The 11 Basic Rules of Window & Interior Merchandising

Several days ago, visual merchandising expert DP Miller presented a workshop at the Alexandria SBDC on the 11 Basic Rules of Window & Interior Merchandising.  The speaker stressed that you must know the rules, and the reasons behind them, before you can “break” them.  This is the first of a three-part series on this subject… Read more »

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Several days ago, visual merchandising expert DP Miller presented a workshop at the Alexandria SBDC on the 11 Basic Rules of Window & Interior Merchandising.  The speaker stressed that you must know the rules, and the reasons behind them, before you can “break” them.  This is the first of a three-part series on this subject – upcoming sessions will occur in April and May and will go into more detail of the practical steps to be taken to have impressive displays.  More information about these sessions and registration will be listed on our events page.  A brief summary of the rules follows:

Rules 1 – 3 – The Relationship Rules

  • Rule 1 – Approachability: Avoiding the Wall
  • Rule 2 – Psychological Perspective: Removing Virtual Obstacles
  • Rule 3 – Shopability: Making it Easy

Rules 4 – 11 – Practical Merchandising

  • Rule 4 – Dynamic Presentation: The Waterfall Effect
  • Rule 5 – The Golden Pyramid: Giving and Playing with Height
  • Rule 6 – Repetition: Of Color, Shape, or Item
  • Rule 7 – Graphic Use of Color: To Pop, Contrast, or Playing with Shade
  • Rule 8 – Negative Space: Finding Rest in the Void
  • Rule 9 – An Odd Rule, or the Rule of Odds: Couples can be Boring
  • Rule 10 – The Golden Rule to Understanding Visual Weight:
    • Short to Long
    • Light to Dark
    • Left to Right
  • Rule 11 – One Less Line: Avoiding Visual Noise

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Signage – Tips for Better Messaging

The City of Alexandria has asked the Alexandria SBDC to provide specialized assistance during the next year to our retail and restaurant small businesses to increase their opportunities for success. You will see several new workshops, videos and online information as we roll out this initiative. Recently, the City of Alexandria distributed new signage guidelines… Read more »

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The City of Alexandria has asked the Alexandria SBDC to provide specialized assistance during the next year to our retail and restaurant small businesses to increase their opportunities for success. You will see several new workshops, videos and online information as we roll out this initiative. Recently, the City of Alexandria distributed new signage guidelines to the retail businesses in Old Town.

To assist Alexandria’s businesses with both signage and marketing in general, the SBDC has created a new section of its website where it will curate information from subject-matter experts on open-sign-1309682_1920issues important to our Retail and Restaurant small business owners. The City’s signage brochure and the first four information pieces have been places in the repository and can be accessed at www.alexandriasbdc.org/retail-restaurant. The first four information pieces were written by Paul Williams of Idea Sandbox.  At the request of the Alexandria SBDC he also prepared a summary of Tips for Better Messaging.  Consider the following tips when developing signage for your business:

  1. Prioritize Your Messages – based on the reader’s perspective. Use headline messaging on your larger signs and smaller details on the close-up signage. Keep Signage Fresh– Replace before it gets worn, curls, lights burn out, photo colors fade, tears, or is out-of-date.
  2. Be Clear About What You Do – If your business name does not make it clear, add an icon (blow dryer, hot dog icon, diamond ring) or a second line of type (blow dry bar, gourmet hot dogs, engagement rings).
  3. Curb Appeal – Signage is only part of your presentation. Don’t neglect your window display, cleanliness of your sidewalk, front door, or building facade. Customers judge your business by its cover.
  4. Less is more! – Too many messages create confusion, not clarity. The goal of exterior signage is to bring people inside. Then, use the inside of your store and your employees to provide additional details when the customer is ready.
  5. Design Professionally – Use the right combination of colors, typefaces, lettering size, and white space for quick and clear communication.  Hire a professional –  it is an investment, not an expense.
  6. Word-of-Mouth Beats Signage– The best, most credible way to drive traffic and sales to your business is by doing the things that will make existing customers so enthusiastic they can’t resist telling others about you.
  7. Show, Don’t Tell – If you can, skip text and instead merchandise your product. A mouth-watering plated sandwich, food photography, or well-assembled outfit is worth 1,000 words.
  8. Have a Big BrandLook – You don’t need big budgets, staff, and research tools of national brands; you simply need to see what they’re doing and apply it to your business.
  9. Perceived Value – If you want customers to spend more money with you, offer a level of customer service and a store experience that makes them feel your prices are worth every dollar – and more.

