Connect to Sell

It’s the middle of summer, this year’s prom season is over, and the next one feels like it’s eons away.
    But before you know it, it will be here. Local teens will be hammering the store with calls and e-mails to find out when new gowns will arrive. In a flash, you’ll be helping your boss with merchandising and decorating, perhaps transforming bridal areas into temporary prom zones. Under the gun, you’ll be pressed to come up with savvy marketing techniques to lure in teen customers who, according to the 2015 prom poll by Visa, budget an average of $919 for prom spending. No question about it, it’s gonna happen: Prom 2017 is coming.
    Will you be ready? Almost certainly yes – everything will come together. But. . . will it all be graceful or managed in a hurry? Will it feel relaxed or rushed? Will it come off as professional or lacking polish and pizzazz?
    Hopefully this is going to be your year for Prom Retail Zen. With a little bit of consistent discipline between now and next year’s selling season, you can make an effort to proactively establish and nurture connections with the upcoming audience of prom customers. Little by little, you can take small steps to prepare for the sales experiences later so you can trade out a frantic “Oh My Gosh!” for a more centered sense of “Om.”
    Here’s what you can do now to ensure that smarter state of mind and get greater cash register success. When prom season hits (like a ton of bricks), you’ll be cool as a cucumber – or at least less reactive and more ready to make results happen.

1. Capitalize on lessons learned. What about this past prom season didn’t go right in terms of hitting your sales goals? And what did go right? Take a few minutes to privately review how well you hit or fell short of your objectives. If you had a solid season, identify what was working and why, noting what you could do more of or build upon next year.
    Also note what tricky or troublesome scenarios played out last year (or in years past). If dynamics among your sales team were problematic, determine what’s within your control that you can change for the better. If you struggled with certain teenage customer personalities, figure out how you can improve upon your ability to relate to a variety of people. Do you need some training or advice from your boss or another outside resource, such as ideas or tips from a best-selling sales expert or book? Ask for help and seek solutions now so you can prepare and practice for the future.

2. Connect early, communicate often. Many teams start dreaming about and planning for prom in the summer. If you start building genuine relationships with this audience now, you will have some solid fans (and great word-of-mouth marketing) by the time prom season comes into full swing. The key is to start building connections, going where teens are and offering value (for free) to those customers you want to woo.
    Ever heard of lead marketing? This is a strategy for capturing e-mail addresses and other contact information, which in sales is akin to gold. Once you get those leads, you can then promote your products and brand to your target audience.
    Often, lead marketing happens virtually, as in you offer something online that is 1) free and 2) what many people want. In exchange, they happily give you their e-mail address so you can send it to them. But lead marketing doesn’t just happen online. At your community’s next family-friendly event, consider setting up a booth where teenage girls can get free prom makeup tips, mini-makeovers and samples. Give them these free experiences in exchange for an e-mail address and filling out a simple questionnaire, providing you with feedback about what they want in a prom sales and product experience.
    And here’s another idea: As it’s likely that not all your prom customers last year were seniors, reach out to rising seniors, juniors, etc., and invite them to the store for a special prom preview event, where they can look through upcoming fashions, provide input on the best styles, and start serving as a mini-focus group and elite team of prom promoters for your store.
    These are just a couple of strategies for connecting early – there are countless other ways you can do it. The key is to go where teens are. Offer them something they will love and that ideally – but not necessarily – prompts an early visit to your store, and then keep nurturing that relationship over the months to come. Connect weekly via social media or e-mail so you – the sales associate (not just “the store”) – are a real and very consistent influence in their life.

3. Establish your prom theme, create the vision. The customer connections you reinforce later are dependent on the seeds you plant today. One of those “seeds” is the vision and expectation customers will have of the shopping experience. Define it as early as possible so you can start building upon it, creating communications and marketing around it, and planning for its success.
    For example, part of that experience will be what they see and otherwise sense while in your store. So gather your fellow team members and work together to choose that fun, captivating theme, something that will resonate with your audience or perhaps tie into an appropriate trend or an important aspect of the prom experience. If it feels a bit too early to do this now, definitely get it going mid-fall. Then start collecting items or sketch out ideas for how to decorate your store and/or windows. Snap pictures, shoot some video, or create helpful graphics along the way, promoting hints of what’s to come via social media, e-mails, newsletters, press releases, direct mail, and even in-person.
    The point is to create and start telling the story now. Building fanfare about the theme and informing customers when you’re adding to it will help captivate potential shoppers who, when the time is right, will eagerly make a beeline for your store.
    Not sure of the theme? Advertise to local teens asking them to submit their ideas, then hold a contest with a gown giveaway. While teens are checking back in to your social media to find out if their idea has been selected by your staff, keep engaging them, providing fashion and pearls of prom-night wisdom and expertise. Do this to build up their “why,” as in “why” they will ultimately choose to purchase from you.

