15 Lessons Learned From a Successful Small Brick and Mortar Business Owner

(Original article posted February 26, 2019 via strattex.co, © 2019)

Brick and mortar retail is a HARD business to be in.

You may be struggling. Or maybe you’re doing alright.

Either way, you probably want to take your business to the next level.

Scott Fitzgerald successfully ran Fitzgerald’s Bicycles, a local bicycle shop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He did this for over 14 years.

For a small bicycle shop owner, he did REALLY well for himself. He mastered the art of small brick & mortar business to create a fulfilling life – in both his business life and personal adventures.

Here are the most important lessons he’s learned along the way.

Lesson 1: Being Good to Your Customers is The Foundation of Your Business

“Be a good person. Create a great experience. That’s at the heart of all brick & mortar businesses.” Scott Fitzgerald

No matter what else you do… whether it’s having the lowest price, a great warranty, a fantastic product… you’ll always be up against the fact that your customers may not feel welcome.

The biggest thing you can do today is to enhance (or completely shift) the experience that your customers have.

There’s an important quote I’ve learned from a gentleman named Maya Angelo that goes really well with what Scott says:

“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget the way that you made them feel.” Maya Angelo

So really think about how your customers currently feel when they walk into your business and when they buy from you.

Figure out ways you can enhance that experience, make them feel welcome and special, and have them leave feeling valued as a person (not just as a paying customer).

Lesson 2: Lead the Community That You Serve

There’s a couple of reasons why leading in the community that you serve is critical to your business.

It creates brand awareness. And if you’re helping the community, then your brand image is automatically associated with good.

It could lead to direct sales. If you’re volunteering at an event, it’s a potential opportunity to talk with the locals about what you do. And you never know, it could lead to someone buying your product or service.

It’s just a good thing to do. If you have enough profits to lead the community by financially giving back, then great. And if not, everyone has a little extra time each month. Make it a monthly ritual to lead in your community through your time and efforts.

But how do you lead the community? What does that mean?

When Scott uses the phrase “lead your community,” he simply means taking action.

It could be anything from:

Having a free event at your location.

Or paying for a local college student’s books once a semester.

Or showing up at a volunteering event and bringing some of your staff.

It could also mean just being a good neighbour. Or a good little-league coach.

Because (hopefully) you’ll be representing your brand wherever you go – through your actions, swag that you wear (hats, t-shirts, water bottle stickers), and more.

Lesson 3: Take Time to Forecast Your Financials and Market Trends

This is something that MOST small brick & mortar retailers fail to do.

And oftentimes it comes back to bite them in the butt.

As a small business owner you’re on the front lines. You’re busy stocking shelves, engaging with customers, ordering product, or hiring and training employees.

And because you’re so busy in the day-to-day of your business, you fail to forecast the future

“You need to take time to stop and think about… What are the financial trends in my business? And what can I do to affect those for the better?”

Block off a day in your calendar every 6-12 months.

Look at your financials.

Look at what the market’s doing as a whole.

Look at what the market’s doing in your industry.

Then devise a plan to improve your likelihood of improving and ultimately succeeding.

Lesson 4: Be Hyper Aware Of Your Inventory

“What’ll really kill brick & mortar retailers is when you lose control of your inventory.” Scott Fitzgerald

Losing control of your inventory can quickly can turn into a spiral.

You start to get behind on payments to vendors. Then your line of credit starts to get thin. All of a sudden you’re taking out bank loans just to maintain those key accounts you have in order to pay the bills.

So what should you do about your inventory management?

No matter what, you need to create an inventory plan that…

Balances your in-store inventory

Schedules future inventory based on CURRENT market demands

Allows you to be in constant communication with your supply chain

Considers using technology or software to digitize your inventory management

Each one of these strategies will be different based on the size of your business, what type of inventor you carry (perishable vs. non-perishable, fragile vs. non-fragile, etc), and other factors.

So spend some time to develop your individual strategy.

Then run it across your business-owner friends, mastermind groups you’re apart of, or get in touch with us.

Lesson 5: Business Is An Iterative Process. Keep Testing.

We all know this. Business never goes exactly as planned.

