Healthy mind, healthy attitude, healthy business

- Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place.

The holidays are creeping up on us fast. Along with the holiday season comes the rush of small business owners and employees trying to finish certain tasks and prepare for the next season while also preparing for another mean Iowa winter.

With all of the rush, it is important to stay healthy throughout this busy season and year round.

It’s easy to get caught up in the rush and forget about your health, but it’s also easier than ever to remind yourself to stay healthy and take a break every once in awhile.

My family and friends have invested in a Fitbit band that you wear on your wrist, and it counts your daily activity such as steps, miles, calories burned and even hours -- or minutes! -- slept. There are even applications that you can download on your Smartphone or tablet that remind you to drink water and stay active.

It’s always important from a personal standpoint to stay healthy year-round, but your business benefits when you do, too.

When you take a break from your hectic schedule, just for a few minutes, it opens up your thought process and allows you to see things in a different light. Some of your best business ideas may be the result of just a few minutes of break time.

As well as exercising regularly, keeping hydrated is another health tip we seem to skip when we don’t have the time. Staying hydrated affects our cognitive skills. Something as simple as drinking four glasses of water a day can greatly improve your health and your productivity.

Stop and smell the roses isn’t just a cliché. It’s essential for your health. When you take a moment to relax, you can lower your blood pressure, boost your immune system, boost your memory, lower your risk of a stroke, and improve your happiness and positive thinking

With holiday season just around the corner, you're going to want -- and need -- all the energy you can get. Your customers and employees deserve nothing less.

Another reason to network

- Kelly Sharp is owner at Heart of Iowa Market Place.

Owning a small business comes with plenty of challenges and, yes, even aggravations. And, of course, it has its rewards, too.

I like just about everything that comes with growing my business, from creating the vision and leading employees to winning over new clients and creating a unique customer experience.

It's an experience I'd highly recommend, especially this month. October is National Women's Small Business Month, which has prompted me to look a little closer at the big picture of women in business.

One of the many wonderful things, the past few decades have brought us is the rise of equality. According to The American Express OPEN State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, 29 percent of small business are owned by women. That number seemed low to me, but the promising point is that the number of women-owned business has increased by 50 percent since 1997 -- and that trend is likely to stay strong.

That's opened a lot of doors for women and it has boosted local, state and national economies. Millions of women-owned small businesses employ more than 7 million people and generate more than $1 trillion in revenue.

Unfortunately, while we are seeing a huge increase in women-owned businesses, we aren’t seeing progress across-the-board. That's because, according to some data, women-owned businesses make only about 25 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn. That’s a much larger gap than the one that exists in the overall labor market, where the median earnings of women were about 83 percent of men's.

Among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, Iowa has ranked 49in growth of small businesses owned by women, and ranked 51st in revenue growth by women-owned businesses. Some believe that women are less likely to secure the start-up revenues and ongoing financial backing in our state.

There's a lesson in all those numbers and it comes down to three words: Network, network, network!

There are tremendous opportunities out there for any woman who owns -- or wants to own -- a small business, especially a niche retail store. But effective networking is an essential part of success.

Networking results in a steady flow of opportunities and customers. Opportunity and customers produce revenue. And revenue generates growth. Networking is also a two-way street where successful business owners can -- and should -- lend a helping hand to up-and-coming small business owners.

Networking can make Iowa a better place for the growth of women-owned small businesses. And, that's something we should encourage every month of the year.

Lessons from the campaign trail

- Kelly Sharp is owner at Heart of Iowa Market Place.

It's the season for politics -- at least in Iowa -- and while some people would rather not discuss it, politicians and retailers do have a lot in common.

Being a candidate you have to know who you are and what you stand for. You have to be clear and concise with your message and where you stand on issues. Just like a candidate, a retailer must know what their business is and communicate -- loud and clear -- why it is relevant and valuable to customers. Your messaging and branding must be sharp to cut through the noise and clutter of the competition.

Just as a candidate must listen to their voters, a retailer must listen to his or her customers. Great feedback isn’t always positive feedback. Be sure to take in all feedback to learn what you can do to make your campaign better.

Candidates, even when they're unopposed, never win 100 percent of the vote. Specialty retailers need to remember that they shouldn't try to win 100 percent of shoppers, either. That's because your business loses what makes it special when you try to be all things to all people -- and that's a sure prescription for failure. Just as smart candidates know they just have to win 50 percent plus one vote, smart specialty retailers recognize that they just have to win the customers in their target audience. And, then they have to remember to work hard every day to keep those customers happy.

Once you identify your brand, message, and target audience, you will have to come up with a plan and strategies on how to execute your plan. Any specialty retailer's plan should include being the best in their niche. But you must be specific about the strategies and activities that will allow you to complete your plan. Your plan must also be adaptable to changing landscape. A good and adaptable plan will allow your business to come through down times strong and steady.

Finally, successful political campaigns know how to manage their resources well. Make sure your business has the necessary financial foundation and realistic budgeting to support it. Because you’re in it for the long haul and you have to make the right decisions day in and day out to be there when it counts. 

Passing the test as seasons change

 - Kelly Sharp is owner at Heart of Iowa Market Place.

With summer behind us, parents, kids and teachers are back into the school routine.

It was a different story just a few weeks ago. When the summer break ends, things can get pretty chaotic. Parents were rushing to gather school supplies and organize a schedule for everyday and extracurricular activities. I still remember that mad dash but I can't say that I miss it!

School requires a new mindset and a refocusing of priorities; this time of the year is a good opportunity for specialty retailers to do the same thing. And, just as you would with homework, it’s always great to continually check whether your current plan has the right answers for your business.

Most specialty retailers are a nimble lot and very good at thinking ahead and thinking on our feet. But, it’s also all-too-easy to get caught up in the day-to-day details. So, this is a smart time to refocus, evaluate your inventory for the months ahead and, especially, review plans made earlier this year for the holiday season. (It will be on us in a matter of weeks now and the amount of time to stock the right products and quantities is even shorter.)

Any retailer who hasn't done so should make room for the new season -- now. That doesn't mean just seasonal merchandise. If slow-moving products have been hanging around your shelves, ignore the strong temptation to store them until next year. Clear them out by marking them down. Do. It. Now.

I keep track of seasonal items that my customers like or mention during an off-season that they'd like to see us carry. Getting into that habit meets customers' wants and needs -- and improves bottom-line revenues. At the Heart of Iowa, that means different soup and hot chocolate mixes, dips that we offer for the colder weather and various other items.

This is also a critical time to update marketing strategies and databases. It's not too late to come up with a new twist, though I have to have a pretty good reason at this point of the retail year to make any drastic changes.

Always think ahead, dot your i's and cross your t's and you'll be ready to pass the test as summer gives way to the fall and winter ahead.

Iowa State Fair knows value of strong brand, unique experience

- Kelly Sharp is owner at Heart of Iowa Market Place

It’s that time of year again. Where tens of thousands of people gather each day to celebrate the great state in which we live -- and there's not a corn dog, pork chop or any other food on a stick that's safe from the happy horde that descends on the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

What's not to love about the Iowa State Fair? There are rides, games, concerts, a cow sculpted out of butter and all the aforementioned, oddly satisfying foods on a stick. But the main reason I love going to the fair, is to because of what it represents about the value of community.

Growing up in Des Moines, I always made it to the State Fair. I still do. As an eastsider, I have a special love for the fair, and worked there in my teen years.

I can always get inspired by the energy, familiar and new sights and sounds of the fair and feel good about supporting my community and state. Niche businesses can benefit, too, from taking time to see how a niche venture like the Iowa State Fair also survives and thrives.

The State Fair is Iowa. It's rural and urban, business and fun, substance and style. The State Fair benefits from the strong brand it has created and its close bond with its target audience.

People who go to the fair do so year in and year out for a unique experience. Its staff knows what the fair is and what it means to Iowans. They know how to create excitement. They know the importance on consistent messaging. They know how to effectively market their product. And, they have a lot of fun while they do it.