4. Use appreciation to carve your advantage. When it comes to building customer connections, there’s perhaps nothing more overlooked yet powerful than expressing genuine gratitude toward others. True, sometimes being “real” takes a little extra effort or creativity. But it will be worth it. To your customers, you will stand apart, coming across as a person, not just some business, and someone who’s offering a chance at a genuine relationship.
    For example as you get calls, e-mails or in-person visits from teenagers wanting to know when prom merchandise will arrive, always take a moment to pause and thank them first for contacting you, tell them what you know about the timeline, and offer to follow up when the first shipment comes in. Conclude by kindly asking to get their address and other contact information so you can keep them in the loop.
    Next use that contact information to send them personalized or, even better, hand-written notes. Again, thank them for inquiring about your upcoming prom selection, tell them that you can’t wait to help them in person when the shipment arrives around the first of the year, and let them know you’re there to answer any and all questions in the meantime.
    While this may seem like a lot of work, you can start now and do a couple of thank-you notes each day. Write them out in advance and stockpile them (keep your same pen!), so all you’ve got to do is add the right name and address the envelopes, ensuring each note gets that customized look and feel. Interested in tracking these thank-you notes? Consider inserting a “10-percent off” card or an invitation to attend an upcoming in-store event or get your monthly prom fashion newsletter between now and the prom-season kickoff.

5. Maximize prom-market opportunities. Every time you sign your name on that order form, you’re committing to not just products but also to the industry’s sales representatives and designers. So take a moment to snap a photo or take a quick video (30 seconds or less) that showcases their expertise, your positive experience at market, and anything else that you think your prom audience will find engaging and cool.     Consider setting a measurable goal to collect a certain amount of photo and video footage, for example, 10 unique pieces. Then use this material to jumpstart and sustain customers’ connections with you, posting them to your social media throughout the upcoming weeks or months. Here are a few ideas you might try…

•    Ask the expert. Have someone video some of your favorite prom collection designers or sales reps answering a compelling fashion question or explaining the unique aspects of a gown you have definitely committed to on paper. (Get permission from the interviewee first.)

•    Play “reporter.” Do several quick videos of yourself summarizing the top trends (think: overall, colors, styles, accents/embellishments, etc.) you’re seeing on market runways. For example, “I’m Jennifer Smith, owner of Bridal & Prom Dreams of Anytown, USA, and I’m live at this year’s prom market in _________ (insert city) with your prom fashion forecast. Big this upcoming year. . . halters, the color silver, mermaid styles, lace, and illusion elements. Don’t worry, come prom-shopping season, we’ll have you covered! Stay tuned for more insider insights!”

•    Share the market story. Capture your experience as a professional, snapping 10 or so photos of you traveling to and journeying through the various aspects and excitement of market, browsing gowns styles on the racks, touching the fabrics, looking at sample colors, chatting with sales representatives and designers, waiting for the fashion show to begin, listening to a speaker, enjoying lunch or a mid-day break with your market team, and signing paper, committing to some of your favorite brands and designers. (Get permission of the designer/manufacturer/sales rep as needed.)

•    Get the team’s take. Interview your market team, the staff members you may have brought along to market. Get individual pictures and quick videos of them talking about their favorite styles, gowns, fabrics, etc., and why they think they are so awesome and amazing.

•    Initiate buzz. While at market (or even just before), ask your social-media followers and fans to weigh in on what they want to see for this upcoming season. You may not take all their advice to heart but the point, again, is to build connections. Heading off to market provides that opportunity to spark discussion early, engaging them so the connections can happen.

6. Practice your patience. Working with the prom customer – or any other customer for that matter – often requires the ability to tolerate much and even exercise restraint. It may be that you need to be gracious and cheerful in spite of getting the tenth call or e-mail of the day, asking, “Do you have your prom dresses in yet?” It could be that your teenage customers aren’t responding as quickly as you’d like to the advertisement you’re running. Whatever is trying your patience, don’t get upset, become judgmental or anxious. The last thing you want is put “connection” at risk by coming across as desperate, unsure or sales-y.
    As you move closer to prom season, keep working toward those early goals you set and remain persistent in the strategies and tactics you’ve been putting into place. Like tossing pebbles in the pond, keep putting forth efforts with the right intention – for the sake of building connection with this audience. As your customers come to learn about and know you better, they will trust you, and both the positive relationships and results will transpire.
    So trust yourself. Practice your sense of “Om,” patiently yet persistently putting forth those consistent efforts around how you message, market and manage the prom experience. Odds are, you’ll find yourself feeling more relaxed – perhaps even in a greater, more satisfying state of Prom Retail Zen.

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