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Unburden Local Small Businesses

This post first appeared in the Alexandria Times on May 27, 2016. Frequently during an election year — at both national and local levels — we hear about the need to reduce burdens for small businesses. In many instances, this refers to the regulations and requirements to operate these businesses. Small businesses are acutely aware… Read more »

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This post first appeared in the Alexandria Times on May 27, 2016.

Unburden Small BusinessesFrequently during an election year — at both national and local levels — we hear about the need to reduce burdens for small businesses. In many instances, this refers to the regulations and requirements to operate these businesses. Small businesses are acutely aware of the impact that compliance has on their bottom line.

In every survey of small business owners, regulatory compliance ranks at or near the top of the list of their greatest challenges. While larger corporations have specialized departments to handle such matters, it’s the small business owners who personally must try to understand and respond to these requirements. Doing so takes their focus away from their products, services and competition — the core of their operations.

Red tape and delays have particularly harmful consequences for owners at the very fragile startup stage, when their resources are thin. Entrepreneurs already are juggling many pressing concerns, and they desperately need to get their doors open to begin collecting revenue. Startup delays due to regulatory processes can be expensive, and a weak cash f low at the start may lead to failure down the road.

With elected officials and business owners on the same side of this issue, you might wonder why cutting red tape for small businesses continues to be an issue. Regulatory burdens are convoluted and complex matters — often products of outdated legislation and multiple layers of oversight. They typically were put into place with good intent and without recognition of the unintended consequences for small business owners.

Nearly everybody wants to help small businesses and agrees in theory with reducing their regulatory burden, but when specific revisions are proposed, some residents begin to fear that the floodgates will open and their protections will be eroded.

These regulatory matters are not easy to unhook, and the process of changing them does not happen overnight. But as a community, we should support the modernization of these requirements for small businesses.

Since the recession of 2008, city leadership has been particularly focused on the viability of
the small businesses that comprise such a large portion of our economy. In recent years, permitting processes have been streamlined and clarified, and City Hall has added facilitators to guide businesses through the process. The Alexandria Small Business Development Center also has developed a website checklist to help entrepreneurs better anticipate requirements and possible hurdles ahead.

This year, city staff has undertaken a complex effort to identify zoning ordinances that are costly and time-intensive for small businesses. Staffers are particularly focused on ordinances that seem excessive based on their limited community impact. These changes would also correct disparities that stem from business trends that were not anticipated when the ordinances were originally written. These changes will go a long way to supporting the growth of small business in Alexandria.

To attract successful, creative businesses to Alexandria, all of us — city officials, business leaders and residents — have work to do. We must minimize red tape and make sure every interaction with entrepreneurs is hospitable, respectful and encouraging.

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What do you mean by “Feasibility Assessment?”

Now What?
Now What? How do I turn this in to a new store?

Contemplation – Imagine you are a retailer contemplating this tenant space. Clearly, you might be asking yourself; “now what?” Suppose a few of the questions below move from unconscious reflection to conscious contemplation without ensuing answers, then assessing a project to see what is actually required could facilitate the decision making process and provide many benefits.

Resources – Landlord provided documents, previous project cost summaries, consultations with building departments, contractors, engineers and sometimes professional construction estimators are all resources informing project feasibility. The intent is to simplify, consolidate and summarize the probable scope of work, professional fees, construction costs and time that might be anticipated for a project. It is the purpose of a feasibility assessment and a highly recommended means of beginning most retail projects.

