Identifying a gap or niche and taking advantage of it

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

In life and business, it's always so much easier to see what's there when we should also be looking for what's not there.

That's because the "what's not there" can make as big a difference for all of us, particularly specialty retailers, as the "what's there." It's important to know that I'm not saying niche retailers should start offering new products or services just for the sake of doing something new or different.

Just the opposite.

Filling gaps has the vital purpose of meeting your customers' needs so they don't go somewhere else. It's about making sure you don't give potential competitors a foothold into your specialty. Identifying new niches is all about complementing your existing experience as much as or more than it is about expanding it.

For example, I've recently started adding my own branded product lines at the Heart of Iowa Market Place because some items I wanted to carry just weren't available. What better opportunity to brand your business than to consider the same approach? (In fact, don't just consider it. If it makes dollars and sense, do it!)

In my case, we'd offered a book with images of Iowa that sold very well, but there were no other books in the price range or style my customers wanted. Instead of losing out on sales, I decided to do something about it. I found a wonderful local photographer, Justin Rogers, and together we've created a beautiful new book that will come out shortly.  

As I look at my store and other new business opportunities, I try to find that niche or gap in the marketplace. It's much, much easier to be successful if the pool of competitors is smaller and you're filling a real market need.

Always ask yourself, "What are we missing? What are we not seeing that we should be seeing? What are we not doing that fits with who we are? And, what can we be doing to improve the customer experience, build our brand and make us more profitable?"

Asking those questions on a regular basis will not only help you identify dangerous gaps and promising new niches, it will help you take advantage of them in a big way.

Reaching millennials

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

There's an old saying that "everything old is new again."

Judging from a few recent stories in the national media, it seems one "old" idea that is new again is that millennials, an increasingly important market segment, have a growing appreciation for connecting to brands.

It should come as no surprise, really, and it fits right into a dominant philosophy that millennials would rather buy experiences than buy material goods.

While one writer described "selling experiences" as one of the hottest retail trends, that's old hat to small, specialty retailers. At the Heart of Iowa Market Place, we know our success depends on people having a very positive experience when they walk through our door or order products online.

Millennials' desire for exceptional experiences is great news for niche retailers. I'm not knocking big retailers, but shoppers don't go to the big-box stores for the experience or to create a connection. That always has been -- and always will be -- specialty retailers' opportunity to shine.

And, let's face it, not even the most frugal and determined millennial can live without some material goods.

If you're not already focused on the Millennial market -- and creating the kind of experience that will bring them through your doors or onto your website -- now is the best time to make it happen.

Because one thing I know for sure, extraordinary customer service never goes out of style. It's exciting to know that millennials recognize and appreciate that fact, too.

Competing against your toughest competitor

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

It's no secret that competitive people want to win, love to win … need to win.

For some people, their competitive fire is fueled more by not losing than it is by winning. Very competitive people hate to lose more than anything.

So what does that have to do with specialty retailing, especially if you've positioned your business in such a niche that there is no real competition? The answer is plenty.

If I've learned anything as a runner, a competitive horse rider and a specialty retailer, it's that competing against myself is one of the most important things I can do to be successful.

That's not to say we don't need to be aware of what's going on around us. After all, we can't pretend that others aren't competing against us every day. But one way we can deal with those challenges is by challenging ourselves.

Like a lot of runners, I'm always measuring my results against previous efforts and looking for ways to gain a step here and a step there.

In competitive horse riding, nothing replaces focus and practice, practice, practice. Focus means you know what you need to do to win. Practicing the right things ensures that you react the right way. As a business owner, you can't afford to just react the right way when a situation just comes up. You have to be focused on the right things so that your energy goes to setting the agenda and winning each day, rather than reacting to external events as they pop up.

In specialty retailing, there are any number of places -- from a different product mix and even better customer service in the front of the store to employee training and new software in the back of the shop -- to up your game. You just have to put in the effort to find those advantages and make them work.

