Peppers and Martha Rogers called the use of increasingly affordable technology to capture customer data and develop a deeper understanding of individual prospects the one-to-one future. I wonder if they envisioned the degree to which the concepts they explored in their books have developed on the web.

Conversation

Many retailers get into their businesses because they have a passion for their product. I got into the bookstore business because I love books. And when I say I love books, I mean I LOVE BOOKS. My family still gives me grief about the the time we were cruising bookstores in Berkeley and I stumbled but managed to save the huge bag of books I was carrying while falling on my ass.

If you love something like that, then you love talking about it. You look for others who share that passion. Social media makes it easier than ever to find people who share your interests and engage them in conversation. Conversation builds relationships, and relationships built on a shared love of something can often lead to sales.

There’s nothing I enjoy more than talking books with people who know their stuff. That’s hard to find in a Barnes & Noble or a Borders where they’ve cut staff back so far that it’s difficult to find someone to ask where the restroom is, let alone talk books. And while there are certainly book lovers working in the chains, chances are slim they share your particular interests. When I walk into a genre store like Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, I know someone there will know who I’m talking about when I ask about Christopher Fowler or Peter Straub or Graham Joyce. And when I walk into a large indie like Vroman’s in Pasadena, I know the staff will have more answers than down the street at Big Box.

Again, social media enables you to extend and deepen the conversation beyond store time. When I got a book in that I knew would interest a particular customer, I’d pick up the phone. Now it’s even easier with Twitter and e-newsletters and blogs. There’s no excuse NOT to be in an ongoing conversation with your best customers at a minimum.

Customer Service
I loved finding new books that I thought would excite a particular customer. I loved letting someone know that the latest issue of their favorite magazine had just arrived. If you’re in retail and you don’t get a kick out of discovery on behalf of your customers, then you’re probably in the wrong business.

The good news (or bad, if you’re the customer) is that great customer service is in the minority everywhere. If you already offer it, you’re already special. Imagine how phenomenal you can be by amplifying that level of service through social media.

Authority
If you really know your stuff, social media provides the platform for strutting it. You can be the invaluable go-to source for help and information. Identify your niche, figure out what those customers want in the way of information and share freely through social media. Your generosity of spirit and depth of knowledge will make themselves known if you work hard at it.

Most businesses have access to industry information that would also be of interest to your customers. Pass it along. Don’t assume your customers don’t care about the details of your sausage-making. Many are interested. In the democratization of information, you are an ambassador.

As more people use Twitter, join social networks and rely more on blogs for news and information, the opportunities for retailers to use social media to build stronger relationships with customers will multiply dramatically.

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