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small business retail improvement
It’s no secret that small business owners share the common goal of yearning to earn money via their websites. Whether you are making your own products, reselling items you buy from a wholesaler, running a hotel, offering landscaping services or guided birdwatching tours, here are two big challenges that face you once you’ve got your website built and indexed by Google:
1) Competition
The increasing saturation of most industries on the web means that you’ve got to do something to make visitors choose you instead of the other guy. If you only provide your goods and services in a local area, the competition can go from being 5 million other companies globally to 10 of them in your geographic region. Local search continues to take shape as a viable business strategy, but many small businesses still do need to be able to compete nationally or globally. After all, this is the ‘world-wide-web’. This first challenge may seem like a no-brainer. Of course you know you’ve got to compete. But have you spent time thinking about this second challenge?
2) Salesmanship
Back in the day, brick-and-mortar businesses were staffed with helpful, exuberant salesmen who eagerly awaited the chance to trot out their best products and services for any inquiring potential customer. Whether the staff was selling the new line of winter coats or the new-fangled electric refrigerator, the products were described in such glowing terms that the customer became convinced of the essential benefits they’d be reaping if they chose to open their wallet. Here in California, in 2007, one may rarely run into a compelling salesman in a small, well-cared-for business, but for the most part, big business decides to leave us alone, wandering the aisles of the mega stores, scratching our heads over which vacuum cleaner to buy.
On the Internet, you cannot afford to let customers wander around in a daze. Clicking into your website does not equal a commitment the same way driving 20 minutes to K-mart does. If the Internet shopper isn’t quickly engaged and ‘sold’ on the benefits of doing business with you, a flick of the wrist beams them elsewhere and gives the other guy a chance to outsell you with the efforts he has put into making his website your industry’s most compelling place to obtain a product or service.
Now here’s the big tip of the day from the SEOigloo
In most small business industries a major percentage of your competition is still too lazy, too busy, too poorly-funded or simply not aware of the need to make the jump from simply listing ‘stuff’ on-line to making every product/service page on a site your virtual star salesman!
Your virtual salesman cannot impress people with his haircut, his fancy suit and tie or his friendly smile. Words and images are his only two tools. You’ve got to make both of them the very best they can be.
Putting this into practice
When we design a website, every pixel, every color is carefully chosen to make the browsing and shopping experience a treat for the visitor. We get to craft logos, navigation menus and all kinds of nifty things that make the website appealing, and we get to create multiple pages that, taken in sum, provide a rich set of options, about the company information, testimonials from past customers and opportunities to contact the business. However, for the sake of example, let’s pare this down to something extremely simple:
A one-page housing rental feature on craigslist.org
Every month that a rental house sits vacant represents hundreds or thousands of dollars of lost income to the owner. The need to get someone to rent the unit is, then, imperative. But you’d never know it from the way about 90% of the listings at craigslist.org are written. I think the pay-per-word constraints of newspaper classified ads have so trained people to speak in abbreviations and monosyllables that a tremendous opportunity is being lost on the web where you are free to be as detailed and prosy as you like on the page of space offered for this purpose.
Now, if the rental home owner lives in an area where their unit is the only game in town, I suppose they can make their advertisement as curt and lifeless as they want and still find a renter, but in most areas of the U.S., there are multiple homes for rent all the time, and reading listing after listing like this does nothing to distinguish one housing option from the other:
$1900 3 Bd/2 B, fncd. yd., n/p n/s n/d. 1st mths. rent + secur. dep. #6 Mesa Rd. Point Reyes Station.
It looks like the language of alien robots who are secretly trying to get people to live in abbreviation land so that they can take over the world with some hidden, dastardly scheme. It certainly does nothing to ‘sell’ me on the idea that this is the place for me and my family to live. So, let’s take a moment to rewrite this listing as though we’re taking the words straight from the mouth of our star salesman.
Ocean breezes. Spring wildflowers. Afternoons filled with sunlight cresting the ripples of the bay and streaming gently through the generous windows of your serene, inviting home. If you crave repose and the everchanging views that beachfront living provide, look no further than this elegantly-appointed Arts & Crafts gem situated on Tomales Bay.
Turn the copper handle of the the charming front door and enter into the spacious greatroom – the pleasant hub of your family’s activity where there is ample room to play, to relax, to laugh with friends and enjoy quiet moments. Exposed beams and a vaulted ceiling, hardwood flooring and an abundance of windows with picture-postcard views will make this your favorite room in the house.