  • Do I need to build the walls?
  • Do I need to build the bathroom(s)
  • Why do I need 2 bathrooms?
  • Why do I need 2 entries?
  • Do I need to install the storefront system?
  • Can I use my own storefront design?
  • Do I need to have my own electric meter installed?
  • Do I need to install my own Air Conditioning and heating system?
  • What is the best mechanical system to use?
  • Is there water in the space?
  • What about hot water?
  • What about gas?
  • Where is the sewer?
  • How do I connect to it?
  • Will my store fit in this space?
  • Must I supply my own storefront sign?
  • Who will design it?
  • Can I design the store myself?
  • Can I turn a logo into a store design?
  • Where do I get the store fixtures?
  • What if I can’t find the exact fixtures that I need to display my products?
  • Are custom store fixtures required, if so who will design them?
  • What about lighting?
  • Who sets up the Point of Sale (POS) system and how do I hide the wires?
  • How do I accommodate the cabling and hard wiring for my computers?
  • How much can I expect to spend for all this?
  • A contractor told me he could build my store for $45/sq. ft. Should I believe him?
  • Do I need a building permit?
  • What does an architect charge?
  • Can I get this done in time to open before I must begin paying rent?
  • How do a pick a contractor?
  • Is the construction allowance from the landlord enough to build the store?
  • Does the location have enough parking?
  • What is the visibility from walk and drive by traffic?
  • Is this space a good choice for my project?
  • If I don’t take this space do I need to start all over with a new feasibility for a different location?

Please feel free start a discussion here and maybe even see some answers.

Bridget Gaddis, is a Licensed Architect and LEED-accredited Professional practicing nationally, and locally in the Washington DC area. She holds professional degrees in both Architecture and Interior Design, and with a comprehensive background in commercial retail design, planning and construction has completed projects for such for such well known brands as Chloe, Zegna, and Bvlgari. Her career began in tenant coordination and site planning for two well-known Cleveland developers, followed by six years in store planning for a national retailer. After a move to New York City in 1997, she spent the next years working for architecture firms specializing in retail projects. In 2011 she started her own practice in Alexandria, VA. Ms. Gaddis is the author of two blogs dealing with architectural subjects.

Dealing with Challenging Customers

The April Small Business Roundtable featured a lively discussion on how to deal with challenging customers. Whether it is a one-time issue or a constant complainer, all agreed that this is one of the most difficult issues of being a small business owner. Usually, you do not want to lose them as customers, but someone… Read more »

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Dealing with Challenging CustomersThe April Small Business Roundtable featured a lively discussion on how to deal with challenging customers. Whether it is a one-time issue or a constant complainer, all agreed that this is one of the most difficult issues of being a small business owner.

Usually, you do not want to lose them as customers, but someone who is dissatisfied can potentially hurt your reputation and consume so much time and energy that it affects your will to be in business. It can also pit employees against each other and destroy the potential for customer referrals, the backbone of many small businesses. After all, the satisfied customer is less likely to praise you on social media than the unhappy customer is to complain.

If you, your company, or one of your employees does something to bring on the customers annoyance, of course you apologize and take steps to make it right. However, what if the dissatisfaction is not so reasonable? The most important step to prevent frustration on your part or that of your customers is to properly set expectations. Make sure that your clients know what you do, what your processes are, and what the customers can expect from your company.

This may take some education on your part. Are things clearly spelled out on your website or other means of communicating with your customers? Don’t hide anything in the “fine print” and expect customers to find it. Be up front with what products and services you provide and what the customer is supposed to do to receive those goods or services. Some of the simple rules of civility apply – treat others as you wish to be treated, and listen to what the customer is saying. Sometimes, a customer will complain about perfectly fine service just to try to get a lower price – this is rare, but those folks can be dealt with calmly by explaining the situation.

The first thing to do when faced with a customer complaint is to find out what the customer wants – what were their expectations? Make sure to treat the customer with respect and try not to be defensive – graciousness can often de-escalate a touchy situation. Make sure that your employees are trained in what to do with an unsatisfied customer, and empower them to solve many of the problems themselves (perhaps up to a certain dollar amount).

