"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

Cause marketing for retailers -- Part II

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

In my last blog, I outlined some important do's and don'ts for retailers to follow when doing cause marketing for a charity organization or social issue.

One important aspect to define upfront is that any cause marketing is a partnership. Not only does the cause need to fit with your particular business in some way or another, but the charity has to be ready, willing and able to really get behind your efforts. If you're doing all the work and they're not promoting it, what you're doing isn't going to be nearly as successful as it could or should be. It may not be successful at all. Don't be shy about asking how the cause is going to support your efforts.

Elaborating on a point I made in my last post, it's very important to give yourself plenty of lead time. That's especially true if you're a new retailer.

That last thing you want to do is let your enthusiasm for a cause or pressure from its supporters stampede you into throwing together a haphazard campaign in a matter of days or weeks. At best, you'll end up harried and frazzled. At worst, the effort will be a complete bust that won't do you or the charity any good.

While it will differ from cause to cause, you need to give yourself a lot of time to develop news releases and marketing materials, identify the right products and pricing, and prepare your sales staff for the big event.

Cause marketing, which is often tied to a particular event like Heart Month in February or Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, also can be an ongoing activity. We're exploring the idea of publishing a cookbook that will be sold year-round with proceeds to go to the appropriate cause or causes.

Finally, whenever we've promoted a cause at the Heart of Iowa Market Place, I've always taken the time to analyze the campaign at its conclusion. And, you should, too. Be sure to ask yourself: Was it a success for the charity? Was it a smart use of our time and marketing resources? What can we do to make a follow-up campaign better? And, finally, should we really do it again in the future?

-Kelly Sharp

Cause marketing for retailers -- Part I

When done right, cause marketing can generate a number of benefits for retail businesses that extend far beyond the company's bottom line.

There's the satisfaction of helping a worthy charity or particular cause with both money and publicity. There's the stronger bond created with existing and new customers. There's the ability to contribute to a good cause without having to dig deep into your own pockets, which is often very difficult for a small business to do. And, there's the opportunity to show people that your business truly cares about the community.

When done poorly, there's the possibility of alienating customers, diffusing your company's marketing focus and even losing money.

That's why it's crucial to put some real thought into any cause you support through your retail business.

At the Heart of Iowa Market Place, we've done some cause marketing, but we have some clear guidelines we follow. Your retail business should, too.

First, we support causes for which we have an affinity. The truth is, we're asked several times a day most days to support this or that charity. Your business probably is, too.

As much as we'd like to, we simply can't support every group that asks us. You have to be particular about the causes you choose. There has to be a logical connection for your business that ties into your marketing and products.

(Be sure, too, that your employees know what to say when charities come into your business to ask for donations because your customers are watching and listening. Our employees always politely take the information and let them know the owner will get back in touch with them.)

Second, any cause marketing must be part of your overall marketing strategy. I map out an annual marketing strategy and any cause marketing is included in that early planning and only with a great deal of thought.

Third, you want to make it fun for your business and employees to promote that cause.

Finally, make a budget for cause marketing and stick to it. In the end, it will not only give you the fortitude to decline the bulk of requests but it will also provide a clear focus for your efforts.

-Kelly Sharp, owner, Heart of Iowa Market Place

Tough questions net big results

There are a couple truths in life that are important to small retailers, especially if they feel like their business is in the doldrums or if they recognize it has slipped into a crisis.

The first truth is: The tougher the questions we ask, the bigger the results we net. 

The second truth is: Not many people like to answer tough questions. And, the third truth is: Even fewer of us can ask the really tough questions of ourselves.

So, what's a business owner to do? The answer is something that's as certain to be necessary as it can be uncomfortable. You need to ask the people closest to you and even some people you don't know all that well to evaluate you and your business and honestly critique both.

At the Heart of Iowa Market Place, we do just that. We do it with our vendors, our financial advisers, marketing consultants, corporate and individual clients who do business with us online, the people who walk into our store in historic Valley Junction and -- this can be especially tough -- with my friends and family.

Part of that constant review should include customers and clients because business in general and retailers in particular don't go back as often as they should and ask their clients several important questions. How'd we do? Were you happy with our product and your experience? What can we do better? While we may not always get the answer we want, your customers and vendors will appreciate and trust you even more because you asked these tough questions.

My thoughts regarding this were recently confirmed when one of our large suppliers asked 15 of their top customers to attend a roundtable discussion on how they could improve their business and help us to sell more. While all of the feedback for them was not positive, I felt great about being asked and felt like they cared about me as a customer. (Now let’s see what they do with this feedback.)

That's important, because the process doesn't do you any good if you choose to ignore the advice you get. You have a responsibility to weigh what you're hearing -- even when it's uncomfortable or downright painful -- and make the right changes to make your retail business stronger. 

Inviting people in to critique you is hard, but if you don't do it you don't get better. Who should you be asking to critique your store? And why are you waiting another minute to have them do it?

-Kelly Sharp, owner, Heart of Iowa Market Place

What's on your shelves?

Sometimes, retailers get so attached to inventory they come to think of it as their baby. They want to hold on to it … and hold on to it … and hold on to it some more.