Competing against yourself is all about self-improvement. And that gives you an edge in several ways.

First, it's an antidote for complacency. If you're always working harder and smarter, your business is always going to keep getting better.

Second, any potential competitor will have second, third and fourth thoughts about trying to take you on when they see just how hard you strive to be the best.

Finally, top competitors always like to compete against the best. And shouldn't you really be your toughest competition by always being at the very top of your game?

The road ahead for specialty retailers

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

I took some time off to travel out west last month and it got me thinking about the road ahead.

When we drive, even when we put the car on cruise control, we still have to pay attention to what's ahead -- the good as well the bad.

What's over that next hill? Is there going to be an obstacle in the road that poses a danger that we either have to go around or stop and rethink our course? And what about that unexpected curve or detour? Is it going to take us completely off track -- or lead us somewhere better?

It's very important for specialty retailers to think about the road ahead, too.

In fact, the top five defensive driving tips could just as easily be the top five strategic tips for small retailers:

·         Look Far Ahead. It sounds simple. It is simple. Unfortunately, simple things aren't always easy to do -- or they're easy to overlook. Set aside time on a regular basis to look far ahead. That leads us to the second tip.

·         Get the Big Picture. Should you focus most of your attention on your business, products and customer service and what you can do to make them better? Absolutely. But also take time to look at the big picture to see what's going on with other retailers that can benefit or hurt your business.

·         Have an Escape Plan. I don't mean bail out of your business at the first sign of trouble. But just like I've said before, if you have a product that's not selling, for instance, know when to avoid disaster. Don't keep hanging on to something because you hate to admit a mistake. Reduce its price, put out samples and get out of a bad situation as quickly as possible so you can move ahead on a better path.

·         Maintain a Proper Following Distance. OK, stay with me on this one. What happens when a pack of cars is following too closely? They crash, right? In the retail business, you need to know when to keep your distance. Don't run with the pack and try to be like everyone else. Keep your distance, chart your own course -- create your own niche -- and celebrate your uniqueness. Customers will appreciate it.

·         Reduce Distractions. We all know how texting, juggling a handful of French fries or sipping on that mocha latte can take your eyes and mind off the road with the disastrous consequences. (My favorite scary moment is when I see someone drinking a coffee, talking on their cellphone and putting on makeup all at the same time while driving on I-235 in the morning rush hour, but that's another story for another day.) The point is, success depends on focusing on the things that are going to cause your business to succeed, ignoring those things that aren't and knowing the difference between the two.

Keeping your eyes on what's ahead and following these steps will minimize unwanted surprises and guarantee to make your retail journey smoother and more profitable.

Order requires planning, execution

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

This year's RAGBRAI, like those in the past, gave me a chance to think about business from time to time even as I enjoyed the beautiful Iowa countryside.

This year, though, I was thinking about RAGBRAI, retailing and the whole notion of order even before my feet hit the pedals. On the way to Glenwood, the first overnight of the week, images of the crush of people rushing here and there came to mind.

If you've never been on RAGBRAI or in one of its host communities, you'd be justified in assuming that having more than 10,000 bike riders and at least twice as many support people descend on a small Iowa town would be nothing short of bedlam. You'd be wrong.

Although there is a lot of energy and activity, there really is an order to RAGBRAI. A lot of planning by the sponsors, participants and host communities ensures that people get where they're supposed to go, that they have food, bathrooms, entertainment, places to sleep and much more.

And, that's the lesson for specialty retailers.

Whatever you're doing and however much energy you're putting into your business, you have to have order.

That means your inventory selection has to be well thought-out to ensure you have the products your customers want and that you don't have a lot of unwanted products gobbling up space and capital. Your store design and product presentation have to be organized in ways that appeal to and attract customers rather than frustrating them. Your staffing has to be scheduled to best serve your customers while also making sense for your bottom line.