Sometimes an unhappy customer just wants to vent – all that you have to do is listen and let them know that you hear what they are saying. You can sympathize with a situation without giving in by simply saying that you are sorry that they feel that way. If you can solve their issue and maintain a valuable relationship, do so as quickly as possible. If it will take some time, let them know the process and keep them in the loop so that they know that you value them as a customer. This assumes that you can reasonably recompense them for their trouble, and that it is important for your business to do so.

If you reach an impasse and it appears that there is nothing that you can reasonably do to satisfy that client, it may be necessary to let them go. You can do so by remaining calm and letting them know that you realize this is not working out and you may be able to refer them elsewhere. No one wants to “fire” a client, but sometimes that is the best option and it helps to have an exit strategy ready. For major issues that involve a significant payment it may be best to involve a third-party mediator to review the situation.

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Defining Goals and Values Can Reduce Workplace Stress

The January Small Business Roundtable discussion topic was advertised as “Ideas for a Healthier, Happier Workplace”. While several concepts were raised, most of the discussion centered on reducing stress. Small business owners wear so many different hats and are pulled in so many directions that the concept of “stress-free productivity” may seem unreachable. Pulling back… Read more »

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Defining Goals and Values Can Reduce Workplace StressThe January Small Business Roundtable discussion topic was advertised as “Ideas for a Healthier, Happier Workplace”. While several concepts were raised, most of the discussion centered on reducing stress. Small business owners wear so many different hats and are pulled in so many directions that the concept of “stress-free productivity” may seem unreachable.

Pulling back and taking the time to actually think about why you are in business may be the first step. What are your goals for your business and what values are most critical to you to accomplish those goals?  What is “authentic” about your work, and is that what your customers see?

It is recommended that you focus on the one or two goals that are most important and no more than three or four values that you want to emphasize. If you can focus your actions on these essential goals and values, you will be reaching the core of your business and simplifying your message to yourself, your employees, and your customers.

Your goals and values define your corporate culture, and it is important to make sure that everyone connected with your organization is familiar with the goals and values that you have chosen. You also want everyone to be on the same page when it comes to how you are demonstrating these core attributes to your market.

The next step is connecting your goals and values to your everyday operations. Are the things that you talk about actually the things that you see and do in your business? Getting yourself and others in your organization focused on what is most critical can reduce the stress of trying to figure out what to do next or why the company is going in a particular direction.

An example of this would be an employee in a small retail clothing store. There are many tasks that the employee must complete each day: stocking the shelves and keeping the merchandise displayed in an attractive manner, completing customer transactions, responding to telephone inquiries, etc. However, let’s imagine that the store owner has made clear to the employee that the primary goal of the shop is providing the customer with specialized service that he or she cannot get at a large box store. That employee will then be able to prioritize greeting a customer in a friendly manner and taking the time to personally assist them, even if it means taking time away from other tasks, like stocking shelves. Knowing these priorities makes this decision less stressful for the employee and helps the owner meet his or her ultimate goals.

Communicating these goals and priorities is crucial to the business. Everything cannot be the top priority – there is only so much time in the day. Determining what is the most important in the long-term, and what short-term actions will lead you there, can reduce the stress to you as the business owner and to your employees.

After all, if we try to do too much all at once we often end up accomplishing nothing. It may just take some thinking about what is really important to you and your business to get close to the “stress-free productivity” that we all desire.

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Supporting Long-Term Business Success in Alexandria

This post first appeared in the Alexandria Times on January 29, 2016. You may have read recent articles about store closings at the start of the new year. Several of the notable closings were due to retirements, and we should celebrate their long and successful runs. However, as a city, we have several resources available… Read more »

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This post first appeared in the Alexandria Times on January 29, 2016.

Long-Term Business SuccessYou may have read recent articles about store closings at the start of the new year. Several of the notable closings were due to retirements, and we should celebrate their long and successful runs. However, as a city, we have several resources available to support and assist business owners to ensure that they can continue to enjoy long-lived success.