In order to stand out from chain stores and other big retailers, it's more necessary than ever for specialty retailers to create strong brands for themselves and deliver extraordinary service and unique shopping experiences so that their bond with customers is unbreakable.

See you at the fair!

Riding RAGBRAI and running a specialty retail business

A funny thing happens when a person rides the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, which was just a few ticks over 462 miles this year as it wound its way from Sioux City to Davenport.

Actually, quite a few funny things happen but the funny thing I had in mind was just how much time you have to think while pedaling across the state. And, when I was doing all that thinking, I thought about how the skills needed to survive during RAGBRAI are quite a bit like those needed to thrive in the specialty retail market. Here are just a few of them:

A great team. On RAGBRAI and in business, you need a great team to succeed. Face it, no one does it alone. You need a great team. While it's important for the boss to be a strong leader, it's also good to remember that even the boss needs to be a good teammate. Others need to know they can count on you just as much as you need to count on them.

Communicate clearly. With more than 15,000 bicyclists in a pack, you have to make sure people around you know exactly where you're going and what you're doing to make sure everything turns out right. It's the same in business. Employees need to know where you're going and how you're going to get there in order for the journey to go right.

Talk to everyone. On RAGBRAI, you hear some incredible stories and meet amazing people by simply introducing yourself. Networking is invaluable to small retailer businesses. Talk to everyone. Always be marketing.

Share. I had a lot of fun sharing the story of my business, Heart of Iowa Market Place, in historic Valley Junction. But it would've been a better experience for everyone if I'd had some samples of our extraordinary homemade fudge with me.

Be prepared. The best way to be prepared is to think ahead. You can bet I'll remember to bring those samples next year.

Believe in yourself. While riding up one particularly challenging hill, a guy shouted encouragement to me, "Don't stop! You haven't walked yet! Keep going." Those well-timed words reminded me to believe in myself -- and to keep pedaling up that hill.

Give thanks. That guy also reminded me to thank those who encourage and support you. Enough said.

I know next year's RAGBRAI is going to be even better thanks to the lessons picked up along the route -- and so will my business.

Social media for retailers 2: selection and content

- Kelly Sharp is owner at Heart of Iowa Market Place

Last month, I wrote about the indisputable value of a social media presence for a specialty retailer to generate online interest and strengthen connections with existing customers.

Hopefully, you're convinced that a social media presence is the right thing for your business. Once you're there, the next step is to decide how to begin the process of adapting to social media, and how to turn those likes into customers.

The array of social media platforms can make your head spin, especially if you're old enough to remember anything before 1990! There's Facebook, of course. And Twitter. Pinterest. Instagram. LinkedIn. Google+ Vine. Snapchat. Flickr. Vimeo. YouTube. And the list doesn't stop there. So, where does a specialty retailer begin?

According to the folks at Blue Frog Marketing, local firm that handles the Heart of Iowa Market Place's social media, Facebook is the preferred platform for Des Moines' adult internet users. I prefer using Facebook over any other platform because you can have more content and describe the product.

Other platforms are limited. Instagram and Flickr only allow you to post pictures, and Twitter limits you to only 142 characters. These are great platforms to use for certain retailers, but I like to describe my products with a little more detail.

Once you choose the platform or platforms that are right for your business, how do you manage things? The best part about social media is that anyone can operate it. No, you don’t need your knuckle-headed teenage nephew to help you get started. Most sites guide you through the first couple of steps.

After you get started, you’ll want to set up a strategic plan on the content you want to post and how often you want to post it. The plan created for my business involves posting content to my Facebook page about two or three times a week, and then “boosting” my post. Boosting a post is a way to advertise on Facebook, and allows more people to view your post which will drive traffic to your page.

It will cost you to boost your posts, but Blue Frog's Raylee Melton says that recent changes by Facebook make it a worthwhile strategy.  “In January 2015, Facebook changed its algorithm which is called edgeranker. Before, any of your fans or friends would organically see your post. Since Facebook has taken off, they have been changing the algorithm, and this year they lowered it so that only 2 to 3 percent of your fans will see your post without boosting it."

Although it does cost to place a Facebook ad, it is still the most inexpensive way, I think, that a specialty retailer can advertise.

Next month: Making social meeting work

Social media for specialty retailers: Step 1

- Kelly Sharp is owner at Heart of Iowa Market Place

I have a confession to make. I’ve jumped on the bandwagon of social media, and I personally think that every specialty retailer should be doing this as well. Social media has been a great outlet to show off the uniqueness and camaraderie of the Heart of Iowa Market Place.

Blue Frog Marketing is helping me map out a strategic plan on how to gain a social media presence.  Not only is social media a great way to connect with your customers, it’s also a smart and inexpensive way to show off your products. For specialty retailers like me, it’s very practical because you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to advertise new products every time your inventory is changed. 

“The advantage of using social media is that it sets up your own audience, so you can reach your current customers and also people that they know. It’s more of a way that small business owners can have online referrals,” said Raylee Melton, Blue Frog Marketing.

However, it does take a long time to build your audience, and that is why I’ve been working with Blue Frog Marketing to help.

A lot of specialty retailers might wonder why they should get started now. Is social media a fad like bell-bottom jeans, leisure suits and disco fever? Will its 15 minutes of fame be over just as you're diving in?

The answers are no and no. Social media has proved its influence. Believe me, it's here to stay. And, that's a good thing for specialty retailers  -- a very good thing, indeed. According to Blue Frog Marketing statistics, 27 percent of U.S. internet time is spent on social media.

Melton notes that people today are adapting to social media faster than people a generation ago adapted to watching television. “The rapid rates of which people are using social media has blown through any other trend,” she told me.

One thing to be aware of: social media does not automatically generate revenue. There is a big misunderstanding that a “like” on Facebook or a “follower” on Twitter means an instant increase in sales. Instead, social media is a means of awareness and a call to action. The more your “likes” and “followers” grow, the more awareness and potential customers. The next step is coming up with a plan to address your potential customers and draw them into your store.

Now that you know the pros and cons of climbing the social media ladder, stay tuned for Step Two: How does a specialty retailer begin the process of adapting to social media, and how to turn those likes into customers.

Prepping for your own print catalog

Kelly Sharp is owner at Heart of Iowa Market Place

Last month, I wrote that a print catalog was marketing's equivalent of a golden oldie. The print catalog has been around forever, but the way it brings people into the store and onto a website is music to the ears of retailers.

As I wrote before, catalogs reinforce your brand. They're proactive. They take your products directly to customers rather than waiting for customers to come to you. In short, bulk mail can bulk up your website's muscle and, more importantly, your bottom line. That's especially true for niche retailers.

If you've never put together a catalog before, don't let fear, uncertainty or even the excuse of being too busy to do it stand in your way. The key is to invest in -- and rely on -- professionals who know what they're doing.

You may know your product line better than anyone else -- in fact, you should know it better than anyone else -- but a talented copywriter, skilled graphic artist and an experienced photographer can make it come to life on the printed page. All three are well worth the money.

At the Heart of Iowa Market Place, this is the time of the year that we start working on our fall/winter catalog. The process starts with planning. What overall theme will connect with current and prospective customers? What are our best sellers? What new products do we want to introduce? What special offers will drive traffic to the store and the website?

This is also the point in the process when we set a budget and a schedule from first draft straight through mailing day. Then we stick to them.

Along the way, it's important to do justice to your products with high-quality, high-resolution photos but there's more than one way to get the job done, as Al Stewart of Demand Media suggests.

"If apparel items are to be included, use models who are consistent with your targeted consumer demographic. Include a photo of the brick and mortar store and pay special attention to images slated for the front and back covers. For a more budget-conscious approach, use file photos of the products or art furnished by the manufacturer," Stewart explains in "How to Make a Retail Catalog."

This is where a capable copywriter comes in, using a consistent style and exactly the right tone to accurately describe your product line in a voice that stirs your target audience to take action. As Stewart recommends, "Assign an item number to each product. Include an order form to facilitate easy ordering by mail or phone." And, of course, include your website.

