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Outlook 2013: Internet retail marketing involves time and creativity

Saturday, February 16, 2013
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Amanda Bianconi, marketing coordinator for Piper Boutique, a clothing store in downtown Saratoga Springs. It’s a full-time job creating “brand awareness,” she said.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
Amanda Bianconi, marketing coordinator for Piper Boutique, a clothing store in downtown Saratoga Springs. It’s a full-time job creating “brand awareness,” she said.

— Selling retail isn’t as easy as simply opening a storefront anymore.

Small-business owners are turning to social media and Internet resources to draw in customers. But they’re finding that it takes much more than just a few spare minutes.

At Piper Boutique, a clothing store in downtown Saratoga Springs, Amanda Bianconi was hired to be the full-time marketing coordinator last fall. She updates the company’s Facebook account five to seven times a day, responds to customer’s messages, and writes an e-newsletter.

The goal is to create “brand awareness,” particularly since Piper now has three locations in three different states.

Bianconi focuses on beating the competition’s prices. After all, there are lots of other clothing stores out there.

“We do deals every day,” she said. “Share a post, get a discount. If you mention this email, get a discount.”

Now she’s also venturing into interactive experiences: she asked customers recently whether they still wanted winter fashions or were ready for spring. The overwhelming answer: spring.

The owner had already anticipated that, she said, and spring stock is already on its way. In the future, such questions could lead Piper to offer products quicker than the competition.

But customers stop reading business pages if there’s nothing but constant talk about making purchases.

So Bianconi has a strategy to keep their attention all day.

“It’s tricky, because content is important,” she said. “We usually start out the day with a sale to immediately attract attention.”

Then she’ll post pictures of dresses, or a sneak peak at what’s coming in. She’ll draw in debate by posting two styles and asking readers which one is better.

In the evening, she’ll post the sale again.

“In case people were at work and didn’t see it,” she said.

The site has also become nearly an online order form.

Readers will ask her to hold a dress for them or message her to ask what sizes are available. She sets up all the holds, responds to each individual question, and arranges special orders — as well as the pricing for those orders.

It’s a lot of work. That’s partly why some companies aren’t doing it.

At Goldstock’s Sporting Goods in Glenville, co-owner Michael Kausch said his sons understand social media — but he doesn’t.

“We’re too old-fashioned,” he said. “We don’t — twit? tweet? They’re laughing at me now.”

He doesn’t know how to do it, and his employees said it would be much more work than simply buying a traditional ad.

Still, Kausch said his sons will have to turn to social media when they take over the business.

“They’re going to have to if they want to continue on,” he said. “It’s the way of the world. It’s the way people communicate nowadays.”

His son Andrew is now trying to set up an electronic inventory system. After that, he said, Andrew might drag the company into the 21st century.

“We have to get into the 20th century first,” Kausch joked.

Other companies have taken the customer lists they built over decades and are turning them into electronic databases.

At Experience and Creative Design in downtown Schenectady, there are 15,000 customer addresses in the paper files. For the past three years, the company has tried to collect email addresses for those customers so that it can send out targeted emails without the expense of a direct mail piece.

So far they have 4,500 email addresses, divided into four categories: brides, general customers, wholesale florists, and interior designers.

When they hold an event for one of those groups, they send out an email only to those that would be interested.

“When you compare costs, it’s so much less expensive than to mail something,” said employee Monique Gleason, who spends about 75 percent of her time on Internet-based marketing.

She put together a series of “wedding inspiration” ideas for brides recently, suggesting beads for boutonnieres and drapes in the reception hall. The icing on the cake: she embedded color pictures in her email. The cost of sending out such a flyer would have been prohibitive, but there was no cost for color in an email.

The company decided to focus on social media and the Internet at an annual meeting.

“It was how to generate more business without spending any money, to be honest,” she said.

She’s learned that the industry standard for advertisement emails is that 25 percent of them are opened by the recipient. She can track openings from her computer.

Getting a fourth of her customers to open an email isn’t easy, and she’s delighted when she hits that number.

“You have to get creative with your subject line,” she said.

At Christmas she sent out an email with the subject, “Meet Aunt Rose.”

The email described the mannequin in the store — Aunt Rose — who has one of everything and needs nothing for Christmas. Gleason suggested that if her readers knew an Aunt Rose, they could get her a gift certificate to Experience and Creative Design and let her pick out what she really wanted.

“Everybody opened it,” she said. “Meet Aunt Rose — everybody said, ‘What’s this about?’ ”

On Facebook, she responds to every question posed by customers — a time-consuming task that many business owners said they simply can’t do unless they hire someone to monitor the Facebook page full time.

She tries not to talk about sales too often on the page, fearing that it turns off customers.

So instead she posts many pictures from the business. At Christmas, employees are often hired to decorate commercial property — and even some residential properties. She asks them to take pictures of the decorations so that she can post them.

“There’s so much that happens here. The company does so much that people don’t know about,” she said. “I don’t want it to be all sales — I think it’s a combination of the promotions and the happenings of the business.”

 
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