Sleigh Bells Ring...And Cash Registers, Too


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During the holidays, folks everywhere shop many long hours to buy gifts for the important people in their lives. Spending at this time of year is one of the driving forces of our economy, and retailers go to great lengths to make the frenetic experience a festive one. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the NeimanMarcus catalog, FAO Schwarz toy decorations and Saks Fifth Avenue window displays are all part of Christmas marketing lore.

When our kids were young, we lived in the Fort Worth, and each December we drove an hour to Dallas to take our children to Northpark Center. There, our family truly got into the holiday spirit. From the sarcastic Scrooge puppeteer who preys on unsuspecting shoppers, to the bigger-than-life clock tower that performs the 12 Days of Christmas, to the most authentic Santa Claus we’ve ever seen, shopping at Northpark was truly something we looked forward to every year.

Northpark’s objective is to give shoppers a memorable holiday experience and put them in the spirit to buy more products from the mall’s stores. In reaching a buying decision, retailers understand buyers go through filtering processes they weigh against their “scarce” resources: time, money, knowledge and affinity.

The Filtering Process: The first thing a customer does to filter information is to review options (think about what you do when you’re in the market for a new computer). With a universal list at hand, customers begin distilling options by comparing them based on their own scarce resources. Ultimately, they reach a logical conclusion by placing a value on the various options.

Example: Alan owns a foreign car that won’t shift into gear. A quick phone call to the dealership where he bought it four years ago reveals that they are no longer in business. What does he do?

In the first stage of his decision-making process, Alan considers all possible means to satisfy his core need – getting transportation quickly. He starts by filtering out options: find another dealer in a nearby city; look up non-dealer mechanics in the yellow pages; call AAA; park the car in his garage and wait to see if a new dealership opens; fix the car himself; call his brother-in-law; buy a new car; take the bus; etc.

As Alan considers all of these options, his own scarce resources come into play. His busy schedule won’t allow him the time to drive to a nearby city. This is his only car, so parking it won’t solve the problem; he’d just have to rent another one, and he doesn’t have the money to do that. He has no knowledge about fixing brakes. He doesn’t really have much of an affinity for his brother-in-law. After working through all the scenarios, Alan finally decides to find another mechanic.

As you might imagine, how he chooses that mechanic activates an entire new set of filters that take into consideration Alan’s scarce resources. For instance, since he doesn’t know any non-dealer mechanics, he will have to rely on a friend’s knowledge of which local mechanics are qualified to do the job right.

The Marketing Opportunity: Looking at the above example from the mechanic’s point of view (both non-dealer and those at dealerships in nearby cities) unveils some solid marketing opportunities.

By undertaking this same filtering process to understand the situation similar car owners of that defunct dealership are in, either of these segments could provide the knowledge Alan and others need to make them his choice.

Non-dealer mechanics qualified to work on this car could obtain a list of local owners from the manufacturer. They could then initiate a direct mail campaign that focuses on educating car owners about the benefits of doing business with them. They could also mail a postcard to all of their existing customers: “If you have friends or family affected by the loss of XYZ dealership, we are standing by to help them. ”

A dealer in a nearby city, presumably with a bigger budget than non-dealer mechanics, could establish a temporary service center to assist car owners of the out-of-business dealership. While it may not be possible for Alan to get there this time to fix his car, there’s a good possibility that the next time he’s in the market for a new one, he would take time to drive there and make a purchase much bigger than brakes.

Success Handler: With your team, reenact the filtering process that your clients might go through in specific situations. Set up several scenarios and look for the best opportunities for your small business. Then develop an action plan to capitalize on these.

Consider the following:

  • What is your message and how will you share it with prospects and clients? What will it look like? How will you deliver it? (Direct mail, advertising, Web site, community event, sales call, brochure, open house, newsletter, industry association, etc. )

  • Once you get their attention, what do you want them to do next? (Call, fax, write or e-mail, schedule an appointment, order something, subscribe, enter a drawing, pick out their free gift, turn in their coupon, etc. )

  • Once they contact you or allow you to contact them, what will you do? (Who takes the call? What do they say? What other materials do you provide them?)

  • How will you follow-up? (Call every XX days, place them on your mailing list, invite them to an event or seminar, etc. )

  • Once they buy from you, how will you exceed their expectations? How will you say thank you? How will you keep in touch?

  • What are the opportunities for repeat or additional business from them? How will they know all of your capabilities and services? With what other scarce resources can you identity?

    Remember, you have to climb inside the shoes of your customers and prospects occasionally to understand how they think and how you will best solve their needs. Whether it’s designing better marketing materials to help increase their sales, shipping computers across the country while taking all worries off their minds, or simply making the holiday shopping experience for parents a little less stressful, you need to understand why they buy from your small business.

    Happy holidays and Happy shopping!

    Copyright © 2004 by Success Handler, LLC. All rights reserved.

    The Coach, David Handler, is the founder of Success Handler, ( ), and specializes in helping small business leaders find clarity and take action. He understands the challenges of running a business, because he’s been there – as a small business owner, franchisee, franchisor, corporate leader and trainer. Much like sports coaches, his coaching will show you how to compete on a level playing field in your industry.

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