Your handle on business finances -- especially accounts receivable -- must be firm. Your grasp on cyber-security has to be solid.  In short, you as the owner have to have a sharp focus and a commitment to use practical systems for every aspect of your business and constantly improve your own skills.

I marvel at the way the organizers of RAGBRAI can always see, create and maintain order in the midst of apparent chaos. The specialty retailers who succeed are those who can see, create and instill order in their business and its people even when things look anything but orderly.

Avoid the pricing trap

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

What are my products and time worth?

Answering that question may be the hardest decision any businessperson makes.

Unfortunately, it's also the most important decision a businessperson makes. And that goes double for specialty retailers.

Set your prices too low, and, if you don't go broke, you'll run yourself ragged trying to scrape by.

On the other hand, set prices too high, and you just might go broke, too, because customers will find a cheaper option. (At least that's the conventional wisdom.)

Whether you've worked in the same small store since you were in high school or you graduated from the best business school around, pricing decisions are hard because so many factors come into play.

For starters, it seems like the very structure of pricing conspires against us.

Look at any book on the topic, and words and phrases like "discount" "below competition" "bundle" and "high-low" jump off the page. Almost everything pushes us to lower prices.

That's even before we get into the real world of big and small competitors, fixed costs, employee pay and benefits, and rising product costs.

One thing I know for sure: When you compete on price, you and your business fall into a deadly trap.

You're smarter and better than that.

I know I certainly am. Best of all, our customers know it, too.

Why? Because our promise is to deliver a unique experience. Not only do we deliver on that promise, but we never stop looking for ways to deliver more value.

I know my prices aren't going to be the lowest. My customers know that, too, because they're smart enough to recognize and appreciate value.

What's your promise to customers? And, what, if anything, keeps you from delivering on your promise?

When you answer those questions and clear any barriers to delivering on the promises that matter most to your customers, falling into the pricing trap will be the least of your worries.

For specialty retailers, Memorial Day weekend means … Christmas?

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

Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer for most people. If you're a specialty retailer, it should also signal the official start of your Christmas holiday season.

Don't start unpacking the holiday ornaments and stringing the lights.
Instead, you need to sit down with a pencil and paper -- or, better yet, your computer and spreadsheet -- and put together your flow chart of holiday season tasks and deadlines.

Now is the time to decide what you're going to do differently this year from last. That includes getting rid of promotions and products that didn't work, of course, but it should also include some fresh, new ideas.  Get excited. Think big. Try something that will make your customers say, "Wow" and add to the unique experience that comes when they walk through your front door.

Make sure to cover all the routine bases, too.

I'm reworking the Heart of Iowa Market Place catalog. We've always offered gift baskets during the holiday season, but we've found we need to expand our catalog distribution on a year-round basis and share a broader range of product offering with customers. That approach will give them a better idea of what we're all about well before the holiday rush.

I'll also be taking time to review our operation.

Did we have the right number of people -- and the right people -- at the right times? What's the theme and scope of our marketing effort to welcome our loyal customers back and attract new shoppers?

What products will we definitely need and can we lock them in now at a better price for delivery in November? What new products should we introduce? (Really take some time to make sure something is the right fit before going overboard on purchasing.)

Whether the product line is existing or new, what can be done to add value for the customer without adding costs? As a specialty retailer, your goal isn't to deliver the cheapest product; it's to deliver the best value to customers.

I love it when customers say, "Wow, you made things so easy." Ask yourself what you can do to make things easy for your customers and you'll keep them coming back.

If you get on top of your holiday shopping season preparations now, you'll have plenty of time to unpack those ornaments and string those lights when the time is right. You'll feel less stressed and deliver a better customer experience.

That's a wonderful holiday gift for your customers, staff and yourself -- all because you recognized that the Christmas planning season comes before the first sweet corn of summer ever reaches your table.

Scratch good employees' itch to keep them

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

I wrote last month about the seven-year itch as it affects specialty retailers.

