Please note – this blog post was written during the pandemic and several lockdown periods to help small business owners.
Here we go again. If you have a creative product business, you’re probably wondering what to do now with another lockdown coming in to force during this crucial part of the year. How can you help your business during this time?
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1. Don’t panic
I’m saying this, knowing full well that this second lockdown is coming at absolutely the worst time for retail. I know how hard of a blow this is going to be, especially for those of you with bricks and mortar stores. We’re all human, and lockdown is hard, there’s no denying that.
We’re not just business owners, we have loved ones to think about, and partners with jobs who have also been affected. So on top of worries about the business, we’re going to be dealing with so much more than that, which can feel overwhelming.
The reason that I say “don’t panic” is that getting stuck in paralysing fear is only going to make a difficult situation worse. So if you need a few days to process how you are feeling, then by all means take it. Step away from the business if you need to, if that’s going to help you get some perspective. Then you’ll have more energy to come back and focus on the things that you can control, instead of getting stuck in what you can’t control.
2. Run your numbers
If you don’t have the sales forecast, now is a great time for you to get one, because you need to understand what’s going to be happening in your business in terms of cash flow.
Most large retail businesses will run 2 to 3 sales forecasts at a time. They’ll have a realistic view. They’ll have a stretch view – what they’d like to aim for, and they will have a worst case scenario. My role as merchandiser was often to manage what the worst case scenario was and to keep the stock under control so that if we hit that scenario, we weren’t left with lots of stock. Managing that balance was crucial for helping with business cash flow.
It’s important that you do face the reality of what sales could look like for your business because you can make decisions now that could help you in the future.
If you lay out what your potential sales could be, you can look at what your upcoming expenses are and work out what you need to do. On the other hand, you could be in denial or you don’t want to look at the numbers. Then it’s like when you’re not opening your bank statements because you can’t bear to look – in other words, an uncomfortable place to be.
Knowledge is power. If you can map out your business based on a realistic and a worst case, then that’s going to be a lot less uncomfortable than ignoring the problem and hoping it goes away.
Of course, another reason to run your numbers is because last time we were in lockdown, many people saw their best months ever. So don’t just run the worst case scenario, take a look at what would happen if you had to work your way through both Black Friday AND a lockdown boost.
3. Take a good look at your stock
Split your stock into three categories.
1 – Stock that you would happily be able to sell in January. You may have bulked up on this stock because of Christmas, but other than that, this stock can carry you into next year as well. The good news is that this is “safe” stock – you are not under pressure to clear through this now as it is going to be just as useful for you in January as it is now. The only think you’ll need to work out is if your cash flow can take you sitting on more stock than necessary if your sales don’t come through the way you want them to.
2 – Stock that is not seasonal, but isn’t selling well. This could be slow sellers, or ends of lines – stock that you could happily put into a promotion in order to clear through it.
3 – Seasonal stock, what I like to call “brown bananas”. This stock has a metaphorical (and sometimes literal!) shelf life. You’ll be waiting a year to sell it if you don’t sell it now, so you need to focus in on clearing through this stock before the end of the festive season.
Taking the time to go through your stock in this way will help you see where your potential problems are, before it’s too late to do anything about them.
4. Make a plan
Now you have your sales figures and your stock figures, try sitting down with a pen and paper and work through all the options that you have open to you right now.
Those of you who have done challenges and courses with me before will know that I love the approach of brainstorming 25 different options – that way you go beyond what comes immediately to mind and brings out some more interesting ideas.
Can you collaborate with others to promote your business? Sign up for more online events? If you’re a physical store, what worked well last time in terms of click and collect, local deliveries, video tours of the stores and so on? Take some time to map out absolutely everything you can think of that could drive sales forward, and then pick 3 to focus on.
Don’t forget that PR for small businesses is in many ways easier to get that ever with many major news outlets looking for small business stories. Can you pitch anything to local or even national press?
If you haven’t already planned out your Christmas promotions, what do you want them to be? Don’t assume that you need to use discounts to drive sales – these should be saved to clear through unproductive stock, or seasonal stock that you are worried you won’t be able to shift. But take the time to work out what you want to do and when.
5. Go through the practicalities
Oh yes, this is the really exciting stuff! But take 10 minutes to run through the practical aspects of the lockdown. Can the people who work with you still help you out? Can you squeeze in any in-person training before Thursday that will help you get the support you need? What about mailing supplies, stickers, labels, tape? Do you have everything you need there? Are your printers still open for inserts and postcards?
At least this time round, you know what the pitfalls are likely to be. What do you need to focus on right now to help get ahead?
If getting to your local post office is going to be a problem, what about the new Royal Mail pick up service? Is that an option? If your team can no longer work together (and check government guidelines to understand what will be possible), then how can you split out tasks to make the whole thing still flow? What can you outsource to someone working from home?
Mapping out the practical challenges and brainstorming how you can overcome them will help you get in a better place mentally.
6. Stay close to your customers
Be there. Think of selling as service. How could you help your customers? How can you meet them where they are right now? So if they’re uncertain, or they’re stressed, talk to them and meet them where they are. Have those shared connections – don’t pull back. The natural instinct when things are tough is to pull back and retreat. But right now is the time for you to be stepping up, meeting your customers where they are, especially your loyal customers.
Stay close to your customers and try and be a part of their experience of this situation. If you’ve got a physical retail store, what can you do within your community to be part of the solution? Can you offer to drop things off for people, can you or your store be a part of your community’s response to this crisis?
The people who go out there and really connect with people and meet them where they are will the ones who continue to make sales. And don’t forget email! Are you sending regular emails out to your most loyal customers? Don’t forget that there’s no-one more likely to buy from you than someone who has already bought from you, so focus on keeping in touch with this very important part of your audience.
There are two opposing forces at work at the moment. On the one hand, economic uncertainty is driving overall spending down. But on the other hand, people are getting much more focused on buying consciously and buying from businesses that share their values. We saw this during the first lockdown, it was really clear that people were determined to support their local businesses. Even if the overall size of the nation’s spending is going down, the size of the slice that has been given to small businesses has increased.
However, you are not going to be able to take advantage of this conscious consumerism, values-based retail if you’re not sharing your values. If you’re not connecting with your customers, you are missing out on your unique competitive advantage. Small businesses who connect with their customers will weather this storm – that was very clear during the first lockdown as well.
Don’t retreat. Be there for your customer. Keep showing up. Keep telling them what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Keep sharing and keep being present.
7. Do whatever you need to do to show up in a positive way
This is another one that is easier said than done. But remember this – people buy your excitement. Nothing attracts people to your products more than you showing up and talking about them in a way that shares your passion.
If you are feeling defeated, or stressed (both of which are entirely valid feelings given the year we have been having!) then you are more likely to retreat. But we really don’t have time right now – Christmas shopping season is here and so whatever it takes, you need to do what you need to show up in a positive way.
Lean on your fellow small businesses for support. In the Resilient Retail Club for example, I’m introducing weekly sessions to support and encourage each other in the run up to Christmas. Make a playlist with your favourite upbeat songs to get you in the right mood. Take regular breaks so you don’t burn out. Do whatever it takes for you to be there and show up in the right frame of mind.
As hard as this second lockdown feels, if you avoid panic, run your numbers, evaluate your stock, make a plan, take care of the practical stuff, stay close to your customer and show up positively then you’ll be on your way to making the most of a difficult situation. There may even be hope for a merry Christmas after all.