Your shop: How to attract clients

Answers to your questions about building a customer base, attracting notice for your business and going online.

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(Money Magazine) -- Question: How can I attract more customers to my retail boutique without spending a lot of money? - Tony Gim, Naples, Fla.

Answer: If you don't have the funds for a big advertising campaign, you'll need to get the word out yourself. Start by taking a hard look at your product line, pricing and service to figure out what factors make your business unique.

"Ask yourself what you can offer that your competitors can't: A better price? Greater expertise? More convenience?" says Neil Schaffer, CEO of the Longview Consulting Group in New York City. "Then play up that edge to your target audience through direct and guerilla marketing."

One of the cheapest and often most successful direct ways to boost retail traffic: Send an e-newsletter to past customers. "It's always more effective to market to the person you know," says Doug Fleener, president of the Dynamic Experiences Group, a Lexington, Mass. retail consulting firm. This way, you don't need to advertise to the whole local market just to get these shoppers back in the store.

To build a customer database, keep a guest book at your counter, and encourage customers to sign it. Stave off any hesitation by making the newsletter more than just a sale alert. For instance, if you include content on trends, tips and other useful tidbits, Fleener says, "people will be happy to share their information with you."

In terms of guerilla marketing, consider hosting events, such as a designer trunk show or a happy hour with music. Instead of thinking about the soiree as a way to boost revenue, view it as a way to win over future customers - sales will follow, says Fleener.

"Maybe a person doesn't make a purchase on that first visit but spends $1,200 a year in the store," he notes. "You can afford to spend money to capture their information for your database."

Other guerilla tactics: Ask your customers which nonprofits they support; then donate to the charities' silent auctions or gift bags. Or form alliances with noncompetitive businesses where your customers spend money, like restaurants or health clubs.

You can share your client databases (assuming you tell customers in advance, allowing them to opt out) or put their brochures out in your store. Doing so spreads out the cost of marketing. - Emily Maltby and Shara Rutberg

Go direct without junking it up

Question: Can you offer any insight about how to create an attention-getting direct-mail campaign? - Shad Wheeler, Spokane Valley, Wash.

Answer: Your instinct to try direct mail is a good one. This type of advertising offers a personal touch and can get big results on a small budget, says Peter Geisheker, CEO of the Geisheker Group marketing firm in Green Bay.

If you don't already have a list of people to contact - say, local doctors from the Yellow Pages - you'll need to get one from a list broker like InfoUSA.com. Expect to pay a dime to a quarter per contact.

Once you have the names in hand, it's all about crafting the letter. If you don't make these letters shine, you'll just be wasting money. Starting from the top: Do not use "To Whom It May Concern" as your salutation line. "It screams junk mail," Geisheker says. Address potential clients by name; this will get them to notice the letter.

As for motivating them to read it, use "hard" evidence in your copy. For example, include research showing that your service or product will help them get their job done X% faster or will save $X over X time. A testimonial or two will also help give your product a human face.

You also need to relieve the person's fear of trying a new product. "In their mind they are thinking, 'What if it's junk?'" Geisheker said. "Remove this risk by taking it on your shoulders." A money-back guarantee could solve the problem.

As another incentive, you might want to extend a discount for purchasing the product in a certain time frame.

When you've finalized the letter, test it out on a pool of potential clients, see what works, and then use what you've learned to reach out to a larger audience. - Ryan Derousseau

Millions of reasons to hit the Web

Question: I want to take my business online. How do I go about it? - Michael Russano, New York

Answer: With 216 million Americans now using the Internet, you literally have millions of good reasons to bring your business online. To reach even a fraction of those potential customers, though, you need a well-designed site built to promote your specific business goals.

Your first step, says Bob Monroe of the business and technology program at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper Business School, is to ask yourself these questions:

  • Why do you want to be on the Web?
  • What image do you want to present?
  • What do you want people to be able to do when they visit your site?

The answers will help define your online goals, and guide the design of your site and the functions you want to include.

Next, tackle the technical end: Find a Web-hosting company to provide server space and Internet hookup. Get names by doing a quick Internet search or by referring to CNET.com's Web-hosting buyer's guide. Providers are inexpensive - $5 to $20 a month for a reputable one - and can give better performance and reliability than you can deliver for yourself.

These companies usually offer DIY design templates, which may work if you need only a simple site to, say, attract new customers to a physical store. But if you'll be making sales online and need something flashier, hire a design firm.

Get recommendations from other business owners, then look at sites the firms have built and request bids from the most promising ones. "You'll be hard-pressed to find a reputable firm to do a site for less than $5,000," says Curt Schwab, president of Blue Water Media, a Washington, D.C. design firm.

But don't skimp. The site projects your brand, and a poorly designed one can scare customers away as easily as a well-done site can win them over.

If selling online, outsource the payment process; Google Checkout and PayPal are solid options. And you might think about "search-engine optimization," or ways to increase traffic to the site.

Firms specializing in this range widely in quality and cost, says Monroe, but you may be able to achieve some results on your own. Go to SEOBook.com or Hubspot.com for tips. - Kathleen Ryan O'Connor and Herman Wong

Choose the right ad strategy

Your biz may be breakthrough, but that won't matter if no one knows it. So make people aware of what you have to offer. To get the most for your advertising buck, nail down these variables.

Who are your buyers? The key to picking the right place to publicize is clearly identifying your target audience. To find out more about your potential clientele, see if any industry trade groups have market research on typical customers, including their demographic profile, behavior and media preferences.

Also take a look at your competition's ads, advises Jan Mangos, a counselor for SCORE, a nonprofit that educates small business owners. If they're all local, for example, that means the customers are too - so you needn't spend a fortune on a broadcast TV spot.

Where do they get info? Figure out the best platform to reach your buyers - print, radio, TV or online - and the specific publications, stations or Web sites those customers are likely to use. Make a list of the top options; then call the relevant ad departments and ask for media kits, which should list demographic info on their audience.

A shortcut: Simply advertise in the same places as your competitors. Just be sure to highlight your business' unique value. Otherwise, you'll look like an indistinguishable "me too," says Mangos.

What's your budget? The answer will help narrow your options. At the high end, a 30-second prime-time local broadcast spot costs $300 to $3,500 or more, depending on the size of the market, plus production costs. At the low end, a one-time newspaper ad might run $15 to $750 per inch, again depending on the market.

Even if you have a tight budget, there are ways to reach your buyer. Give existing clients a discount off a future purchase if they refer other customers. Or partner with businesses that offer complementary services and share advertising costs. - Hibah Yoursuf

Need help with your business? Your Shop is written by the editors of Money's sister Web publication, CNNMoney Small Business. Submit your questions to their experts and to other small business owners at cnnmoney.com/smallbusiness/getanswers. To top of page

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