Perhaps the most crucial step is the proofing process. Take your time to get every single detail correct. Check it, check it and check it again. Have your employees check every product description, every photo and every price. Then have them check everything again.

The result will not only be a publication you'll be proud of, but one that will make your business sing.

Play your own game

I recently attended the Big 12 Conference Tournament in Kansas City and, wow, was it fun rooting the Iowa State Cyclones to victory! Aside from the Cyclones nearly giving me and every other fan a heart attack, something else struck me about their habit of falling far behind and then clawing their way back to win.

The Cyclones play their own game. How else can you explain a team that falls behind by double digits in five straight games against quality opponents and wins every single one of those games?

Their approach – or perhaps it's best to call it a bad habit -- may be more than a bit never-wracking, but the bottom line is results. And, the result of the Cyclones playing their own game was that they won.

Small and specialty retail business owners can take a lesson from the Cyclones - despite their crushing first-round NCAA tournament loss. When we play our own game, we win. That’s certainly how we approach things at the Heart of Iowa Market Place.

Playing our own game doesn’t mean we ignore our competitors or neglect to analyze what they’re doing that makes them successful or holds them back. It doesn’t mean we don’t accept reality when things are going against us. And it doesn’t mean we refuse to change our game plan when needed. All of which could have had an influence at the NCAA tournament.

In fact, one of the reasons the Cyclones seemed to win those come from behind games is because they seemed to know when to stay the course and when to make adjustments to their game plan. Another reason they win is because they don’t panic. They believed in themselves. And, when next season starts, they'll continue to believe in themselves.

Take time to review your current game plan. Believe in yourself and your business. Have the courage to stick with what works and to change what doesn’t. Bring in different products or personnel, if necessary. Adjust your marketing plan. Identify and connect with new partners that can make your business more successful. Just don’t try to be a big-box store or something else that you’re not.

Focus on what you do best. In particular, focus on the clients and customers who generate the most revenue for you and show them how much you appreciate them.

Develop and follow the right game plan, play your own game well and you’re sure to win big.

- Kelly Sharp

"No News" Isn't good news

It was exactly this time last year that I wrote about employee reviews. In fact, my exact words were, "No matter how small your specialty retail business may be, there's absolutely no substitute for timely, thorough performance reviews."

I'm proud to practice what I preach. So, guess what? It's time for employee reviews again at the Heart of Iowa Market Place.

The point to emphasize this year is this: Employees want feedback. They need feedback. And, they deserve feedback.

Reviews are not just a time to talk about what a person has done wrong, of course. They're also the time to praise instances of hard work, outstanding customer service, highlights from the year and good, smart habits. They're also the time to reinforce your vision for the company, talking about where the business is going in the year ahead and where each employee fits it.

They want it because it takes the suspense and mystery out of work. They need concise, constructive feedback because it lets them know in no uncertain terms what they're doing well and where they can (or must) improve. And, they deserve it because feedback shows them they are valued, respected team members.

That favorite old axiom "no news is good news" does not hold true for your employees. If they don't hear from you, they may think you don't care or -- even worse -- that you don't appreciate their efforts or understand the struggles they face on a daily basis.

If you haven't been performing timely, thorough performance reviews, now is a great time to start. Your employees will appreciate the news -- good and bad -- to help them do an even better job going forward.

- Kelly Sharp, Owner at Heart of Iowa Market Place 

Holiday lessons for the whole year 'round

Dixie Gallaspie, a St. Louis-based author and business coach, recently wrote for that doing seven things all year round that are normally reserved for the holidays -- think resolutions, for one -- can make businesses and profits grow.

Four of those things really stand out for me: celebrations, gratitude, giving gifts and parties. And, they're well worth adding to your strategies for success on a regular basis as the year goes on.

First, Gallaspie notes that she and her clients use the phrase "Pop the cork" as their cue to pause and celebrate their successes. Celebrating success acknowledges not only the progress that has been made but also the potential ahead, she believes. I couldn't agree more. When you take time to celebrate with your clients and employees on a regular basis, you let them know that you care about them and you forge stronger relationships that can inspire everyone to tackle bigger projects.

Next comes gratitude. Why wait until the holidays to let your clients know how grateful you are to work with them? Enough said.

Third: giving gifts. Dixie Gallaspie hits the nail on the head when she says, "Gifts are sweet any time of the year. In fact, they're even sweeter when they aren't anticipated or expected. You don't have to give big gifts. … It's more than the thought that counts, but it's the thought that counts the most in building meaningful relationships with your referral partners, prospects, employees and friends of the business." It's the little touches that often make the most lasting impressions.

And, finally, parties. It's far too easy for all of us to follow the routine of coming to work, doing our job and going home. Get out of that rut! Have a party every now and then. Invite your clients. Invite prospective clients. Invite your neighboring businesses. Come up with your own list. Just take break out of the old routine this year and make sure your company hosts a party -- or two -- in 2015.

Follow these four tips this year and your business will build closer relationships, be more fun and add to the bottom line.

When the rush is over

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place.

With Christmas still a week away, it’s pretty difficult for small retailers to start thinking about what to do when the rush is over. The truth is, every owner and employee of a small retail business should be more focused than ever on delivering quality customer service right up to the minute the lights go out on Christmas Eve.   

When the lights come back on next Friday morning, though, smart retailers are going to have an eye on the year ahead even as they handle the usual number of returns and welcome post-Christmas bargain hunters. They're also going to be focused on the year that's almost over.

The weeks right after Christmas are the perfect time to evaluate the five P’s – products, people, pricing, planning and process.

Which products sold? And which ones didn’t? Which ones sold out? And did you lose revenue by not having enough of those items in stock? Take some time to pinpoint the reasons why certain products sold or didn’t. Did you overstock or under-stock? Do you make the most effective use of sampling?

Did you price products too low or too high? Did your pricing provide you with a solid profit margin? Did you actually make any money?

Did your people meet or exceed your expectations? Do they need more training? Or do they deserve a bonus?

Did you have the right plan for the holiday season? And did you execute it properly with the right ordering, marketing, display, packaging and staffing processes?

Take time as you go along the next few weeks to write down what worked, what didn’t and why. A year from now you may remember what you did, but you may not remember if it was a success or not. Get rid of any inventory that’s just taking up space by sampling it and putting it on clearance as quickly possible.

It’s also the right time to follow up with key clients and new customers so you can thank them for their business.

And, finally, when that’s all done – take a deep breath and relax. You’ve earned it.

Motivating retail employees at crunch time

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place.

I know a few employers who believe it's their employees' responsibility to come to work motivated to do a great job every day. "Isn't that what I pay them to do?" they say.

That would be true in a perfect world, but we sure don't live in one. That's why it's the employer's duty to make sure employees are motivated. For retailers, that is especially important during the holiday season, which can make or break an entire sales year.

Step one, any time of the year, is to show your employees you respect them. You also have a responsibility to clearly define your expectations so they can meet them. But when it comes to winter in general and the holidays in particular, you need to go that extra mile.

Like everybody else, retail employees are as affected by winter's cold, dreary days as the rest of us and they're also gearing up for the holidays themselves. Some good general seasonal advice offered up by the smart folks at -- where else? -- Smart Resources, Inc., a Chicago staffing company includes:

  • Create a comfortable workplace. ("Just because winter chills you to the bone doesn’t mean the office has to. Stingy bosses are notorious for leaving the thermostat just above the level at which hypothermia sets in. Don’t play that game.") That sometimes can be difficult in a retail business, but do be sensitive to those concerns.
  • Set seasonal goals. ("A good manager will constantly be setting goals for staff to work toward. But in the winter, even good managers stop pushing. … Fight wintertime complacency by setting seasonal goals for yourself and your staff.")

When it comes to retail folks, it's important to remember a few other points. First, there's plenty of holiday cheer on the sales side of a retail business; make sure to create some real holiday cheer for your employees through your entire business. Buy lunch or bring in special treats and hold lighthearted, small competitions just in fun.