It happens when you start thinking there's something else you could or should be doing. Business owners seem to be prone to it when things are too volatile or going too smoothly. (What other options are there, really?)

Sometimes it’s seven years, sometimes it’s shorter or longer, but eventually it's going to hit. When it does, the itch can sap energy, excitement, motivation and satisfaction from the best of us.

As employers, we need to recognize that we're not the only ones who can get the itch. In fact, it usually hits employees much sooner than it does someone who is heavily invested in their own business.

Some employers think that's a good thing because it gets complacent staff and below-average performers to move along. I don't feel that way because I don't want and won't keep that sort of employee around in the first place.

The only way for a small, specialty retailer to succeed is by having top performers.

And that's when the itch becomes a real challenge.

When top-notch people decide to move on to another job, you know they're going to find something new in no time. As an employer, you don't want lose top performers. The best way to prevent that loss is to scratch the itch even before it's there.

I do that by remembering how crucial excellent employees are to the success of a business. My goal is to always treat employees as team members with unique skills and traits that contribute to our success.

Looking at new opportunities you can give your employees -- especially ones that fit their unique skills and traits -- helps to keep them from getting bored.

Delegating more responsibility to certain trained employees is important for two reasons. It takes some responsibilities off your shoulders so that you can do what you do best and it empowers them. Remember that the next time you think you don't have time to teach your employees new responsibilities.

It can be especially hard in small retail stores to find more things for your employees to do. As a result, they might fall into a routine and start to feel that itch.

The remedy: Talk to them and figure out not only what they like to do but what they would like to do. You just might find a hidden talent as I did with an employee who is very good at reorganizing the store layout and window points. (And think of all the time that skill set saves you.)

Finally, it's important not to get hung up on a job description.

Your employees shouldn’t be limited to the exact detail of the job description. If they mention that they are interested in certain areas, train them in those areas.

Validate their opinions and good ideas.

Engage them in everyday decision making while maintaining a smart employer-employee relationship. That involvement is important so they don't leave you for someone who is perceived to value their input more.

Scratch your employees' itches before they hit and everybody will feel better and achieve more together.

Seven-year itch can also hit business owners

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

The seven-year itch.

Almost everyone associates it with marriage or, if you’re old enough, the Marilyn Monroe classic with the iconic scene where she’s standing on a subway grate and a passing train creates a breeze that blows up her white dress.

Specialty retailers might not know it, especially when they’ve been hit by it, but it’s been proven that they are also prone to the itch. Sometimes it’s seven years, sometimes it’s shorter and sometimes it’s longer, but make no mistake, the itch can sap energy, excitement, motivation and satisfaction from the best of us.

Employees can feel the itch, too. Especially millennials, it seems. But that’s a topic for another day.

Experts say rollercoaster sales and revenue cycles can be a major big cause for the itch among business owners. (Sound familiar, retailers?)

Ironically, what business coach Jim Rohrbach described in an August 2000 Entrepreneur magazine article as the “boredom of success” can be another trigger.

In other words, the itch can strike if your business is too volatile or too successful.

Rohrbach said in that same article that one way to scratch the itch is by creating a bigger mission for your business. “Large goals take many steps to achieve and each can erase boredom and keep the entrepreneur focused,” wrote Jeffery D. Zbar.

I agree, but with this caveat: Make sure that bigger mission fits snugly to your business plan. I can think of few things that would aggravate the itch more – and be more exhausting – than to take on a big investment of time, energy and money that pulls you away from what you do best.

Other potential remedies are pretty much what you’d expect, including time off, travel and looking at your business in a new light with the help of advice from other business people, a book or class.

For me, the itch doesn't wait seven years. Mine usually hits every five years, but it's a good thing. I don't necessarily want to change my career path, but I need to find some new excitement with my career or business.  Whether that is taking on new projects, looking for new ways to grow my business, just something to continue to make me excited about going to work.  

