First, let me pull up the best seat in the house for you: the local business owner or marketer who has weathered so much in the past two years. For your work of serving the public, you deserve the comfy chair by the fire, the celebratory cup of hot chocolate, while we chat about preparing to take good care of your customers in the upcoming holiday season.
Thank you for how you’ve risen every day to countless challenges, kept communities supplied, and will even make some dreams come true when people give gifts to one another as expressions of love, hope, and generosity of spirit this winter.
We can prepare your local business to be both popular and profitable in the 2021 holiday shopping season by identifying and answering six types of scenario-specific customer questions, and strategizing where to publicize the answers. Comfortable? Here we go!
1. Do you have [x]?
It’s the most basic and obvious question at the start of every transaction, but the answer has become more complex in the past two years due to the pandemic and related supply chain issues. Customer satisfaction is now tied, more than ever, to simply communicating availability via the following methods:
- Best-in-class e-commerce systems should warn customers if local inventory levels are low or items are out of stock. If your solution is lacking features, it’s a signal an upgrade may be necessary to keep customers happy.
- Add your products for free to Google’s Merchant Center and be sure you’re keeping a good eye on them for accuracy.
- Add products to your Google My Business listings as a form of virtual window shopping
- If you’re selling one of those Cabbage-Patch-Tickle-Me-Elmo-iPhone-hot items, definitely consider investing in video sales. Even if your stock is less trendy, I predict we’re on our way to a QVC-like commerce future and this is a great time to experiment with this form of sales.
- Social commerce is on the rise, too, and if your customers shop on Instagram or Facebook, you should be there. Meanwhile, purely informational social posting can help you signal availability of desired merchandise.
- And, of course, be sure every member of your staff is well-trained in and has access to an accurate inventory database so that walk-in, phone, chat, and text-based queries can be quickly and correctly answered.
2. How can I get [x]?
Once a customer has established that you have an item they want, the natural next question is how they will access it, and success now depends on offering multiple options. At-home local delivery by in-house or third-party drivers, curbside-pickup, and shipping make up the present norm alongside in-store pickup. In certain verticals, shoppers will also want to know if items can be bundled as a gift or gift-wrapped.
Accuracy and transparency are vital to setting expectations for these services and their attendant fees. And don’t forget to publish purchase-by dates to ensure holiday delivery! Publicize all of your fulfillment options here:
- Product pages on your website
- A holiday shopping guide on your website
- Shipping and service pages on your website
- Customer satisfaction guarantee pages on your website
- Sitewide or section-wide banners
- The Q&A section of your Google My Business listing is a great place to ask and answer those basic fulfillment questions (learn more here about the many GMB features you should be using)
- GMB attributes can also quickly signal some of these services on your listing
- Something special like beautiful gift wrapping could merit a GMB post, and take Joy Hawkins’ tip to use emojis
- Social posting can bring further attention to your convenient holiday services
- Via your all-staff training, to be sure every team member knows how to communicate the many ways customers can access your inventory.
3. Where are you and when are you there?
It’s never been more important for your website and local business listings to contain accurate contact information and current hours of operation. Your customers will likely span a spectrum of those who are choosing to continue to shop in person and those who are firmly resolved to avoid public settings. A desire that unifies them all, however, is that of avoiding inconvenience in these difficult times caused by driving to a wrong address for an in-store or curbside pickup, calling a wrong number to place an order, or trying to make contact during incorrect stated hours of operation. Now is the time to be sure that:
- Your local business listings across the web feature a correct name, address, phone number, text line, email address, and holiday hours (Moz Local can help make quick work of this for your business!)
- You’ve done a complete review of all pages of your website to find the above information anywhere it’s mentioned and edited it for 2021 accuracy
- Your social profiles reflect this, too.
- You’ve reached out to websites, blogs, industry publications, news sites, and other sources of unstructured citations if their information about your business is outdated.
4. How much do you care?
The entirety of your COVID-19 safety precautions is a source of vital information for customers. Vaccine requirements, mask mandates, sanitation, contactless services, self-imposed closures, and all other public health proceedings should be communicated by any business desiring to prove that company leadership cares about staff and customers, alike.