A few years ago, the folks at Business News Daily had a few tips of their own to motivate retail employees. Two biggies: Keeping people in the loop and giving them the right tools for success.

By keeping employees in the loop, it shows that you value them -- a vital connection in keeping their spirits and motivation up when the pressure is on. Giving them the right tools and training prevents motivation-killing frustration.

I'd add that you should take the time to reward your employees for their hard work. Recognition of their efforts and incentives make a big difference in their motivation and your bottom-line revenues. And make sure that you, as the owner or manager, are in the trenches with them. That may mean you're helping to stock merchandise hoping to make gift baskets or just bringing things when your staff need them. Employees want to know that you're working as hard as they are.

And don't forget to celebrate. After all, the holidays aren't just for customers.

Back to basics II: hiring

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I'd decided that buying a new horse and running a specialty retail business have quite a bit in common.

Foremost on the list is the importance of getting back to basics, particularly in the area of proper training. Backing up a step, the "getting-to-know" phase of a relationship is invaluable.

My new horse is a jumper -- and a young one, at that. Trying to rush him into challenging situations before he really gets to know me, how I think, and what I expect of him is a prescription for disaster. The same philosophy can apply to the workplace.

All too often, a retailer finds himself or herself short on staff. That's never much fun, especially if the owner is already spending an excessive amount of time on the job. When it does happen, there's always the temptation to hire as quickly as possible to fill a void.

But rushing things along, more often than not,  is an invitation for bigger problems in the future. No matter how stable your staff is, you never know when someone is going to leave for a new position, health reasons, a spouse's job transfer or just to do something different.

If you haven't already identified at least one person you'd like to have on your staff, this is the time to take a deep breath, enlist some temporary help and invest some "getting to know time" in several potential employees. Get to know their temperament and how they'd handle different situations, especially stressful ones.

Some potential employees make great first impressions that, unfortunately, don't hold up over time. Happily, there are many quality people who don't do as well in a first meeting or interview. When you don't take the time to get to know them -- when you rush to a decision because you're under pressure -- you do yourself and others a disservice.

Invest "getting-to-know time" in others before you're under pressure and you'll come through like a champion just about every single time.

Back to basics

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place.

What do a new horse and running a specialty retail business have in common?

Quite a bit, actually, I concluded after recently buying a horse.

Any experienced horse owner knows that whenever you have a new horse you have to go back to the basics. You have to remember the basics in riding technique and mechanics because each horse is different.  You have to return to the basics of working and interacting with the horse, too.

The new horse reminds me, too, of the importance of proper training. Success in the horse arena -- or the business arena -- requires the right training.

With my new horse, I'll be getting training from my riding instructor on how to put him through the proper paces. At my business, the Heart of Iowa Market Place in historic Valley Junction, I need to make sure I seek competent, qualified instructors who keep me up to speed with new technology, software and compliance regulations -- to name a few.

Training is especially important in relating to and working with employees. And that goes both ways. Just as employers benefit from the right instruction in employee relations, employees also benefit from knowing what's expected of them.

And, just like riding requires the proper equipment -- a good bridle, right saddle, correct reins and so on -- I'm reminded that we also need to provide employees with the right tools for them to succeed and the right rewards when they do.

In the end, returning to the basics every now and then can provide tremendous benefits to even the best retail operation. Rather than taking things back to square one, such an approach can move your business, staff and you well forward. Give it a try.

Potential partners you shouldn't overlook

            When I talk to fellow retailers, I notice from time to time that there's one set of potential partners that can be easily overlooked or dismissed.

            Many small business owners recognize the real value and potential that comes with partnering with their neighborhood associations, local chamber of commerce and convention and visitors bureau. Unfortunately, some still don't.

            What they often see are burdens. Membership dues are viewed as just another expense; meetings are seen as just another demand on an already overcrowded calendar.

            What I see, as the owner of the Heart of Iowa Market Place, are opportunities to work with people who share the same philosophy about the importance of networking, making their community better and doing what it takes to make their business grow.

            That's why I'm thrilled to serve as the business improvement chair on the Historic Valley Junction Foundation and why I absolutely love to participate in activities like the Greater Des Moines Convention & Visitors Bureau's upcoming FAM trips in which motorcoach planners are hosted to "FAMiliarize" themselves with visitor-friendly spots in our metro area.

            Your local chamber of commerce is a great resource. Chambers create and foster a growing business community by promoting members' interests; providing invaluable educational resources, research and demographical data; and developing relationships between members. It's been said that a chamber of commerce is the door to an active, profitable role in the community. What a great partner for a small business!

            When you're involved in business organizations, you're in tune with local business trends, new companies and expansions. You meet new people. You create opportunities to make your business stronger, more innovative and relevant.

            That kind of involvement is also yet another example of actions speaking louder than words. People are naturally inspired and impressed when they see you're active and committed to success -- and that's a great recommendation for your business.

            One more thing. The results of being involved in your local chamber or business association are just like volunteering for your favorite cause: You get a lot more out of it than you put in.

Getting outside

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

Being an avid runner, I like to get outside. And, I often strongly recommend other small retailers do so often as a way to reduce stress, clear their minds and maintain good health so they can perform at peak levels.

But specialty retailers should also think about getting outside in another way that's good for their businesses. That is, they should get outside of their comfort zone from time to time as a way to make good things happen.

For instance, I'm currently working on project for a client at the Heart of Iowa Market Place that is outside of the things we've normally done at our store. The reason: It's much larger and much more diverse than the sort of gift baskets we normally create and it requires items beyond our "all things Iowa" inventory.

Rather than saying, "This isn't something we do" and turning away business, we took the time to research the ins and outs of getting the job done in a way that will exceed our client's expectations. And, we decided the best way to do it is by working with other vendors we've not normally worked with before.

The benefits are already numerous: a satisfied client and the likelihood of repeat business, the fun of working with new partners, the certain prospect of handling larger projects that would have been out of our reach, more word-of-mouth marketing for my business, and the likelihood that our new partners will also direct business our way. Not only does my business grow, but we help other small businesses grow and thrive.

Those positives are all on top of stronger bottom-line revenues, which are the lifeblood of any company.

Going outside our comfort zone has given us the inside track for greater success. And, in the end, that's very comforting.

Summertime has its own advantages

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place.

I wrote last month about the value of treating every day like Christmas to create a great environment for shoppers, but there's no denying summer has a firm grip on central Iowa. That means there are still some tried-and-true opportunities that small retailers should remember when working to boost sales.

Rieva Lesonsky, a staff writer for Small Business Trends, offered a reminder of some of those ideas a few months in her piece, "5 Ways to Boost Your Retail Sales This Summer" and they're certainly worth doing before Labor Day rolls around. To see those ideas in action close to home, all you need to do is spend some time in historic Valley Junction.

Lesonsky recommends moving things outdoors. Whether your business is located on a city street or a mall, "foot traffic is likely to increase as more people take advantage of the nice weather to stroll outside."

You'll get no argument from me there. All I'd add is: Make sure you have plenty of products to sample.

Thursday evenings in Valley Junction are a perfect example of small retailers who shake things up by moving outdoors. That strategy plays right into a few of  Lesonsky's tips about sponsoring or participating in local events, making summer sales a group effort and creating excitement by throwing a party.

Valley Junction merchants do all three of those things by joining forces and sponsoring a weekly farmers market and music. The result: a wonderful atmosphere for shoppers, strollers and fun-seekers of all ages.

You don't have to be in a perfect retail setting like Valley Junction. (Although it sure helps!) Odds are, however, that you have retail neighbors that you can team up with. If you don't, all you need is a little creativity to pull together some complementary businesses, pick a spot and throw your own celebration.

Finally, while this summer may be winding down, it's never too early to start planning for next year. One item to put on your list is a strategy to capture more tourist dollars. And a great, big bull's-eye in that respect is the 2015 Iowa State Fair.