If I told you 5 years ago where your business would be today, you’d probably be shocked (for good or bad…).

If I ask you where your business will be in 3 years, you wouldn’t know. You probably have goals and aspirations, but you know that the world just doesn’t work that way.

Technology changes. The market changes. Customers change. New products or services arise. Effective marketing strategies change…

Scott’s advice?

Constantly test new things. Analyze the results. And then pivot.

Try a new marketing campaign. If it doesn’t work, who cares! Try another one.

Run a new promotion or sale. See how it goes.

But whatever you do, don’t sit still and get comfortable with what you’re doing. Always test new ideas.

Lesson 6: Don’t Be Afraid To Do FREE Work

Free work?! Why would any business consider doing free work!?

Free work can turn into lots of paid opportunities…

Scott would go to EVERY event in town that related to bicycles and do free tune-ups.

Whether it was “ride your bike to school day”, a farmer’s market, an arts fair, or a music festival… Scott was there.

While the ROI was difficult to calculate, he always knew it was worth it.

Look for local events related to your business and just show up with the sole purpose of offering your help and support for free.

Free work builds trust, loyalty, and credibility.

And free work can actually catapult sales.

Lesson 7: Sometimes You Have To Do Things That DON’T Scale

Scott says it perfectly…

“Nowadays, everyone’s looking for scale.” Scott Fitzgerald

Business owners want massive scale. They want one facebook ad to bring in thousands, or tens of thousands, in sales.

They want one promotional period to boost revenue.

And while these things are great, they’re also hard.

Successfully achieving scale is very, very difficult. If everyone could push a button, run one Instagram ad, and make $20,000 in sales, they’d be doing it… It’s not that easy.

Don’t be afraid to play the ground game, especially if you’re a young business.

Go out and try to get one customer at a time.

Then that’ll turn into two customers. Then three. Then ten.

It’ll not only give a small boost to revenue, but it’ll also boost your confidence.

And if you follow Lesson 1 where you create a great customer experience, the likelihood of those new customers referring their friends or family increases exponentially.

And the ground game could begin to scale on its own.

Lesson 8: Have Fun Taking “Unconventional Risks”

Yes, business is serious.

Yes, your business must make money to stay alive.

Yes, things can get stressful at times.

But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put in an effort to have fun every once in a while.

While Scott made sure to have fun in most areas of his business, he was particularly adamant about it when taking “unconventional risks.”

Scott and his team would do spoof videos.

They were cheesy and a little ridiculous… But they were FUN to make.

And not only that, some of them got national exposure.

Did they have crazy expectations for ROI on the videos? Nope.

Their intent was to have fun with the videos and hope for the best.

Even though the ROI was impossible to calculate, Scott is certain it increased his brand awareness (which probably led to sales). And him and his team loved making them.

Lesson 9: Base EVERYTHING In Your Business Around Your Core Ideology

“You don’t need a socially driven business to have a great purpose behind it.” Scott Fitzgerald

Your business needs a clear ideological foundation.

What do you value most? Why do you do what you do? What’s the ultimate goal?

Dig deep into what you value. Create a plan to put those values into action. Live those values. Have your team live those values.

Once you have clear values, your life as a business owner will become so much easier.

Whenever you need to hire someone? See if their values align.

Whenever you’re considering a new product, marketing campaign, or idea in general? Refer back to your values and start planning from there.

Whenever a customer is causing problems? Take a breath and think back to your values.

Operating your business without clear values (that you and your team ACTUALLY live by), is like trying to find your way without a compass.

Lesson 10: Go Out And Actively Recruit Employees

Hiring good employees is one of the top 3 problems/frustrations that small business owners have.

Scott dealt with these problems, too.

He’d post an ad in the newspaper or online, hang up a “Help Wanted” sign, and then hope for the best.

But after a while he realized that this strategy didn’t work… He’d have to wait weeks to get enough good applicants.

So instead, Scott began actively recruiting future employees.

Whenever he was out to dinner and had great customer service, he’d hand the server his business card and say “The customer service was incredible. You did a fantastic job. If you’re ever looking for a change, give me a call.”