In the US, our news and social media tend to focus on individuals flouting safety, but our real lives are filled with vulnerable loved ones; children with autoimmune diseases, elders at high risk, friends with asthma. The local brand you are promoting can evince its care for the whole community and let people make an informed choice about the security of shopping with you by publishing your pandemic safety measures. Here are some good options:
- Create a COVID-19 policy page on your website and practice strong internal linking to it from relevant transactional and informational pages
- Include a form for customers to report failures of staff or other shoppers to adhere to the published policy so that you can take steps to correct these instances
- I am sincerely hoping Google will do the right thing and add “vaccination card required” to their available attributes in the GMB dashboard. In the meantime, be sure you’ve selected as many attributes as are applicable to your policy in the Health & Safety section of the dashboard so that these appear on your listing.
- Your Google My Business description is a great place to summarize your public safety policy.
- Your policies can also be good topics for Google Posts.
- Put your policies into question form. Do you require masks, is your staff vaccinated, do you require proof of vaccination, and similar questions are ones you can publish and answer in the Q&A section of your GMB listing.
- Use social media to further disseminate your policy.
- Get in touch with local reporters to get them writing about the positive side of businesses like yours taking as many steps as possible to keep people safer.
5. How well are you listening?
Real-world service and online reputation are inextricably linked. Near Media’s Mike Blumenthal recently published an important study of how Walmart’s online review counts went up and ratings went down in conjunction with customer disappointment over inventory shortages. Unfortunately, supply chain problems can be completely beyond a local business’ control, but what is almost always achievable is communication with customers who are taking the time to complain.
The Near Media report raised a big question for me: whether Walmart was responding to negative reviews related to shortages. I looked at the store nearest me for an answer. Sure enough, “shelves” was one of the top Place Topics trending for this location, but reviews like this one had received no response, weeks or months after publication:
67% of consumers say they are more committed to shopping small than they were pre-pandemic, and 91% say they prefer SMBs because they trust these businesses to treat them fairly. Any local business you’re marketing can do a better job than Walmart of proving that you are listening to customers’ needs and concerns simply by responding to their reviews as quickly and compassionately as possible.
Note that surveys don’t indicate customers expect perfection from local businesses; they expect fairness, and fairness starts with listening well. Good communication in return can reassure a customer that you care, and can even inspire them to edit a negative review to express an improved opinion of your customer service, even when something has gone wrong. Your review corpus, complete with owner responses, provides a constant, ready answer to potential customers who want to know how well they can expect to be treated by your brand.
Due to supply chain issues, this holiday shopping season will not be an easy one, but if you are using software like Moz Local to alert you to incoming reviews across multiple platforms and are coupling this with social listening for negative brand mentions, your transparency and responsiveness will go far towards keeping customers on your side and satisfied while also safeguarding your reputation.
6. Is there affinity?
If you’re acing questions 1-5, you’ve made sure that customers know what you have, where, when, and how to access it, the care you’re taking in regards to public safety, and the responsiveness of your customer service. You have one more major opportunity to persuade people that choosing you is the right choice for them, and this lies in publicizing the work you are doing to demonstrate affinity with the culture and needs of the communities you serve.
It speaks to the remarkable resilience of the human spirit that, even in the midst of crisis, many of your customers are continuing to actively advocate for solutions to local, national, and global problems.
Every part of the world is now being impacted by Climate Change, for example, and I’ve watched with admiration for the past several years how Irish media is making the transition via print, radio, television, and online marketing to promote more sustainable holidays. Meanwhile, Sweden has opened the world’s first second-hand mall, Peru is answering the 75% increase in searches for sustainable clothing by leading the fight against fast fashion, and France has outlawed planned obsolescence and is fining companies which design products intended to break. The US is also part of the 71% increase in searches for green goods over the past five years, and if your local business has made the commitment to being part of the essential change to protect the planet, what you publish about your activities can help you and your customers make the journey together.
For other customers, lived experience and allyship could be making other issues top of mind. Racial and gender equity, human or animal rights, localism, LGBTQ+ advocacy, the cure of disease, support for elders, the differently-abled, children, or the chronically ill could all be worthy causes of great importance to community members. When your leadership and staff authentically share a commitment to progress on issues that matter most, businesses have a role to play in the ongoing work and a story to tell that will have meaning to customers.
Your website, Google Posts, social profiles, local or national media, and industry publications are all excellent places to shine a light on your activism, advocacy, sponsorship, and philanthropy. The core goal of such work should be to move important causes forward by showing businesses can be part of necessary change. But an additional benefit of taking public stances can be winning new loyal customers not just for the 2021 holiday shopping season, but for life.
From my own longstanding and heartfelt affinity with local businesses everywhere, I am wishing you an excellent, inspired, and inspiring holiday season and a new year that sees your business and its community thriving!