For some, they'll hold on to it while stubbornly believing they'll make their usual margin. They'll even pack it away for next year's season, holding on to it long after it looks old and unappealing. That's guaranteed formula to kill sales and profit beyond the product that isn't moving because it will hurt your brand.

For others, they'll hold on to it in hopes of just getting back their original investment. Understandable, yes. But, in the end, still not very practical if it's still not moving.

I don't look at inventory as my baby. I look at it like a teenager who's been planted in front of the television. And, if it's been there too long, I'm going to shout, "Don't just sit there! Get moving and get out of here!"

There's a reason mega-retailers have regular inventory clearance sales. It's just smart business.

Inventory that isn't moving is costing you money every day, every hour, every minute that it sits there doing nothing. You've already paid for it once. Don't keep paying for it. That money is gone and it's not coming back. The space that non-performing inventory is taking up is not allowing you to have space that will earn you dollars. Especially for small retail stores, your space is at a premium and every square foot of it needs to be making money. 

Cut the price to whatever level is necessary to get rid of it. Take your loss, change your inventory and get on with your business.

I've even donated non-performing inventory to charity just to clear space for something that will sell and boost my profit margins to where they need to be.

Take a look around your business. What's on your shelves that needs to get moving today?

-Kelly Sharp

More gift-giving opportunities to connect with clients than you may think

Pile of gorgeous giftsPile of gorgeous gifts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In business, it seems we're always encouraged to be aggressive. Getting there first has its advantages, but sometimes it really is best to be last -- or at least arrive at a different time than the pack.

For instance, several of our clients wanted to send holiday gifts to their top customers, and because they contacted us late in the season their gifts, would not have arrived until just before the holiday. 

Yes, the idea of giving gifts is to thank clients and show your heartfelt appreciation. But you're also making an investment in your relationship. And you want that investment to create the best return on investment possible. It just didn't make much sense to send the gift when the clients' tables were full of gifts from other customers and when half the employees traditionally are gone during the week of Christmas and New Years.

That's why our advice was to wait until later in January. It's a time of the year when people are tired of the winter weather, they're in the doldrums and the holiday treats are all gone. Sending a gift in late January to thank your client for their business the previous year certainly gets noticed. And, that's what you want to do -- get noticed.

That's not to say it's time for a whole new trend in business where you forget about sending the holiday gifts.

When it comes to holiday season gifts, the key to being noticed is to be first. Instead of a Christmas Gift, you might consider sending a gift out at Thanksgiving (Thank you for being our Customer) or Valentine’s Day (We “Love” our clients).

Just remember, you don’t have to wait to thank your clients, employees or others for their loyalty or business.  I know a tax firm that thanks its clients at the end of an audit (which is no fun for anyone!) and thanks its employees at the end of every tax preparation season. Your business has its own times of the year when saying thanks to your clients will be noticed and appreciated most, too.

That old saying about timing being everything is absolutely true. When it comes to connecting with clients, you have more times to do it effectively than you might think.

Kelly Sharp is the owner of the Heart of Iowa Market Place in historic Valley Junction.


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The pros and cons of the catalog

Retailers have long weighed the pros and cons of a print catalog for their products, -- and the easy lure of posting everything on the Internet these days has only made the decision that much harder.

For my business, the decision to go with a print catalog was been an easy one. It's also been a profitable one.

Let's start with the "easy decision" part. Before the Heart of Iowa Market Place produced a print catalog, people could call or go online to order. But the catalog's results were quickly obvious. People would come into the store, catalog in hand, with various items circled. Or, when calling to place an order, they would provide the item number.

The catalog made their lives easier and their shopping experience more productive and enjoyable, especially for businesses and those individuals who do not like to shop online. So in addition to generating more sales, it generated a positive shopping experience for our customers. 

How do I know it was profitable?

We spent approximately $1.15 per catalog plus postage. While the investment upfront was large, it also allowed for us to have improved photos for our website and advertising purposes. And, for an expenditure to be worth the time, money and effort, I always expect it to bring back at least twice as many dollars. By keeping track of sales directly attributed to the catalog, I knew when we reached and passed that mark.

Where did we send all those catalogs?

Existing customers for starters, of course. A print catalog is an easy way to stay connected with the people who are essential to your company's life and profitability.

We also expanded our business-to-business mailing list by using the Business Record's annual Book of Lists and area chamber of commerce contact lists.

While it's important to be creative and expansive with your contacts, it's equally important to realistically look at your potential market. Catalogs are expensive and you can't afford to throw away money with a scattershot approach. In other words, you have to get your catalog out there, but you have it get it into the right hands.

In addition, the catalog was used in electronic format. It was placed on our website so customers could easily download it (saving postage costs for us). Another bonus: When making marketing calls on businesses, I could easily use my iPad to review product options for my clients or easily email the catalog to the potential client. These are all benefits that sometimes get left out of the cost per catalog equation. 

One more thing: The catalog is part of your company's image and brand. A high-quality catalog sends the clear message that you deliver high-quality products and service. It tells your customers they can trust you.

