Confessions of an event-wary retailer

Got SWAG-bag fatigue? Here's how an experienced store owner rejuvenated in-store special events.
food event
Patrick O'Neil and Marty Rivera prepare smoked cream cheese at a Fairfax Ace Hardware event.

I have a confession to make. My guilty pandemic pleasure wasn’t just watching sales grow, but avoiding in-store special events. Forget about food and entertainment for Ladies Night. Away with the maddening process of begging vendors for Customer Appreciation Day goodies. Heck, we didn’t even set up plastic blow mold tables for the annual Garage Sale. These events had become repetitive to execute and tedious to plan. We carefully measured them with KPIs like customer counts, sales and profit dollars, expenditures, year- over-year comparisons, etc.

It was all business and no pleasure. After considerable reflection, it was time for a change.

Events don’t have to be a chore or a bore. There’s never been a more important time for an experiential retailer like you to differentiate through special events. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve proven to bring your customers back.

Lauren Pearson, a Marketing Manager with Ace Hardware explains, “Customers who attend an in-store event are more likely to return within the next 90 days and make a purchase, compared to those who do not.”

Dare to be Different

How can you surprise and delight without whipping out your store credit card? A few suggestions:

• Live music is an attention getter and pleasurable shock to most folks. It could be a local high school jazz trio, live DJ or keyboardist--they all can bring enjoyment and elongate any visit. Does anyone on staff DJ or play an instrument? Is the local high school band willing to make a field trip? You might be surprised at what you learn. If the gig is a paid one, offer gift cards.

• Regarding food, spice it up. Roll out your beloved popcorn cart, pop dozens of delicious bags and sprinkle them with selected BBQ spices you stock plenty of. Product synergy at work.

• Kids are bored while adults browse. Moving beyond popcorn or lollipops, offer them an easy-to-pull-off activity. Coloring papers and having them sign their name is typically a hit. Creating flowers out of paint color chips and stir sticks is another popular offering. 

Aside from old standbys like demos and discounts, here are tips to make your next event one to remember.

Mark Your Calendars:

Decide on event themes, dates and times early. Get them on shared calendars--even creating Facebook event pages for each with just basic information is a great start. Bonus points awarded for doing this a full year in advance.

Time to Marinate:

Meet early and often to shape your events. Involve your staff heavily-- empower them to design, execute and feel invested. Designate an event captain to run it in person. While events are for our customers, your team will benefit greatly from the excitement and positive energy they create.

The Nose Always Knows:

Roll out the demo BBQ grill. Traeger, Big Green Egg, Weber or whatever you prefer. Nothing attracts folks to your doors like tickled senses at the promise of something delectable. If you wisely include a BBQ component, be careful about overspending. Can you grill something creative and inexpensive like cookies, bread or a pretzel mix? Also, be aware of any local health department regulations that could prematurely extinguish your cookout.

Give it Away, Give it Away Now:

Involving a local charity will bolster your event and bring feel good energy. It engages the community and helps those in need. Proven options include a register Round Up, raffle ticket sales for free vendor products, chocolate bar promos, and bag/bucket sales. Looking for free goods to raffle off? Speak to your vendor rep, explain your fundraising plan and you’ll likely be happy with what they supply. Additionally, an on-site charity representative makes a tremendous impact.

Players in Position:

Store operations strive for the right person doing the right job at the right time...right? An event should be no different. Are your most outgoing staff on the sales floor or doing demos? Do you have the right amount of folks scheduled at the grilling area or are you overloaded? How about enough cashiers to avoid wait times? Be prudent, but not miserly here.

Make your next event succeed through out of the box options and your customers and staff will thank you!

Craig Smith is the owner of Fairfax Ace Hardware in Fairfax, Virginia. He is a member of the Ace Hardware national marketing Retailer Input Team and Retailer Group Leader for the Washington, DC region.

DJ Craig
The author, aka D.J. Craig, provides entertainment at a recent event at Fairfax Ace.

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