Monday, May 18, 2009

Promotional Events: Don’t Confuse Doing Something with Doing the Right Thing

When it comes to promotional events – I’m often surprised by how well intentioned events can actually end up doing nothing at all for local businesses or worse yet, hurting sales when they should be helping sales. Promotional events and marketing are a critical and basic component of commercial district management. After all, these events raise awareness of the retail and service offerings in your district – and the more people know about your district, the more visitation and sales you can expect over time.

With that in mind I thought I would share with you my four biggest pet peeves when it comes to promotional events. These may sound like incredibly basic principles, but they reflect the challenges facing a handful of our most recent clients…

1. Hold your event when stores are open. Perhaps an obvious one – but I was recently shocked to visit a community where downtown events were held on Saturday afternoons or on weekday evenings. Seems like a good idea, except that most businesses close early on weekdays and on Saturday afternoon. In effect, the promotion events were further confirming for visitors that downtown lacked retail and service amenities.

2. Make sure your events are located in immediate proximity to your businesses. This is because proximity encourages shopping and browsing in neighborhood stores. Farmer’s Markets are a great way to bring shoppers downtown – but if your Market is located at the far end of the district, as was the case with a client I recently worked with, customers are unlikely to walk/browse local retail offerings…especially if they are carrying bags of groceries. If there are no other open space options for your events, or if shutting down the street in front of stores is not an option, then consider ways to drive visitation to local stores by organizing and promoting a simultaneous sidewalk sale, or hire musicians to play on the sidewalk in front of stores, helping to spur interest from a distance, or encourage your local businesses to offer specials and hand out flyers at the event. Can you get your local businesses to sponsor simultaneous in-store events (readings, performances, music, etc.) to encourage visitors to browse and walk in the front door?

3. Engage your merchants to actively participate in the marketing efforts. I’m often surprised at the disconnect and lack of communication between the commercial district management entity and local merchants. Small business owners, as many of us in this field know, can be an ornery and independent bunch, sometimes making it difficult to get them to participate in events that are intended to help drive retail sales. Therefore, one of the biggest challenges you face as a commercial district manager is engaging and listening to your local merchants. Try to speak to them at least once a week or month – walk into their stores to simply chat and listen. This kind of ‘romancing’ and relationship building is a critical part of your work. The information you gather informally will help you design promotional events and marketing campaigns that better respond to their needs.

4. Don’t turn your back on local businesses! Street fairs are often the worst perpetrators. Most street fairs have two rows of booths set up with a center aisle down the MIDDLE of the street (see picture below on right). The problem here is that the back of the booths, with their noisy generators and back-door feeling, discourages shoppers from visiting local merchants. Merchants lose sales at the expense of the promotional event. It’s a lose for the merchants and a lose for the district, as visitors never get a chance to enjoy local retail and return for some of the things they may have seen. Another option is to create an aisle of booths down the middle of the street (see picture below on left). This creates two aisles and encourages visitors to shop in local stores.

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