I’ve always been a big believer in asking tough questions – and being honest with myself about the answers – to keep my focus where it needs to be. I make sure it becomes a motivator to keep my store and products fresh, take a look at the entire business with a fresh set of eyes and from the customer's perspective to see what new goals we should implement and new products we should introduce.

Having the itch is not a bad thing when it's used as an opportunity to re-evaluate what you are doing and not become complacent.  

As for me, I can’t image a better script with a happier ending than to be a specialty retailer in today’s competitive economy.

Next month: What to do to scratch an employee’s seven-year itch.

After the right hire

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

Last month, I wrote about how important it is for specialty retailers to put extra effort into the hiring process upfront to take a big weight off your shoulders for a long time to come.

So what happens after you make the right hire?

That topic is still on my mind because we're getting a new puppy in our house and those words -- a long time to come -- are ringing in my ears.

New puppies are a lot of work. Yet, we're willing to invest so much of ourselves in them because they just bring us so much joy and satisfaction.

One reason is that they're spilling over with enthusiasm and energy.

Isn't that what you want to encourage in your new employees, too?

You'll miss big opportunities if you fail to recognize and reward enthusiasm in a new employee. But don't stop there. Make sure you're instilling and stirring enthusiasm in all your employees whenever you have a chance.

Puppies are also going to make a few mistakes as they get settled in, chewing up a shoes here and there, knocking over this or that -- and worse.

Mistakes are going to happen. And, that's where we need to remember to be patient. But, we also have to make sure they're not the kind of mistakes that will hurt your business.

In their book, "Worth Every Penny", entrepreneurs Sarah Petty and Erin Verbeck write that big-box stores can make hiring mistakes for a variety of reasons. They're right when they say a customer's negative experience at a big-box store isn't likely to stop them from going back.

"If, however, they experience a rude employee at a boutique business," Petty and Verbeck add, "they will most likely judge you more harshly -- they pay you more because you're supposed to give them an outstanding experience. … Your employee could change the way your customers perceive you, trust you, talk about you, and do business with you."

Any logical person knows when you get a puppy, you're making a very long-term commitment to provide the right training, care, encouragement and support. as specialty retailers, we need to make sure that after carefully choosing the right employee, we make a long-term commitment and investment in their success.

Making the right hire

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

The holiday hiring season is behind retailers, but that process still goes on all year-round for many specialty retailers and it's important to know exactly what kind of employee you need and how the personality and work ethic of the person you choose fits into your business.

Get it right, and the person you choose will pay big dividends. Get it wrong, and I guarantee it will cost you more time, money and headaches than you can imagine.

I prepare myself during the hiring process with few steps.

First, I define the role of the position being offered. What tasks will the employee be completing, and what skills will be needed to complete these tasks? How will that role and the person who fills it fit into the overall company goals?

When conducting interviews, it's important to explain to candidates the objectives of the job and company and the business culture. Whatever the job title, every employee in a small retail business is a first-line employee and the face of the company; making sure the employee is the right fit for the company’s image is crucial.

So how do you find the right fit? In the words of my favorite sayings, you have to hunt where the ducks are. Local newspapers, online and local job agencies and specialty blogs or bulletin boards are a great start, but some of the best places to hunt are through networking.

Spread the word through your contacts that you are looking for someone to hire, and they will keep you in mind. Your contacts will know your business better than a job agency, and will know what candidate will be a better fit.

We all know that the interview process can be a real pain, but it's important not to settle just to get it over with. In specialty retail, two of the most important qualities I look for in a potential employee are resourcefulness and the ability to listen to the customer.

The Heart of Iowa Market Place is known for its specialty gifts. Customers will come to our store specifically looking for a gift and might need advice on what will make the perfect gift -- and that's where resourcefulness and listening come in.

Resourcefulness -- or adaptability -- helps employees recognize when they need to do something different to best meet our customers' needs. When we need to change things within our store, I need to be able to count on my employees to adapt to the changing environment.

