Face Up to the Future

Social media is an opportunity to relate to customers and make your store stand out, reports Bob Vereen.
Successful hardware, home centre and timber and building supplies retailers insist that some of the main reasons for their success are that they offer the consumer a different experience, better customer service and a distinct store personality. That, undoubtedly, is true. But too many are not yet recognising the amazing impact that social media – Facebook, in particular – is having in the marketplace. Retailers need to realise that social media, like Facebook and Twitter, are no longer used solely by the under-25 crowd. In the same way that the products you stock are always changing, so too is marketing changing for hardware stores and home centres. Not all retailers are keeping up with new trends though, and delaying the use of social media in your business, or a reluctance to get involved in it, could have long-term negative implications. Retailers are giving up listing their businesses in the Yellow Pages, but what alternatives are they seeking? Social media could be an ideal substitute.

Retailers have increasingly embraced the idea of hosting their own website in recent years. But consumer research suggests that it will be equally as important for stores to make an appearance in social media, and Facebook is the clear market leader. Facebook now has 400 million active users (against 50 million just three years ago) worldwide. Perhaps more important for retailers is that 35 million females with children – or nearly a third of that total demographic – used Facebook in February 2010. That makes them prime targets for retailers.

More than 40% of consumers aged 35 or older – in other words, your typical home owner or potential home owner – also use social media. What that points to is that social media is simply no longer being used only Gen Ys. In fact, aging baby boomers are the fastest-growing user group. Of the over-25 crowd, 55% check Facebook or other social media daily and 16% get their daily news fix from Facebook or Twitter. These people are also customers of yours. In light of these results, I decided to conduct my own survey last March. Among a group of more than 40 progressive hardlines retailers across the US, some 85% said they were using Facebook and other social media, though some had just started. Of those, some admitted they should have done so earlier. And every one of those who responded and were not already using social media said they were thinking about getting involved.

Two-thirds of participants reported that they knew of other retailers in their trading area who were using social media, enabling me to conclude that social media is now a part of mainstream marketing. Many see Facebook, Twitter or YouTube – the three most prominent forums – as taking over the role of the Yellow Pages, with the special advantage that it can be updated and topical. Facebook was chosen by 100% of the reporting retailers against 37% who were using Twitter, 18% on You Tube and only 15% on Linked In. Responses for why hardware retailers should be using social media included the following:

  • Set-up time is minimal and the cost is free, so there is no good reason not to use social media for your business.
  • It is a means of directly interacting with customers and a way to reach and attract potential customers.
  • As long as all of your posts are blatant advertising, it can help create a personality for your store and your employees, as well as being a way to set yourself apart from your competition – especially the big boxes.
  • Fans of your social media site will spread the word to their friends, improving your business profile and the number of fans you have.
  • It enables you to think like a customer. You can find out what they want to hear about and what interests them.
  • As one retailer noted, it offers communication, connection and entertainment – again, at no cost.
    If one goes on Facebook and types in ‘hardware’, you’ll have a chance to check out more than 500 Facebook pages of hardware retailers already using this medium. A Facebook page consists of five sections:
  • a Wall (or home page)
  • an Info section, where you can list store hours, phone and fax numbers, website addresses and other pertinent information
  • Photos – to illustrate your store or special store activities, etc
  • a Discussion segment
  • a Review sectionUpon checking a number of Facebook pages, I found that only a few retailers participated in discussions or reviews, but those that did universally rated positive ones. Belleville Pro Hardware in Michigan, for example, had people say they were glad to see them using Facebook. According to a recent study exploring social media by eMarketer, 58% of users believed that the primary return on investment of using Facebook or Twitter is the opportunity to listen to and understand customers. Another 34% said it had helped them grow their business. There are some very important do’s and don’ts to consider when using social media:
  • Don’t make your postings all business or advertising. Mix them up.
  • Update your postings frequently. Remember that people are checking regularly, so give them something fresh and new to read. Postings can be about your community, the weather, chores they should be thinking about, new products you’ve added, etc. Some retailers report that it takes about an hour a day to keep one’s pages current and interesting.
  • Employees – especially younger staff members – can be a great source of help when you need suggestions regarding what might be of interest to visitors. Some retailers are even allowing their younger employees to ‘manage’ their Facebook pages.
  • Remember that this is a way to interact with existing customers and a way to get new customers.
  • When you do promote, emphasise products that are unique or new to your store or community, and definitely stress products that are on sale.
  • Seek ways to get people interested in things that relate to their personal experiences, such as coping with rain or drought, planting gardens, fishing activities or the football. Ask them to post their questions and actions or to talk about their projects. Humour helps too. One retailer said it was ‘time to drown some bait’ when discussing his fishing department.
  • In any and all other kinds of advertising you do, be sure to mention your Facebook and Twitter, etc, activities and addresses. And be sure to post your web address on these social media listings.
  • By all means, be sure you get photos of your store up – not just one, but a number of them. Put some on your home page and others in the Photos section. Since everyone owns a digital camera these days, there’s no excuse not to do so. And change them from time to time so there is variety for repeat visitors.
  • Be sure to display your store’s expertise and knowledge, and to inject humour into your comments whenever possible. Remember, you are ‘talking’ to your customers rather than advertising.