Catalog customers are a very, very important piece of the Heart of Iowa's business -- and we treat them accordingly. So much so, that I always remember the words of a true pioneer in the catalog business, L.L. Bean, who made his mark with the 100 percent money back guarantee. His philosophy was as powerful as it was simple: "A customer is the most important person ever in the office -- in person or by mail."

Truer words for a successful retail business were never spoken.

-Kelly Sharp

You don't know what you're missing

It's an expression you've heard a million times: "You don't know what you're missing."

I think of that expression often when I think about many retailers' reluctance to get serious about business-to-business relationships.

Let's face it: Many retailers only focus on walk-in traffic. That's great, because you want to do everything you can to make sure those customers have a unique shopping experience that keeps them coming back to your business day-in, day-out, year after year.

But it's not enough if you're serious about bringing as much revenue as you can to the bottom line of your balance sheet each year. (And, every small business should be dead serious about its bottom line.)

You really need to be asking yourself, Do I have a product or service that works for business-to-business relations? And, can I grow my business that way?

Get creative. You'll be surprised how far your reach can -- and should -- be. For instance, say your business is custom-made baby clothes. You're probably thinking there's absolutely no business-to-business opportunity whatsoever. Especially not on the local level. But, you'd be wrong.

I was talking to a friend not too long ago who said her law firm is constantly buying baby gifts for associates who are having children. So, why wouldn't you, as a retailer, target a business-to-business opportunity like that? The result would be a steady stream of business and, more than likely, plenty of referrals coming your way.

The truth is, almost every retail business can have a robust business-to-business component.

So, jump in with both feet this year. And do it sooner rather than later.

You won't believe what you've been missing!

-Kelly Sharp

Taking inventory

If you're a retailer, you're probably still catching your breath from the holiday season. And, you should be -- because it won't be long before you're already going to be committed to whatever you strategy is for the next holiday season.

But it's also a critical time to take inventory -- physically and mentally -- for the year ahead.

I'm doing both this month. Between closing the books on 2012 and taking in a quick vacation, I'll also be refining my business plan for 2013 (which you should be developing and analyzing throughout the entire year) by taking a realistic look at what worked and what didn't in the past year.

I start with a simple, direct question: Am I relevant? (In other words, I want to know if my store is providing the goods, services and unique experience my customers want.)

And, I ask myself other questions, too.

Is my business focused on what it does best?

Where am I really making my money? (This is where I should be spending most of my time, energy and money.)

What can I better delegate and outsource to maximize the dollar value of my time?

What did I sell last year? And what didn't sell? (Seems simple, but many times we get so busy with the day-to-day tasks that we don't really take a good look -- we just reorder the same as we did last year.)

What inventory is just taking up space -- and how am I going to move it?

Is my website absolutely up-to-date and user friendly? And, am I making the most of what technology has to offer?

How can we improve the customer's experience?

What lessons can I take from other retailers, even the stores, while still keeping the uniqueness of my own store?

What am I going to do this year to increase my business-to-business sales?

Those are the smart questions to be asking no matter if you're a retailer or in any other profession. So, whether you're already back at work or still unwinding, the remainder of this month is the right time to take inventory of all your assets and obstacles to success in the coming year.

-Kelly Sharp

A great way to start 2013

I can't think of a better way to kick off the new business year than with my first blog about the retail sector, because it's an opportunity to connect with more people. And ultimately, that's what business is all about -- connecting with people who need or want what you have to offer.

In the retail sector, that means offering goods, services, and if we're doing it right, a unique customer experience. That's something I've strived to do throughout my career. Before purchasing Heart of Iowa, I had a variety of experiences both in marketing and operations in many different fields, including construction, architecture, development and even a sports park.

My most recent position was the as the vice president of retail operations at Hubbell Realty Company. That role gave me a wide variety of experiences from understanding franchise systems, to identifying retail solutions for real estate issues and managing the day-to-day operations for businesses that have very different customers and a variety of unique challenges. Some those businesses included Copper Creek Golf Club, Woodland Hills Golf Course, Brilliant Sky Toys and Books at the Kaleidoscope, Johnny's Hall of Fame Restaurant & Bar, and Maximum Fitness Centers.

It was challenging, rewarding work, but owning my own business was something I had always wanted to do and in late 2010, I realized that goal with the purchase of Heart of Iowa.

I liked that the Heart of Iowa had a strong brand, wonderful history, loyal customers and a real market niche. I also bought it with a clear plan to build on its success by increasing its business-to-business sales, growing online sales and putting a sharper focus on marketing.

The fact is, you can't talk about retail without talking about marketing. Of course, there are so many more aspects of retailing that are all too often overlooked or forgotten by business owners -- and reconnecting with them is where so much opportunity awaits.

In the weeks ahead, I look forward to sharing ideas on customer experience, value of sampling, business-to-business sales and relationships, evaluating inventory, the return on catalogs, trading products for services, successful retailer marketing, learning from mistakes, technology and social media in the retail sector, the work/personal life balance, building a brand, leveraging client relationships, customer feedback, the pros and cons of coupons and more. And I look forward to hearing from you, too, with your questions and perspectives.

Kelly Sharp 

Owner - Heart of Iowa Market Place

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