All that's left to do to improve summer sales this year and into the future is to put these ideas into motion. What are you waiting for?

Treat every day like Christmas

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place.

I've been writing in recent blogs about the importance of preparing early for the holiday shopping season, and I had one more thought before leaving the topic.

It certainly wasn't going to win any Academy Awards for acting … or screenwriting … or anything else, but the Will Farrell movie "Elf" did have a golden nugget that applies to specialty retailers. (Hint: it wasn't his quote, "We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.")

Farrell's character, Buddy the over-sized elf, said, "Treat every day like it's Christmas."

That's great advice, especially this time of the year.

Everything seems special during the holidays -- from the special treats and music to the hustle and bustle and spirit of generosity. But what happens in the dog days of summer? No holidays, no special music and no special treats. Just plenty of heat and humidity.

When I see my customers come through the doors sighing with a relief of being inside and out of the summer heat, I think about how we can make them feel as welcome and special. And, you should, too.

Always greet them at the door to show appreciation and a welcoming atmosphere. Customers appreciate it when you have something special, whether it's product samples or displays. Be creative. Mix things up. Give them a reason to get excited about your store and products.

As regular readers know, I'm a big believer in putting out samples and letting customers judge products for themselves. The results are two-fold. Customers are always happier and sales of sampled products always go up.

Put a little music on to drown out the dreary heat wave; don’t be afraid to show your employees that it’s okay to have fun.

There's always a reason to celebrate, and to treat every day like Christmas.

Don't wait to show your appreciation

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

A few weeks ago, I reminded small retailers that they shouldn't wait until the dog days of summer to start planning for the holiday season. That advice is just as true -- and valuable -- when it comes to giving gifts to clients, vendors, other business partners and employees.

Giving the right gifts at the right times of the year can really help you and your company stand out from the competition. And, make no mistake, today's business environment is as competitive as it's ever been.

Gift giving is a good investment in business relationships. It demonstrates that you value the relationship and want it to grow and strive.

Giving gifts in the business setting has a practical side, but it's important that it should also come from the heart and involve some thought about what would really delight the person on the receiving end.

In other words, it should be about thanking them -- not loading them down with promotional products like a coffee mug, key chain or pen with your company logo on it. Nevertheless, it's also possible to promote your business and even increase market share by showcasing your brand in the best possible way with the most appropriate gift.

Timing is also of the essence.

I've noted in the past that getting there first or even last has its advantages, but it's most advantageous to arrive at a different time than the pack. For instance, sending a gift in January to thank your client -- long after all the other holiday gifts have come and gone -- is a terrific way to stand out.

Of course, we're well past January, so other times to stand out might be Labor Day ("We love working with you"), Thanksgiving ("Thank you for being such a valued partner") or even no particular occasion at all (Just wanted to let you know how much we appreciate our partnership").

The bottom line: You shouldn’t wait until Christmas to start thinking about the right gifts to thank your clients, employees or others for their loyalty or business. Opportunities to connect with clients and business-to-business partners are more common than you may think. Be sure to make the most of them.

"Christmas in July" is too late

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

When I was growing up, I remember a lot of retailers holding Christmas in July sales. The tradition got started mainly because there are no holidays between the Fourth of July and Labor Day so retailers needed to create an event to stir up a little business.

When I think of Christmas around this time of the year, it's definitely too late to wait until the dog days of summer. In fact, just forget all about a Christmas in July sale. The time to start planning for the 2014 holiday shopping rush is now.

Start with this checklist now and you'll put yourself ahead of the game:

  • Have you reviewed last year's staffing process? Did you have enough people? Did you have too many people? How many will you need this year and where will you find them?
  • What product trends are going to be hot? What will you do to make sure you're not behind the curve when meeting your customers' wants and needs?
  • What's your marketing strategy not just during the holiday season but in the weeks and months leading up to it so that you make sure you stay top of mind with your customers?
  • What promotions can you do to keep clients coming back?
  • How can you make it easier for them to shop this holiday season?

It's never too early to start planning. And that's especially true when it comes to getting ready for a strong Christmas sales season.

Plan wisely now so you can reap the benefits later.

Tending to your product garden

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

When it comes to everyday business decisions, I always do my best to avoid jargon and keep things simple.

Every now and then, though, a term is so important that there's no getting around it. And, "product life cycle" is one of those terms.

A product life cycle is a great way to map the lifespan of every product in your business. I like to think of the cycle like a garden, which flourishes when given the right combination of seeding, nourishment, time and care.

The same is true for products. (For the record, the formal stages of a product life cycle are: introduction, growth, maturity and decline.)

At my business, the Heart of Iowa Market Place, I sometimes have an easier task with the seeding or introduction because we have a very specific niche that is "all things Iowa."

The introduction stage is the most important step in the process. It requires some real thought and even market research in the form of asking your customers what they think to make sure that you're putting the right products on your shelves.

Once a product has taken root, it's time for it to grow. You do that through proper product placement, consistent marketing and -- my favorite -- a smart sampling strategy. When you get the growth process right, a product achieves its next level -- maturity. A product reaches maturity when it becomes a customer favorite and generates strong margins.

The final stage -- decline -- is one that isn't necessarily inevitable. However, there's not a retailer anywhere who hasn't had a product that, for one reason or another, just fails to take root and blossom. I treat products like that just like I would treat a weed in the garden; I get rid of it as fast as I can. I may do it through sampling or discounting or I may even donate it to a worthy charity, but I get rid of it as fast as I can so I can start the product life cycle all over again with something that holds a higher promise of stronger returns.

Think of your product line as a garden and you, too, can keep sales and profits growing strong all year round.

Is Your Internet Front Door Open and Inviting?

You might think by now that every business in the country has its own website. If you do, you'd be wrong.

According to Dex Media earlier this year, only about 40 percent of small businesses had their own website last year. Experts predict that number to double in 2014.

What's that mean for you? More challenges to your business but also more opportunity.

The challenges come, obviously, in the form of more competition. If your business hasn't carved out its own niche, odds are fairly good that one of those new websites will be promoting a competitor.

In fact, I'm in the process of updating my website at the Heart of Iowa Market Place and it's a smart time to take a long, fresh look at your website, too. Is it tired? Outdated? Boring? Is everything spelled correctly? How about its grammar? Is all your contact information easy to find? Is it truly as good as it can be in the way it showcases your services and products?

Those are basics -- and you can't afford to overlook them. When you get them wrong, you come out on the losing end of sharper competition.

However, a real opportunity for your business comes from the recognition that this is the perfect time to step up your game. When you think about it, a website is like opening another location for your small business; it allows you to be less reliant on walk-in traffic. It also helps you reach and build a bigger audience for very little money. And, after the winter we just had, it's no surprise that you can still make sales to people who don't want to venture out into the cold and snow.

Go beyond the basics by reaching out to a smart, creative web designer who can make your website everything it should be -- and that includes designing it so you can make updates yourself without spending lots of dollars. And, don't forget to create a mobile site, too.

Remember, your website is your company's face and front door to many, many people. Some of those folks will never walk through your doors. Just make sure your website is so inviting and easy to use that the only reason they don't come to you in person is because they're able to buy everything from you online.

Planting the seeds for others' success

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

I recently spoke to the Young Professionals Connection about the value of building relationships to grow business and was reminded it's that time of the year when college students are looking for internships. I was also reminded that any time of the year is a good time to mentor young professionals.

While students gravitate to a variety of companies, it seems like retailers --particularly specialty retailers -- are left out of that mix. Young people tend to look to us strictly for summer jobs, but students and retailers miss a golden opportunity when they do. Honestly, it surprises me, too, that more marketing students don't look to the niche retailers to learn more about their chosen profession.

It's only logical that we retailers focus the bulk of our time and energy on peer-to-peer relationships and marketing. After all, businesses run on profits -- and profits only come through sales.

