You’ve put long hours into building and maintaining your business, but you notice there’s inconsistency in your customer base. It can be hard to predict what demand will be like, especially as seasons progress and customers’ habits change. School starting up (or letting out), differences in the weather, holidays and travel plans — all of these (and more) can affect the traffic your business attracts. Even the switch from Daylight Savings Time can mark a change in how busy you are. And, the ebb and flow of customers may start to have an impact on your profitability.
When things are good, they’re good. You love following your passion project and turning it into a palpable venture. You’re able to open your doors (physical or digital) with pride, and create an excellent experience for your customers.
But, when the times aren’t as good, when the customers and profits aren’t consistent, you may fear for the viability of your business. What can you do to stabilize your sales?
Here are four ways to tackle seasonality:
1. Try to generate buzz even in the off months
Consider offering discounts on off-season items or expanding your online store to a new region. For example, maybe the Midwest could use your jackets while the South is enjoying warmer temperatures.
Mark McMurray is the owner of Bluff City Outdoors, a bait and tackle store in Alton, Illinois, that was featured in Season 3 of Small Business Revolution — Main Street. Fishing slows down in the winter months, and big box stores and online retailers make it hard for specialty stores like Bluff City Outdoors to stay afloat. McMurray had to learn to manage his shop’s ebbs and flows with new ideas that would create new revenue streams.
To reel in those customers during the slow periods, the bait and tackle shop needed an exterior makeover and a stronger website to better attract customers’ notice. Here’s what worked:
- An altered exterior: Bright windows, a new sign and a fresh paint job ensure that all year round, people who walk or drive by the shop are reminded it’s there and prompted to stop in. After all, it’s never too early to begin planning for fishing season.
- An improved website: Bluff City Outdoors’ old website was difficult to navigate and didn’t feature its full range of products and services. The shop’s new website ranks for popular terms like “trophy cat fish” and provides a more complete picture of what the shop offers, including items like apparel.
- Branded merchandise: Fishing may be a warmer-month activity, but McMurray found that T-shirts, hats, hoodies, coolers, keyring floats, can cozies and outdoor tents emblazoned with his shop’s logo kept Bluff City Outdoors in customers’ minds throughout the year.
How to generate buzz in your business:
- Improve your website (or create a website, if you don’t have one), and keep it updated: Think about what your customers need, and put that front and center. For example, a dog hotel may use a website to showcase pricing information and photos of its facility to quickly ease pet parents’ minds. Remember, though, that a website is not a set-it-and-forget-it tool. Keep it up to date all year long with an event calendar, seasonal updates or possibly even a blog to keep customers coming back to learn more.
- Rethink your look: You may not need a large-scale makeover, but consider new paint or wallpaper in customer-facing rooms, or putting up a new sign to draw attention. Keep in mind that the customer experience extends beyond your sales floor or dining room, so give some thought to other areas that may need a spruce-up.
- Create excitement: Consider promotions or events you can run in off-peak seasons or times of day. Make sure to keep your audience posted through email, social and your website. Going back to the dog hotel example, they could host a parade in conjunction with a local pet rescue to build buzz, and give discounts for, say, the best parade photo posted on social media.
2. If you know a slow season is coming, plan for it now
One day your business is flooded with guests and requests, while the next there are only stragglers. If you’re seasonal or just not seeing consistency, give the following a go.
Ask for customers’ testimonials and reviews. Don’t offer rewards to get feedback, and don’t even ask for good reviews. But don’t be shy about asking for reviews in general. Here’s a guide to asking for Yelp reviews, with lessons that work across multiple review sites.
Additionally, consider partnering with neighboring or complementary businesses. Paulette Kirk Kasmer, owner of Polka Dot Parlor, a Bristol Borough, Pennsylvania, boutique featured in Season 2 of “Main Street,” used the lessons she learned during Small Business Revolution to educate other businesses in her community so they too could enjoy greater success like she did.
Grow your network with other small business owners to inspire and promote each other. If you have something that’s working well, pass it on to the next business. Strong businesses create a strong community, which keeps customers coming back.
Focus on the customer experience
If a customer finds excellent service every time they come into contact with you, they’re more likely to return. Even if they don’t “need” anything, they’ll come in to shop or browse because they like your brand, your mission or the experience of being there.