Each of the three bedrooms in this home have been lovingly painted in soothing tones of sea and sky and command views of both water and the picturesque front garden which is a bounty of vibrant perennial plantings. The two, newly-updated bathrooms combine the beauties of Mediterranean tile with state-of-the art fixtures.
Cook for yourself and your loved ones with joy in the large, airy kitchen with its chef-quality appliances, natural granite countertops and cozy breakfast nook. Spotlighting makes the tasks of meal preparation and the enjoyment of fine dining a glorious daily pleasure.
All of the essentials of good living are to be found here, with washer and dryer conveniently located in the one-car garage, central heating and air conditioning to meet the changing warm and cool seasons and, of course, constant private access to the delights of the celebrated bay. Let #5 Mesa Road in historic Pt. Reyes Station become your haven of repose and the pride of your family.

Are you ready to move in after reading that glowing description? Do you have a picture of yourself living in a blissful place? Ready to pick up the phone and demand to be shown the house before someone snaps this treasure up? That’s the whole point.
Now, supposing I know my typical user-base, because the area in which I’m renting the house tends to draw a certain type of citizen. If I’m trying to sell to seniors, I might include something like this:
Within one block of your front door, you will find a full-service grocery store, pharmacy, post office, library, churches, general practice doctors and specialists, community center, hardware store and public park. Neighbors are friendly here, and value peace and quiet. Daily buses are here to transport you to all of the local beaches, museums, and places of interest in our local National Seashore park.
What if this is a place that caters to young families with children?
Our local elementary school, middle school and high school have been recognized as the best in the district with testing scores far above the state average for the past fifteen years. Your children will love a membership in the local Boys and Girls club of America, in addition to the fun summer classes offered at our recreation center. Family time at the beach and in the park becomes a weekly occasion here in Pt. Reyes Station.
Or what if my rental house is located in a place that appeals to ‘green’ folks?
Never fear, Energy Star appliances are an essential part of this house. Solar panels provide 30% of the energy you need for daily living and the excellence of the well water is attested to by the water department documentation that is available upon request. Non-toxic paint and eco-friendly bamboo flooring throughout will please your conscience, while your half-acre of land invites you to grow the organic lettuces, fog tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and herbs that local green thumbs take pride in.
I also have to say, I think it would behoove landlords to paint a nice picture of themselves, as well, though no one ever seems to do this. As a person with a fair amount of experience of rental home landlords, I can tell you, they really can make or break how livable a house is. Landlords should strive to earn the trust of prospective renters by making it clear that they will respond right away if the plumbing goes haywire or the roof starts leaking. My present landlord is a good guy, and always attends to our needs. This is a big contrast to the landlord we had as newlyweds who rented us a house that wasn’t ready to rent and allowed us to spend the first to weeks of our marriage (our honeymoon!) in a house without heat in the dead of winter!
As your landlord, I’ll respect your privacy, but will only ever be a phone call away if you need me. I attend to tenant concerns promptly and want your life in this house to be as comfortable and worry-free as possible.
Basically, the rule here is to make the most of the home you are offering because you genuinely do need to get it rented. Your one page on craigslist is your golden opportunity to create an image of a lifestyle that excites and convinces the visitor of the benefits they’ll be enjoying if they choose you and your rental property. Even if rentals move quickly in a given area, I don’t see this as a good excuse for the robotic, impersonal listings that are the norm. Being curt isn’t a good way to begin a long-term relationship with a person who intends to give you thousands of dollars every year if they like your house.
How does this apply to other small businesses?
Do you sew the best baby onesies in the world? Why are they the best? Handstitching? Organic cotton? Easy washing? Colors that make baby giggle? Made in the U.S.A? No sweatshop labor? Customized with baby’s name in glowing satin stitch embroidery? 20% of profits go to research to prevent SID? Made by hand by three smart moms who are working at home to keep their children out of daycare? Tell me all about it!
Do you offer the best chiropractic service in your local area? Why is it the best? Do you have 30 years of experience doing this? Can a single appointment relieve some of the agony of a pinched nerve in my neck? Do you have on-line exercises I can follow for daily for my scoliosis? Do you come into the office on weekends if I have a sudden, painful emergency? Do you accept health insurance? If so, what kinds? Are some of your patients so thrilled with your skills that they would allow you to visually document the real improvement 3 months of coming to you has made in their posture, their flexibility or health? Tell me all about it!