But, just like in other areas of business, tunnel vision is a dangerous thing. A laser focus on sales, sales and more sales makes it very easy to overlook chances to be a mentor to up-and-coming retail talent. That oversight not only does a disservice to young people, but it can be a real missed opportunity for us, too.

Mentoring interns or young professional can re-energize us as we pick up on the excitement of young people who are learning. It helps us to look at our own profession and business in new ways as we answer questions we might not have even thought of asking ourselves. It can give us new ideas and the latest thinking coming out of our universities.

Mentoring can create a talent pool and even broaden our own marketing base by introducing our business to a new and younger audience.

Whether you decide to work with a college intern or a young professional with an entrepreneurial spirit, mentoring is a tremendously rewarding opportunity that shouldn't be overlooked.

You'll grow. They'll grow. And, for years to come, they'll remember how important you were to starting them on a path to success.

They have to know how much you care…

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

I'm sure you've heard the John  C. Maxwell quote, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

Of course, for specialty retailers, the first way to show how much you care about your customers -- and appreciate them -- is to offer a unique experience they can't get anywhere else, and to deliver exceptional service each and every time they do business with you.

One of the areas that has really helped my business, the Heart of Iowa Market Place, grow, is the customization we do in our business-to-business program. Creating gifts just for our customers or branding it with their logos, colors and specific products.

We also do things that are outside the box or the typical scope of our business. For instance, we had a client that was already purchasing gifts from us for a party and they asked us if we could help them with centerpieces for the event. They wanted centerpieces for a party - they were already purchasing gifts from us and asked if we could help them. We did and had a lot of fun doing something that was different. By delivering that extra service, our customer didn't have to spend time finding another source -- and we were able to show how much we value that customer.

There are other ways, however, that you can and should show your appreciation to customers throughout the year. It can even be as simple as sending a quick but heartfelt thank you note or making a call to express your gratitude.

Frankly, it doesn't hurt to make a note in your planner every few months to remind yourself to show at least a few of your customers how much you care.

Consistently showing your customers that you appreciate them is a key to building solid, lasting relationships and solid relationships are a key to building a solid, lasting business.

Spring cleaning for small retailers

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

When I thought about the topic of spring cleaning for small retailers, I had no idea that a marketing expert named Margaret Shrum had already tackled the topic. Nor did I know that Shrum goes by the moniker "The Lingerie Goddess."

But, it turns out that she and I share some of the same ideas on the topic and it's only right to give credit where credit is due.

For instance, we agree spring cleaning for retailers means moving out merchandise that's been sitting around awhile to make way for new product lines. Shrum notes that spring cleaning can "drive sales by creating a buzz about the surplus products that may have been hidden in back stock." That dovetails nicely with my preference for sampling products that haven't been moving. Sampling works.

I'm very big on knowing what inventory I have, what's selling and what's not. My business, the Heart of Iowa Market Place, is very a focused specialty retailer -- we sell distinctly Iowa gift items and products -- but we've also had a few products that, for whatever reason, just didn't move.

It's hard for some small retailers to admit it, but if a product you thought was going to be a big seller isn't moving, get rid of it. Sell it as fast as you can to make room for products that will sell faster and at better margins. We all make mistakes. Admit it wasn't the right product for your store and move on.

Shrum recommends making sure your employees are well-versed in your spring-cleaning products and "have their own dialogue" to connect with clients. She suggests generating more sales by having store staff "mention the weekly promotion to their clients via email and phone and as they greet all walk in traffic."

Here's how I'd phrase it: "If you want to move a product, you've got to tell customers about it."

We're in agreement, too, on the value of social media to spread the word about featured sale items.

"Finally, spring cleaning is something that can go on throughout the year and help to decrease the end of season markdowns. Keep track of how well each campaign does and rotate the successful ones in between the seasons," Shrum says.

Amen to that!

I've never met Margaret Shrum but I already like her.

Look back to look forward

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

Whether it's business or my favorite sport of running, we always hear about the benefits of consistency.

Quotes about consistency are everywhere. "Slow and steady wins the race," according to Aesop. Joe Paterno said, "You have to perform at a consistently higher level than others. That's the mark of a true professional." Jim Rohn says, "Success is neither magical nor mysterious. Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying the basic fundamentals." And there's even Doug Cooper's, “Variety may be the spice of life, but consistency pays the bills.”

Sometimes, though, consistency isn't such a virtue. Especially for specialty retailers.

Far too often, small business owners keep doing the same things over and over, never really stopping to see if there's a better way to do things.

After the busy holiday season I started to review which areas of operation at my business, the Heart of Iowa Market Place, took a great deal of my time and the staff's time. We asked: Is there a way to make things more efficient?

One area that was very labor intensive was our shipping operation. There's nothing better for a small retailer than to have a client with a large number of orders. Our challenge, of course, was that those large orders took a lot of time and could be susceptible to errors.

By talking to our shipping vendor, we were able to streamline the process and directly upload addresses. We saved time and money and increased accuracy in the process. We were also able to add value for clients by providing tracking numbers and shipping timelines. Without breaking away of our consistent routine and stopping to review our day-to-day operations, we never would've been able to implement these valuable strategies.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Invite people you trust to come in and look at your operations. Encourage input from your employees, customers, vendors and other business owners you know. And, take time to think about doing things in different and better ways.

Doing that can save you a lot of time and money.

Which brings me to a final quote: "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten."

Stop doing what you've always done, and you may be pleasantly surprised at what you get.


The best employee review is a two-way street

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

When it comes to reviewing employees, specialty retailers should start the process with more than an evaluation form specific to their business. Their employee should bring the same evaluation form, which they've already filled out, to the meeting.

Following that approach, gives you a better understanding of how the employees feels they are doing and allows for more interaction during the review. It creates a great opportunity not only to talk about areas of improvement and whether they understand and support the company's vision, but where they'd like to grow in their own position.

The way I see it, little if anything in a review should come as a surprise to employees. If you're communicating effectively with your team throughout the year, your reviews should match up pretty closely.

At the Heart of Iowa Market Place, my employees' performance is appraised on eight categories:

  • Productivity/Independence/Reliability -- The extent to which the employee produces a significant volume of work efficiently in a specific period of time, the ability to work independent with little or no direction, follow up to complete tasks and job assignments.
  • Job Knowledge -- The extent to which the employee possesses and demonstrates an understanding of work instructions, processes, equipment and materials required to perform the job and possesses the practical and technical knowledge required of the job.
  • Interpersonal Relationships/Cooperation/Commitment -- The extent to which the employee is willing and demonstrates the ability to cooperate, work and communicate with co-workers, supervisors, subordinates and outside contacts; accepts and responds to change in a positive manner; accepts job assignments and additional duties willingly; and takes responsibility for their own performance and job assignments.
  • Attendance -- The extent to which the employee is punctual, observes prescribed work break/meal periods and has an acceptable overall attendance record.
  • Initiative/Creativity -- The extent to which an employee seeks out new assignments; proposes improved work methods; suggest ideas to eliminate waste; and finds new and better ways of doing things.
  • Adherence to Policy -- The extent to which the employee follows company policies, procedures and work conduct rules; complies with and follows all safety rules and regulations; and wears required safety equipment.
  • Leadership -- The extent to which the employee demonstrates proper judgment and decision-making skills when directing others and directs work flow in assigned areas effectively to meet production and/or area goals.
  • Overall Performance

Each category is graded either "outstanding," "exceeds expectations," "meets expectations" or "improvement needed," and includes specific examples and comments.

Whether you're thinking of revising your employee review process or just getting around to creating one, I'd encourage you to try this approach.

Remember to evaluate employees

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

With everything else that retail entrepreneurs have to do every day, it's all-too-easy to overlook make-or-break details of one of the most important aspects of business: employees.

With few or no backstops available at larger companies, there's a big potential for small retailers to rush or even neglect virtually every step of the process from hiring to performance evaluations and appreciation to firing.

One obstacle for small retailers is that they spend so much time with employees that they feel they're too close to do formal performance evaluations.

