Retail expert Brian Walker, aka The Retail Doctor, is keen to help small businesses get geared up for the Christmas onslaught, which he says represents the “grand finale” of the retailers’ year. 

It is a potential gold mine but maximising this busy period and maintaining your sanity takes some thought and planning.

Happily, Walker is on hand to with some top tips to get the cash registers ringing while staying calm.

Differentiate your business 

Explore and exploit the story behind your product or service. The idea is to stand out from the crowd: find your niche and do it well. 

“It’s very much about really focusing on what makes your business different – what are the stories -and really coming back to those core principles of why would a customer come back to me in the first place?” says Walker.

“It’s important not to try to be all things to all people.”

Make your business unique with exceptional, warm and friendly customer service, stock hard-to-get products, develop specialised knowledge or offer value-added services, like home delivery or ordering in products. 

For example, a deli could stock a particular meat or cheese that fits with the demographic or showcases products or ingredients from different regions.

“Having a story to tell, bringing in new ranges and products, building great rapport with customers, providing menu tips on a website or having a newsletter featuring cultural celebrations and upcoming foods,” Walker suggests. 

Once you have got that point of difference, remember to refresh it or change it up from time to time.

Build a community 

It is crucial to form strong community links, for example, by supporting local events or community groups, says Walker. This can include having a social media presence, a Facebook page or Twitter account, which can lift your profile and start a conversation about your business. An e-newsletter or website, including staff profiles, can help too.

“It’s mandatory to have a website but it doesn’t always have to trade. It certainly has to be informative and to bring people into the shop,” he says. 

“This is a click and bricks and mortar Christmas,” he says. “Businesses need a good supporting website with good information and inviting people to come into the shop.”

Building a customer database is also a good idea. You can segment it, according to customers’ purchasing history and the services they have bought and follow this up with targeted special offers or news of a new product’s arrival. For example, a clothing retailer could offer complementary tailoring or alert customers to new release shirts from Italy. 

“Ultimately, coming on a one on one level, if they can. Always thinking about bringing people back into the shop, not thinking about the transaction but more about the lifetime of a customer.”

Shop, stock and staff

Despite the boom in online shopping, Walker points out that 90 to 92 per cent of Christmas shopping is done in physical stores. Customers often research products online for product range and choice but then usually visit stores to buy them.

 Retailers need to ensure they have the right stock and enough of it. Walker advises picking “hero products” in the lead up to Christmas, for example, Star Wars toys, and make sure these are well stocked, in addition to having back-up stock of main product lines. A good point-of-sale system can help here and alert you when stocks are low, sometimes re-ordering automatically or completing regular orders with one click. 

Consider rostering key staff on for the busiest periods and make the shop look inviting with an exciting window display and a strong look inside. Think about stocking or assembling Christmas gift packs and include Christmassy suggestions.  

 “[Ask yourself] do I look sharp, am I at my best?”

It is vital to have a plan to entice customers back once the Christmas rush is over. You could use redemption vouchers and special offers for January or February.

Small really is beautiful

The Retail Doctor says that small businesses should capitalise on their strengths when going up against big retailers and online offerings. 

What are the advantages of small shops?

 “Range, a warm and friendly experience, supporting the community, ease and convenience, access and speed,” he answers. 

Smaller retailers often have the edge over larger ones and shopping centres – particularly at Christmas – because they are nearby and accessible for rushed Christmas shoppers and form an integral part of the festive atmosphere. 

He says small business owners are the “social fabric” of communities and they form strong social connections with their customers. 

“People have a great feeling for small shops, both the community and wanting to do business with them. It’s a very important part of the community. “Bigger retailers have brand, volume, price and range but they are not as well geared on niche-type of conversations and experiences.”

A keen exponent of November’s Shop Small campaign, Mr Walker believes small businesses do not need to fear the future.

“If the retailers are doing it well and they’re positive I think the future is very good but they need more support from the community. They will do that from being outstanding.”

The recent Economy of Shopping Small Report commissioned by American Express shows that most people value small businesses and have a great deal of affection for their local shops. 

In the survey, almost two-thirds agreed that small businesses helped give a community its identity and added to its charm; 54 per cent also said that they felt an attachment to small businesses, which provided them with positive emotional value. 

Speaking about the findings, Melanie Cochrane, Senior Vice President American Express Global Merchant Services, says consumers needed to turn their affection for small business into action to ensure small businesses continue to have a positive impact on their local community.

“When it comes to delivering a great customer experience it’s the little things that count, and no-one does this better than small business owners,” she says. “As such, it’s no surprise two-thirds of respondents said they would miss their local small businesses if they were to close, or that 61 per cent say the local shopping village is the heart of the community.“

Cochrane says consumers should weigh up all of the benefits of supporting local business and not focus exclusively on price, which small business may struggle to compete on.