Customer loyalty.. do you practice??

This is an often heard lament these days from retailers in our area. The question stems from the rural retail experience for the past 150 years or so and the significant change in customer behavior over the last five years. One of the foundations of the rural community was loyalty—loyalty to your family, your neighbor, your community—including loyalty to local retailers and service businesses. When you looked for a product or service, you looked to your local businesses. Your loyalty was rewarded by a high level of service including an inventory based on your past needs, a willingness to order in special products, fair pricing and extended credit terms if necessary. It worked well for 150 years, but things have changed.

There are many pressures that have changed purchasing patterns, and to name just a few: 1. The focus on price rather than on value 2. The pressure to provide immediate gratification (ie. Customer wants it now—unwilling to wait) 3. Willingness of the customer to accept substitutes (ie. Buy what is offered—not necessarily what you really wanted) 4. Ability of the customer to search further afield (including on the web) 5. Economic uncertainty limiting many customers to purchase only essential items

Does this mean the ultimate demise of the rural retail business? Some undoubtedly have failed or will fail, others have closed because the owners don’t want to carry on under the ‘new’ rules. However, we need not go ‘belly up’ to use a Georgian Bay fishing term. Loyalty in the past was based on physical proximity (your local town) and personal relationships . Today you can get to Toronto, Toledo or even Tokyo to purchase products, and few of us know the owner of Wal-Mart or even Canadian Tire and none of us have been personally served by him or her.

Today, you can build loyalty, but in a different way. Your shoppers are looking world-wide for products, so why don’t you look world-wide for customers? Build loyalty by building a customer base which has an interest (and preferably a passionate interest) in what you offer, what you do, or what you are interested in.

Collect e-mails from customers that show interest in your business, and treat those people as your primary customer base by interacting with them on a regular (but not spam level) basis. Build a following on Facebook or set up a blog attached to your business Web-site. Give your ‘fans’ good solid information, interesting ideas or facts, personal comments and discussion.

Build your customer loyalty around their interest in what you are doing. With luck and some good management, you will find customers corresponding with you, tracking you down from some surprising and very far-away places. Lots of folks come to the southern Georgian Bay region, and from the studies done most of them return more than once. You can build a loyal customer base out of all those folks from around the world who find our region worth visiting. Whenever they return, they will come to visit (and shop) with you in person because you have a common bond with them, and you have been loyally including them in your business life. If you don’t know how to start, please look at the Chamber website for companies and people that can get you going!


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