Take a look at your business. In what ways can you give more personalized attention to customers, or extend the customer experience after a sale? What interactions can be made even more personalized? For example, some businesses that collect customer data, such as birthdays or anniversaries, use that information to send cards (and maybe a discount) when the customer’s special time of year comes around.
Elevate your marketing
If you’re noticing more time in your day due to a less-than-full store, use that time to try new marketing methods. Have you been nervous to start email marketing? This might be the time try email to get yourself in customers’ inboxes.
Additionally, look at your current marketing. Can you make anything stronger? For example, consider posting to Facebook more often or using new post formats to engage the audience. Seasonal businesses can make the most of all the seasons by promoting warm weather photos and warming-up-by-the-fire content.
3. Bring in new types of customers
Annabella’s, an Italian restaurant that was featured in Season 2 of the “Main Street” series, is perfectly situated just steps from the popular Bristol Riverside Theatre. With its 5 main-stage shows each year, the theater drives a lot of customers to the restaurant. But when the theater is in between productions, the restaurant suffers. Chef Robert Angelaccio says, “I don’t expect to do the numbers we do while theater is in, but I’d like to still be able to pay bills.”
Angelaccio is proud of his home-cooked Italian meals and cozy dining room that seats 35, but the restaurant needed a different menu and more space to really ramp up revenue. Here’s what worked for the restaurant:
- A revised menu accommodates more people by including gluten-free options, while keeping things moving in the kitchen.
- An expanded seating area fits more diners, so even on the theater’s dark nights, there’s buzz and activity around Annabella’s outside area. Spacious outdoor seating truly allows the restaurant to make the most of busy nights and quieter nights with beautiful weather.
- A new website displays photos of delicious meals and entices locals to come in during slow months, even if they don’t have theater tickets.
But, what if you’re not an Italian restaurant? Here’s how to try bringing in new customers:
- Focus on a more selective set of offerings instead of trying to do it all: A furniture store may not need to sell everything from pool tables to dining tables, particularly if its sweet spot is high-quality sofas.
- Focus on getting it right every time: This may mean only stocking high-quality sofas and focusing on strong customer service with each and every purchase.
- Decide if less is more: Will having less furniture (or clothing, or baked goods, and so on) allow more space for customers to explore comfortably? Will focusing on certain items bring in untapped customers who want a place to find those items?
- Include high-quality photos: Especially in the food business, but also in retail, it’s important to show off your best assets. Investing in a professional photographer so your website and social media show off your best assets may pay for itself in time.
4. Spread good vibes to grow your customer base
Polka Dot Parlor’s Kasmer focuses on “making people feel happy and feel good.” Her one-of-a-kind store and positive demeanor work together to create a unique experience for her customers. That said, most of her customers come from Kasmer’s friends and family spreading the word around their community.
Kasmer needed to accelerate word-of-mouth to bring in new customers. The marketing team at Deluxe outlined a plan to trigger repeat visits to the shop and capitalize on the holidays:
- Exterior fixes: Flashy new paint and a revamped logo catch the eye and attract customers — Kasmer says people now come in and say they never knew she was even there.
- Email sign-ups: Kasmer uses a notebook at the cash register to grab emails, letting her better communicate with customers whenever she has something to pique their interest in.
- Inventory management: Kasmer has learned not to buy too much inventory in the first quarter, as that’s when she makes the fewest sales. So she stabilized her cash flow by changing her purchasing habits.
What you can do in your business:
- Stabilize sales by partnering with other local businesses: Swap posters with the store down the street and consider offering coupons to complimentary businesses to encourage new visitors — and of course ask those businesses to do the same for you.
- Use your network: Get extra help from family or friends during busy seasons, so you can focus on building relationships with new and returning customers.
- Know what you need: Don’t over-order ingredients for your bakery’s famous ice cream if it’s the middle of winter and you know from past years that customers want molten lava cake. Take a hard look at when and how things have sold in the past, and plan your inventory purchases accordingly.
In the upcoming season of Small Business Revolution — Main Street, additional businesses will get help overcoming seasonal challenges. This year, the team at Deluxe tackles marketing for a climbing gym that needs steady visitors and a Filipino restaurant running on empty (but full of good food).
Changes big and small can help your business meet customer needs in every season. Don’t be afraid to try new things to make the most of your business — every month and every day.