On a Sunday recently, my wife and I attempted to go out to dinner. On our way, we tried to determine if several of our favorite restaurants were open. Several hadn’t claimed their Google business listing and didn’t have hours posted on their Web site—or, in some cases, even a functioning Web site. So, we ultimately passed them by in favor of a place we were sure was open. A friend of mine just posted on Facebook about his trouble finding a local store at which he could buy quality, U.S.-made boots for the winter. He knows he can order them online, but he’s big on local shopping and wants to go somewhere where he can try things on and be professionally fitted. Several of his other friends have suggested places, but none of them has a functioning Web site that shows its inventory. In this day and age, both of these situations should sound alarming to anyone in retail.

Independent retailers face huge challenges, including stiff online competition, an increasingly global marketplace and, more recently, direct-to-consumer sales from several top brands. Given all the competition that’s out there, there’s never been a more compelling time to have an online presence (and not just on Facebook). It’s never been more important to focus on making sure customers are able to find us online and via their mobile devices. Several times, I’ve presented for NAMM U on the importance of search engine optimization (SEO). There have been loads of articles and NAMM U sessions by other people in our industry on this topic over the last 10 years. However, I’ve come across a troubling trend as regards Web sites implying that, because independent retailers are unlikely to gain a significant amount of online sales from having a Web site, perhaps it’s not worth their time.

First off, I’d like to dispel the notion that having a Web site doesn’t impact your sales. A recent study Google conducted with Ipsos Media CT and Sterling Brands found that three out of four consumers who find local information in search results are likely to visit stores, and that one in four consumers won’t visit a store if he or she can’t confirm online that an item is in stock before making a trip to the store. Those consumers are far more likely to visit your store if your Web site comes up high in Google’s search results, and if your site can convince them you have the products they want and you can answer their questions. Since so many consumers now use the Internet as their primary source of information, this data implies that, if they cannot find your Web site or cannot find what they want, they will likely never call or stop by your store. Although I agree that phone skills are important, customers won’t call you if they can’t find you online; and, if they don’t think you have what they want, they definitely won’t make a trip to your store to ask in person.

A couple of months ago, my friend (and fellow Music & Sound Retailer columnist) David Hall wrote a great article about the importance of having a mobile-friendly Web site. David and I also co-hosted a NAMM U session on Web sites, and we share a passion for promoting their importance among independent retailers. The previously mentioned study also says that 71 percent of in-store shoppers who use smartphones for online research say it’s an important part of shopping. Two-thirds of consumers aren’t finding the information they need in stores, and 43 percent of them leave frustrated. In-store purchasing is becoming increasingly reliant on mobile technology. As David noted in his article, mobile devices account for 25 percent of all Web traffic, and people who use them for shopping are 57 percent more likely to visit a store. Sorry…but those numbers don’t lie, and there’s no other way to spin them. Your Web site is not only your digital front door, but also the gateway to making your store a local shopping destination.

Using The Internet And Technology To Drive In-Store Sales

There’s also a myth that the Internet and online shopping have lowered customers’ expectations of stores. I couldn’t disagree more. Consumers of all ages have become increasingly technologically savvy, and their expectations for retail stores are higher than ever. Consumers are seeking more personalized shopping experiences. Just as we now rely on Facebook and Twitter to compose part of our interpersonal communications and social interactions, consumers rely on Web presence as part of their shopping experience. Smart retailers are making use of technology to draw consumers. Strategies include incorporating custom smartphone apps and loyalty rewards programs, such as Chicago-based Belly.

I recently discovered Belly during a Black Friday trip (before my store opened) to my local vinyl record store. Black Friday for record lovers is also Record Store Day, a great event that features limited releases, in-store bands and giveaways, all of which drive huge sales numbers. While there, I was asked to sign up for Belly: a customer loyalty rewards program, which, since then, I have discovered several other forward-thinking independent retailers and restaurants in my town use. Many retailers might incorrectly believe that loyalty rewards are the same thing as giving away money to customers who would continue to purchase from you anyway; smart retailers, however, know that engaging customers and rewarding their loyalty not only keeps them coming back, but also makes them feel good about their purchases. Think I’m wrong? Next time you’re in line at Starbucks, watch how many people pay using the Starbucks app on their smartphone.

Starbucks has created the smartphone-era equivalent of a coffee shop punch card. After 12 drinks, you get a free drink. “Well,” some might say, “my local coffee shop uses paper punch cards and those work just fine.” Dude…my Jeep is littered with those damn things. I drop them, I lose them and I have simply stopped accepting them when they’re offered to me. A smartphone app, on the other hand, never gets lost, and it’s always there to keep score for you. My wife has taken to buying me coffee just so she can earn her extra stars and get a free drink.

You can utilize technology and the Internet to drive in-store sales. Chances are, these things have even influenced your own purchases. Or maybe not. Maybe you’re Amish, a Luddite, still only read print newspapers and yearn for the days when you used the Yellow Pages to find all your information. But those days are gone, and there’s no turning back the clock. The digital revolution has embedded itself in every part of our lives. If we truly want to see those tepid sales numbers increase, and if we truly want to compete with the online retailers, it’s time we start to prioritize our presence in the digital world…before our presence in the physical one becomes negatively affected by our carelessness.

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