Some small business owners don't do performance evaluations because they think they're too small, but those who do are focused on the wrong word. Instead of thinking "small," they need to think "business."

You're running a business, and everything about an employee's conduct -- from their interaction with customers to what they do when things are quiet -- directly influences your bottom line. If you're not conducting regular performance evaluations, you're doing yourself, your business and your employees a disservice.

Some employees naturally dread evaluations but they dislike the alternative -- being kept in the dark -- even more. A lack of feedback can lead to dissatisfied employees because they don't know where they stand. The fact is, employees want to know what's going on and how they're doing.

No matter how much you talk with them every day, they want to understand in a one-on-one setting with you what you think they do best, what things can they improve upon and also what new tasks might they take on.

Evaluations provide opportunities to do all that. They are a time to correct problems, set goals and clear-cut expectations and to reward employees for meeting previously set goals.

And, that's why it doesn't matter how big or small your business is, regular evaluations are essential.

Next blog: The nuts-and-bolts of a performance evaluations for specialty retail employees.

Are your employees listening to customers?

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

I went into a local furniture store not too long ago and I was very surprised by the reception I received.

I asked the clerk about a new mattress and it was as much what she didn't say as what she did that made me cringe as a store owner.

She didn't ask what I was looking for. She didn't ask how much I wanted to invest or what was important to me about this purchase. In fact, she didn't ask anything. Instead, her first words were, "Our cheapest is over here."

Those words were a big disservice to everyone on both sides of the transaction. They failed to take the customer's needs into account and they certainly cost the business a great deal of money sale after sale after sale.

Her words might as well have been, "I don't really care what you want." And, the assumption that a customer wants the cheapest product is insulting on many levels.

Customers are looking for value. But value doesn't mean the lowest possible price.

As the owner of a specialty retail store, the Heart of Iowa Market Place in Valley Junction, I know customers are very savvy. They know that true value is much more than finding the cheapest products around. They know that product quality, where products come from and the ethics of the people who provide them are important.

Above all, consumers want products that solve their problems or meet their needs. They want retailers that will help them accomplish that goal and make them feel like they are listening rather than just trying to sell them something.  

To do that, you need to slow down, ask questions and listen. Are your sales people asking the right questions and listening to your customers?

-Kelly Sharp

Lessons from the 2013 holiday shopping season

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

You'd be forgiven if you're a bit confused after reading all the stories about the just-concluded holiday shopping season.

Some previews warned of a "bleak" season. Some post-season stories trumpeted an overall sales increase of 2.3 percent. Others reported foot traffic was down and that retailers only scored sales increases with over-sized discounts. And, who can forget the two biggest stories: the hackers who stole the credit card information of millions of customers and the last-minute flood of online orders that swamped UPS and Fed Ex and left so many shoppers hopping mad.

I have to admit the 2013 holiday sales season was a great one for my business, The Heart of Iowa Market Place, and I know a lot of other boutique retailers also did very well. There are a few lessons to be had, starting with the fact that when a lot of other retailers are zigging smart small retailers were zagging.

First, we didn't listen to those bleak forecasts. We focused on doing what we do best: Offering a unique experience that builds customer loyalty and keeps folks coming through the door. That's Lesson #1. (Remember to increase your odds of success with a well-executed marketing plan throughout the year.)

We recognized that because we give them something they can't get anywhere else, we weren't forced to offer ridiculous discounts to get people through the door. That keeps our profit margins healthy and keeps us in business. Everybody wins on that deal. That's Lesson #2.

We didn't make crazy promises about overnight delivery on Christmas Eve -- or even the day before -- like some of the "bigs" did. We stuck to our rule that you never promise what you can't deliver. That's Lesson #3.

As for Lesson #4, online sales are going to get bigger and bigger. There's just no two ways about it. So, no matter how big or small you are, you have to make sure every day that your online sales system is secure as Fort Knox.

Savvy retailers are already thinking about ways to have an even more successful 2014 holiday season. These four lessons are great places to start.

-Kelly Sharp

It's not always easy, but looking ahead pays off

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

With the holiday shopping season in full swing, it's sometimes hard for small retailers to even catch their breaths, but these next six weeks are a very important time to evaluate your product selection, working relationships with your vendors and the effectiveness of your product sampling.

I've written about vendors and sampling before. My philosophy is simple: Sampling works. And, in a nutshell, I look to my vendors to work very closely with me.

The two go hand in hand.

It's fair to say my store, the Heart of Iowa Market Place, is a specialty retailer. And, just like other stores, we have a finite amount of shelf space. Without putting serious thought into each and every product that goes in my store, I'd be sacrificing precious shelf space -- and dollars. Between now and the new year, I'll keep a close eye on what sells, what doesn't and what I can do to make each product sell better so that I can make sure my 2014 inventory is the best it can be.

I have some great vendors, but I'm always going to evaluate how we work together and what we can do better. As I tell them, if your product is sitting on my shelves, neither of us are making money.

It's absolutely essential to have vendors who understand the big picture of your business and where their product fits into it. They also need to be marketing-oriented and will cross-promote my business through their website and other avenues.

Finally, if you haven't done product sampling before, there's no better time to start than today. If you have products that aren't moving, start sampling them. You'll be surprised at the results. If you have been sampling, now is the right time to consider whether tweaking your sampling strategy can create even bigger results. With everything else that going on during the hectic holiday season, it's never easy to look ahead to the next year. But, you'll be glad you did.

You can do anything you want, you just can't do everything you want

No matter what size your business is, there’s no substitute for focusing your time, energy and resources of what matters most.   

An important lesson I apply to my own business is summed up in the saying, “You can do anything you want; you just can’t do everything you want.”

Even some of the biggest names in retail have figured that out, though some of them figured it out too late. For small retailers, trying to do everything can be tempting but it’s a real recipe for trouble.

Too often, business owners think they are narrowing their opportunities for success by specializing in a specific area. In fact, just the opposite is true. The success of my business, the Heart of Iowa Market Place, depends not only on the niche we’ve captured but on letting people know we’re the leader in that niche.

Study your markets well. Look carefully at competitors and potential competitors. Select a niche where your business can thrive. And, tell your story with marketing that consistently reaches the right audience at the right times.

Be sure you're constantly focused on those things that make your business customer-focused, successful and profitable. If you do, you too will be able to accomplish anything you want.

Ideas are everywhere -- Part II

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

I noted in my last blog that ideas are everywhere for small retailers to make their businesses and lives better.

Being an avid runner in my off hours, some of my favorite ideas come from articles in running magazines, like a Duncan Larkin story titled "Recharge Your Running" in the August issue of Competitor.

Just like a runner, if you don't train and plan for your next race, chances are you'll not be as successful as you could have been or you'll just hurt at the finish line. Applying a couple of Larkin's points for runners to your retail business just might shake things up for you.

Larkin writes, "Know when to shut down your season. Learn your limits: Don’t try to squeeze in 'just' one more race if you are physically and emotionally spent."

So true. As retailers, we want to sell more products and do everything we can to make our customers happy. That mindset is what makes us successful businesspeople, but it can also tempt us to take on "just" one more sale and "just" one more promotional project, even though we may not perform at our best. Business owners, like runners, need to recognize when it's time to take a breather and focus their attention elsewhere for a few days or even weeks before going full speed ahead again.

Conversely, you may need to speed things up. Sometimes when runners are in a late-summer slump they need a jolt to their system, especially if they have a fall marathon coming up, Larkin writes.

What looms for my store, the Heart of Iowa Market Place, and every other retailer is the marathon called the holiday season -- and it will be here before we know it.

This may be the perfect time to give your business a jolt by speeding things up. Picking up the pace considerably to get everything in shape right now will help your business be more efficient and more profitable during the holiday season marathon.

You could complete your holiday catalog by mid-summer so it's ready to go out ahead of the season and you get people thinking about your business. You can reach out now to line up your additional seasonal help. You can even do that task we all dread: Clean up the back room so you have an organized workspace for the season.