Do you sell the best selection of flower bulbs on the Internet? Why is it the best? Heirloom varieties? More color choices? Hardier than the cheap bulbs that come from such and such place? Can a novice plant them? How? How do I take care of them? How long do I have to wait for them to flower? Can I speak to you if I have a gardening question? What if my bulbs never come up? Will you credit me back or replace them? Can you make some suggestions for companion plantings with my bulbs? Would you like me to share photos with you of my pretty garden, planted with your bulbs? Who are you? Why have you made it your life’s work to sell bulbs? Did your grandfather from Holland teach you this art? Did your grandmother have the most beautiful bulb garden in town? Tell me all about it!
And this brings us back to the issue of salesmanship
A brick-and-mortar store has instant credibility, in a sense, because visitors can see that it is physically there and that the products are right on the shelves to buy. In the best situations, salesmen and women are there to explain the uses and benefits of the products and deal with customer satisfaction issues. Don’t make the mistake I see so many websites making of assuming that people trust what they see on the Internet the way they would trust a store in their hometown.
Though the Internet has become a fixture of American life over the past decade, many users are still leery of giving out their credit card information if a website seems vague or questionable in any way. You’ve got to do the work to fill in the gaps so that your web-based business proves its credibility and superiority. Words and images are the two tools you have to accomplish this essential goal. Every page of your website is your star salesman. Let him lavish explanations, information, suggestions and enticements on every valuable potential customer that comes in your front door.
A special note on photos
No photos, tiny photos and bad photos are the enemy. As I’ve already mentioned, what you provide on your web pages is the stuff that bridges the gap between a visitor being undecided about the legitimacy and value of your company, and becoming a loyal believer in your products and services. No physical store would expect customers to buy something by saying “you can’t see the product until you take it home with you.”. Come on! Nor would they require the customer to put on a pair of glasses that make the item in question look distorted, fuzzy or dark.
I’m not saying that a small business has to be run by an expert photographer or budget to hire one upfront. But, I will tell you straight out that good photos sell stuff. Whether it’s a beautiful vase, a cuddly stuffed animal or a vacation rental in the country, the photos turn hinted-at benefits into visible realities. The better they are, the more appealing they will be. This applies to service-oriented sales as well. Take the best photos you can of the spotless house cleaned by your staff, the before-and-afters of a yard you landscaped, the well-groomed dog with a bow around his neck. Make me believe that you can do an excellent job by showing me proof of your work.
One of our clients started out on the web with fantastic products, but rather dark, dreary photos. They simply didn’t do justice to what was being offered. Recently, upon our advice, this client was able to make a deal with a home decorating showroom that enabled them to go take really super photos under the professional lighting and against the appealing backdrops of this showroom. The difference in the whole look of their website is like night and day and sales are now rising. These new photos say, “buy this, it’s terrific!”
Bad photos result in lost sales. Many’s the time I’ve been instantly repelled by a dark, ugly photo of a rental property, “AHHH! I’d rather live at the bottom of a well”. This rule applies to all small businesses. Try to find the budget to improve your photos, offer multiple photos and make them nice and big so everyone can see them. Don’t make me squint! I feel suspicious when I have to tighten up my face like that.
Don’t be afraid
This article is long. If the subject wasn’t of great interest to you, you probably skimmed over it. That’s okay, of course. But what about the reader who is avidly looking for tips to improve their sales? My hope is that careful reading of this post will have gotten valuable brainstorming going on for that reader. I am providing thorough information for the person who is seeking it and who has just decided that my blog is worthy because I’m offering something of value. I could have written this post in a paragraph, without providing examples or how-to details, but this wouldn’t have ‘sold’ the seeker on the idea that they should spend 5 minutes of their day carefully reading the whole post.
There is a school of thought I run into out there that says you’ve got to be as brief as possible in your writing style on the web. I think this represents a lost opportunity. Passers-by can always skim if they aren’t really interested, but the only way to get the business of a serious shopper is to provide answers to what they want to know. I believe that passionate conviction of quality sells things on the Internet and translates very well via the written word. Conscientious consumers or choosy buyers are waiting for you to fill in all the blanks and sell them on the quality of what you are offering. Use your tools and start reaping the rewards. The customers are out there.
*I tip my hat to Matt McGee whose post on 6 Common Retail SEO Pitfalls (and How to Avoid Them) got me onto this train of thought and made me want to add my 2 cents.
*Can’t write compelling content to save your life? Hire someone who can!