It's good to know a job candidate's full range of skills, but I don't limit my focus there. I also rate my candidates on their potential. Skills can always be learned through training, but some characteristics such as social skills, confidence, and detailed oriented can’t be trained.

Put extra effort into your hiring process upfront and you'll be taking a big weight off your shoulders for a long time to come.

Caring for the unhappy customer

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

We've just completed another holiday rush, complete with a few frantic customers who were obviously feeling the pressure of finding the right gifts as the clock ticked down to zero.

No matter how inviting a specialty retailer is or how well-trained its staff, there's going to come a time when a customer is unhappy about something. (Of course, that doesn't just happen during the holidays, but the odds certainly seem to increase then, especially because more people are shopping for someone other than themselves.)

This is an excellent time of the year to get together with your staff and go back over the best approaches to care for unhappy customers.

First, and foremost, listen to your customers and let them communicate how they feel. Sometimes an upset customer just wants to feel like their thoughts and feelings are understood. Asking them what is causing them frustration and getting the specifics will not only allow them to feel understood and valued, but also will allow them to blow off some steam. And, it will enable you to correct the situation properly.

Be respectful and empathetic. You can disagree with the customer's complaint, but respect and empathy go a long way toward defusing an unpleasant situation and, ultimately, keeping their respect, empathy -- and business.

Make sure your tone and body language reflect that you care about the customer's complaint and will do what it takes to make things right. Focusing all your attention on your customer will allow you to filter out any distractions and make the customer feel they’re getting the customer service that they deserve.  

If a customer is angry, it is best to be quiet while letting the customer explain their frustration. As the customer grows louder, make sure to be alert and lower your voice while talking slowly but firmly. Any sign of aggression or disagreement will only escalate things. Emotions are contagious, so stay cool, calm and collected while showing empathy.

While some customers may take out their frustration on you -- and even throw some jabs that get personal -- it's very important to remember their problem with you is business, not personal.

Finally, we all know actions speak louder than words. Back up your words by taking every necessary step to make things right. If possible, send the customer a handwritten, follow-up note to tell them how much you enjoy serving them and value their business.

Remember to be calm, patient and understanding, and your new year will be off to a great start! 

Morning habits to recharge you and your business

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

Earlier this month, I was reading an article about nine daily routines that will help supercharge your metabolism. Some of them include a quick ten-minute workout in the morning and plenty of water. Just like a metabolism, our businesses can get dull and in desperate need of H2O to recharge and become more profitable.

Recharging begins from the very moment you wake up. I can't think of many things more exciting than owning a specialty retail business, so I'm eager to face the new day -- usually!

For some, though, it's tempting to hit the snooze button. Don't. It just leaves your body feeling tired and groggy. It can also cause stress if you snooze too much and eventually run late. Rushing around also leads to forgetfulness, and makes for a lousy start to the day.

Tackle the new day so it doesn't tackle you.

It's a fact that the most successful people are list makers. Write out the day's priority list every morning, and next to each goal write a timely deadline. Creating a checklist will ensure that you're focused, manage your time efficiently and get things accomplished.

I like to add a couple personal goals to the mix of professional goals too, so I maintain a solid work/home balance. Check your progress constantly and note what needs to be improved. There is always room for improvement.

If you don't organize your workspace at the end of each day, take five minutes at the start of the day to get things in order. Study after study shows people who work in a organized spaces outperform those in cluttered ones throughout the day. Your business is already be hectic enough, no need to add clutter to your day.

Get daily feedback. I can’t stress this point enough. Whether it’s from you, your employees or your customers, feedback is essential to keep your company growing.

Be sure to constantly ask questions to figure out what you can be doing to add value, improve the unique experience you provide to your customers and increase efficiency. All of those things increase top-line revenue and bottom-line profitability. As a bonus, asking questions will help employees stay engaged.

Just as you need to wind down for the night, properly winding up each morning is essential for growth and success.

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.

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