Alexandria is distinct for its collegial relationships among business, economic development, business organizations and government organizations. Trends in Alexandria are for more — not fewer — small businesses, and plans in process will generate even more visitors and shoppers.

One of the most beneficial steps an owner can take is to engage with the community. Business owners should join business groups or the city chamber of commerce, interact with other business owners and attend community meetings. All of these actions allow retailers to keep abreast of what’s going on, find common solutions and provide feedback to key stakeholders. When owners don’t choose to take their seat at the table, it often leads to owner frustration, misconceptions and costly errors.

Some business owners may feel like they need additional support. The Alexandria Small Business Development Center provides a wide variety of guidance to all types of businesses. For our retail and food service merchants in particular, we offer targeted programs and individual assistance, including in-store expert visits.

These one-on-one sessions offer feedback on indoor and outdoor store appearance, merchandizing, customer service and smart operations practices. Experts also advise retail and restaurant owners on establishing hours of operation that are convenient for customers and on making the most of festivals and events.

We are fortunate to be a city with several popular annual events that attract thousands of visitors. This gives retailers the opportunity to make a great impression and to build loyal customers that will return again and again. Window displays should dovetail with the celebration and staff should be welcoming.

Shoppers today are discerning and have many options. To compete, every business must have an online presence. At a minimum, their websites must answer questions that shoppers have about products, services, hours of operation, location and provide contact information. Businesses without an online presence may not survive in the future.

Because small business owners have varying degrees of familiarity with websites and social media, we provide workshops and individual consultations in those areas. Business owners can join our mailing list to receive notices of our free high-quality programs.

Lastly, there may come a time when a business owner feels that his or her physical location is no longer the right fit. Our colleagues at the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership can help owners find their ideal space, whether upsizing, downsizing or relocating.

Shoppers are making purchases in stores, and small businesses are more popular than ever. Our thriving community of tuned-in and engaged Alexandria merchants proves that every day. We are glad to be able to support this community and those retailers that make our city so unique.

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Communicate with Your Customers

As a small business owner, you have already figured out who is your “perfect customer”. Your next challenge is to determine how to communicate with that customer in the most efficient and productive manner possible. The efficiency part of that determination is very important both from your point of view and that of your customer…. Read more »

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Connecting with Your CustomersAs a small business owner, you have already figured out who is your “perfect customer”. Your next challenge is to determine how to communicate with that customer in the most efficient and productive manner possible.

The efficiency part of that determination is very important both from your point of view and that of your customer. How much time do you have to spend on e-mail marketing and social media platforms? Not much, if you are going to also be actively running your business.

Likewise, your customers spend their day with their own very full and busy lives and are not generally thinking about your business until they want or need it. The key is for you to get your message to them at that point of want or need, and on their preferred platform.

You have already been collecting e-mail addresses from your best customers – right? Of course you have, and they gladly gave them up in exchange for valuable information about new products and services, discount opportunities, and special events. They may also follow you on Twitter, particularly if your customers are in the target demographic that wants their information fast, quick, and on their mobile device.

Surveying your customers to ask them their preferred social media platforms can give you valuable insight – especially if you have been a bit late coming to the game. A good marketing plan will have you considering a combination of messaging platforms, with the length, timing, and platform of each message geared to a particular segment of your target market.

The key word in the previous sentence is plan. Whether you are a new business owner or have been in business for some time, it is important to take the time to look at your customer profiles and available communication platforms, and make a solid plan for how to improve your communications in 2016.  Everyone in your organization should be involved in this effort, even if just at a kickoff “brainstorming” session. You may have a young employee who is the “whiz kid of Twitter”, or someone who would love to put together a regular blogpost or podcast.

We will be addressing many of these platforms in future blogs and in upcoming workshops, and one-on-one counseling opportunities are available to Alexandria’s small businesses through the Alexandria SBDC. Join us and plan to update your communications for the New Year!

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