Whether you shut down, speed up or do both in the next few weeks, mixing up your business running routine can help you get ready for the run to the end of another retail year.

-Kelly Sharp

Ideas are everywhere

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

Opportunities for retailers to find great ideas and apply them to their own businesses are all around us.

Being a runner, some of my favorite sources of ideas are found in magazines geared toward runners. The latest issue of Competitor magazine has an article titled "Recharge Your Running" in which author Duncan Larkin describes 10 ways runners can rejuvenate their late-summer training. That knowledge easily can be transferred to small retailers.

Let's tackle just one of the 10 points today: Find running buddies.

This is an easy one. One reason we're small business owners is because we like to do things our way and be responsible for the results. But, just like solo runners, sometimes you can start to struggle with motivation.

Larkin quotes running coach John Honerkamp: "It can be lonely out there, especially in a slump." Honerkamp might as well have been talking about small business!

A slump is a smart time to reach out to a fellow retailer to brainstorm new ideas and lift yourself up. A smarter time to find a business running buddy is before you're in a slump; you'll really benefit from the positive energy you'll generate.

Larkin also suggests that runners join a running club. Because my store, the Heart of Iowa Market Place, is located in historic Valley Junction, my "business running club" is the Valley Junction Foundation. Yours should be your local chamber of commerce and your neighborhood business association.

Take time today to find your business running buddy.

Stay tuned for my next blog … and the next recharging idea.

-Kelly Sharp

Looking outward

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

With all the demands on a small retailer, it's very easy to get too caught up in your own priorities, challenges and possibilities. It's important to have a deliberate strategy to look beyond your business to keep things in perspective and keep yourself open to new ideas.

It's possible to do all that and still benefit yourself, your business and others at the same time. One way I look outward while looking after my retail business, the Heart of Iowa Market Place, is through my involvement in the Valley Junction Foundation.

As the chair of the foundation's business improvement committee, I have the opportunity to meet other entrepreneurs who are excited about what they do and see potential and promise where others see only obstacles.

Right now, Valley Junction's board of directors is seeking several new members. We're looking for people with new perspectives, fresh energy and creative ideas. And, when you're around people like that, you can't help but feel even more energized yourself.

I know that the continued success of my business relies very much on the Valley Junction district's vitality.  My involvement in the district and the board has been very valuable to me as a business person, and I absolutely believe it will be just as valuable for anyone else who enthusiastically embraced the mission.

But it's been very valuable to me in terms of the friends I've made, too.

As with the Valley Junction Foundation, being involved in your local chamber of commerce or neighborhood retail association doesn't have to take a great deal of time. You'll enjoy the rewards that your involvement will bring to your business and others in the form of new working relationships, friendships, business opportunities and more.

Don't wait for an invitation. Pick up the phone and call someone today.

Taking time to look outward by serving in your local business organization will pay big dividends in your work and personal lives better by blessing you with relationships you would otherwise miss.

-Kelly Sharp

Getting it right with direct mail

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

I'll admit it: As a retailer, I have a hard time with direct mail.

Not philosophically. Direct mail as a marketing tool can be as powerful for small businesses as it is for national brands.

I struggle with it logistically and from a return-on-investment standpoint, because direct mail is an expensive thing to do. In other words, I want to make sure I'm doing it at the right times in my marketing cycle to get the best value for the money I'm going to spend.

Direct mail is like everything else I do when I market my store, the Heart of Iowa Market Place in historic Valley Junction. That means I ask myself some pointed questions before I do it. In the case of direct mail, those questions are:

  • To whom am I sending it?
  • Why am I sending it to them?
  • What do I expect to get from it?
  • What do I expect my ROI to be?
  • And, is it part of an overall strategy?

Too many businesses try a shotgun approach, such as sending direct mail to every single "current resident" in a particular zip code. That's not going to be an effective use of money for a small retailer.

My reasons for sending direct mail to particular customers or potential customers might be to promote a particular offer or keep the Heart of Iowa on the top of their mind.

My most recent campaign included three postcards over the course of several weeks to about 2,500 past and potential business customers in line with my ongoing strategy to create more business-to-business opportunities. The cards were mailed over the course of several weeks with one message communicated three ways.

Whatever the goal of a direct mail campaign, it has part of an overall strategy. Our direct mail is used to connect the dots -- and stay connected with customers -- between our catalogs, seasonal advertising, Facebook and email messaging. It's another way to touch current and prospective customers.

Businesspeople are very busy. They have a lot on their minds. I want them thinking about my business. So you've got to reach them in different ways. Direct mail is one way to do that.

If you don't have a direct mail component in your annual marketing strategy -- or worse yet, if you don't have an annual marketing strategy yet -- you seriously should block out time in the next few weeks and think about what you have to gain and how to do it effectively.

-Kelly Sharp

The vendor-retailer side of sampling

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the value that product sampling delivers in strengthening the seller-customer relationship.

Done right, sampling also improves your relationships with vendors -- and vendors can make or break your business. When you build a relationship of trust, you're in it together. If you're not important to them, they're going to help someone down the street and your business will suffer.

Think of sampling as an integral part of a bigger relationship that can bring you closer to your vendors.

Many vendors will provide product samples because it boosts their sales. The really good ones I work with certainly have figured that out.

One vendor comes into the Heart of Iowa Market Place every week and asks if we have enough samples. Yes, she's spending some money on free samples, but her products also outsell similar products two to one.

We partnered with Stone Cliff Winery from Dubuque last year. Owner Bob Smith started by giving us free wines to sample and our sales quickly jumped 30 percent. Bob's a very smart vendor, so he didn't stop there. He also worked with us to build a better display to highlight his products.

Vendors who work closely with me tend to get the premium spots in my store because their product is going to sell more than the ones with vendors who don't offer free samples.

Vendors also are a source for ideas that can make your business better. Because they're talking to other retail stores all the time, they're seeing what's hot, what's selling and what's new.

I'm constantly saying to vendors, "Let me know if you see something that would be well in my store, even if it's not in your product line." Because I have good vendor relationships, I have people come back and say, "You might want to look at it and sell a product you're not selling right now."

Sampling makes your vendor better at their job, too. They're more attentive. They understand what's selling in your store. And, when you have a problem or urgently need a product, they'll go that extra mile because they know you. (Like any partnership, remember that the retailer-vendor relationship is a two-way street. Show them respect. Pay your bills on time. Let them know you want them to succeed, too.)

When it comes to building strong relationships with vendors, sampling works.

-Kelly Sharp

Sampling works

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place Heart of Iowa Fudge

Someone recently asked me why we like to sample so many products at the Heart of Iowa Market Place.

The reason, I replied, is because sampling works.

Sampling works because it provides a unique and fun experience for customers, which is what retail is supposed to be all about. It works because it educates the consumer about your products. It works because it moves products. And, it works because it produces results on the bottom line of your balance sheet.

I hadn't realized how powerful sampling is until we started offering samples of our homemade fudge. Hardly anyone who comes into my store is thinking they want fudge when they walk through the door … until they taste the fudge. Everyone likes it. And when they come back, they're eagerly expecting a fudge sample.

The first time they come, it's a happy surprise. But it quickly becomes part of the Heart of Iowa experience for returning customers. Sometimes, they come in specifically for a fudge sample. And I'm absolutely thrilled when they do.

Sampling works.

We did a little test not too long ago. We'd been sampling a sausage meat. We had a lot more of a second variety in stock and I said, "We should sample that one instead."

Right away, the second brand started selling because people could taste it. Everybody wins in that situation.

Sampling is all around us, and yet it is often an underutilized sales tool by many small retailers. Book stores know that you bring in authors for readings and book signings. Lowe's and Home Depot have courses to show you how to build things. Other retailers can and should learn from those examples.

Often, your vendors will provide you with free samples. (I'll get into that the next time I write.)

But today is a great day to be thinking about what you can do to engage your customers, give them a unique experience and encourage them to come back. Product sampling should be at the top of your ideas list.

Why? Because sampling works.

-Kelly Sharp

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