He didn’t know that person’s life situation. Maybe they WERE looking for a change.

And since Scott saw them in action working and providing a great customer experience, he knew that they would be capable of doing a great job for him and his business.

Lesson 11: Have A Growth Mindset With Time Management

“Time management sucks. It’s so hard.” Scott Fitzgerald

We’ve all been there.

I often can get sucked down the rabbit hole, spending hours doing tasks that aren’t top priority.

But Scott makes a good point about time management:

Don’t be a victim of it. Don’t just settle and say “I’m not good at managing my time. Never was good at it. Never will be.”

Instead, take on time management with a growth mindset.

Get a productivity planner.

Turn your phone on airplane mode when you really need to get something done.

Give yourself a reward (or necessity) once you finish something really important.

You could use the strategy of “I will not eat lunch or leave the office for a lunch break until I’ve completed the #1 most important thing of the day.” And then stick to that.

Whatever your strategy is, constantly try to improve your time management skills.

Lesson 12: Thoroughly Train Your Employees

Having great employees goes way behind just hiring the best people.

You can hire some of the best team members out there, but if you don’t train them properly?…

Don’t expect great results.

What does Scott mean by “training your employees?”

He means having a system. A playbook.

Think 6 months into the future and ask yourself:

“If this employee is crushing it in six months, what does he/she have to be doing really, really well?”

Maybe it’s customer service – using customer’s first names, learning about what your customers really want (their goals and dreams), being aware of the customer’s time….

Or it could be that they need to be able to sell – effectively (but not sleazily…) upselling, selling more than one product or service at a time, or knowing how to close the deal…

It could be speed – they might need to get really good at doing their job fast.

Figure out the top 3 skills they need to possess in order to do an incredible job.

Then reverse engineer the training for that position to get them to the points of competency, proficiency, and mastery with those skills as quickly as possible.

Lesson 13: Create A Review Process With Your Employees

Set a calendar reminder every quarter to sit down and review your employee’s performance.

It sounds scary.

And it sounds time-consuming.

Scott shared that he was terrified of doing a review process with each of his employees.

He didn’t know how to do it. And knew he would botch the whole thing. But he did it anyway.

So here’s what you need to do:

Create a system.

It could be a one-page document with a list of 6 questions.

Or an informal interview where you ask them a couple of questions and you both talk about it.

This system of having a review process is eye opening, though..

You get to know their struggles. You become aware of their pain points.

You get to be honest with them about where they’re underperforming. And you get to make their day by complimenting them in the areas they’re doing well.

This sort of transparency will create a loyal, results-oriented employee that you can trust.

Lesson 14: Build Community By Hosting Events

The best local businesses turn into a “hub”.

What’s a hub?

A place where people go and hang out. Where they have a good time with friends and family.

It’s hard to do… I’m not saying it’s easy. Scott’s not saying it’s easy, either.

However, Scott put in the work to make it happen.

If you can have your place of business turn into a fun, exciting, comfortable atmosphere for people, then you’ve created something special.

And you do this by hosting events.

It’s much easier to host events for certain businesses…

Scott owned a bicycle shop. And a bicycle shop is a pretty easy place to host events.

So he’d have scheduled family rides…

Or events where they’d partner with local breweries and musicians and just hang out…

Think about what you can for an event would be fun.

Put fun above everything else.

Don’t think about a way to create an event where you’d pitch your product or service. Or center the event around trying to make money… That won’t work.

Most people love good food and good drink. Center your event around that.

Like some of the other lessons that Scott’s learned, the ROI is hard to calculate. And this is a “long game.” Plan on having 2-3 events a year. Over the course of a couple of years those events will create an incredible brand image and a great return on your money.

Lesson 15: Retain Customers Before Finding New Ones

You want to increase profitability over time, right?

I mean… It’s a stupid question to even ask… Of course you do.

The issue? Most business owners spend more time trying to get new customers than they do retaining their current customers.

“Five or ten years down the road… When you start maximising your customer’s lifetime value, your profitability goes through the roof.” Scott Fitzgerald

So while yes, you do want a strategy to get new customers in the door… You also NEED a strategy to retain current customers.

You could have an annual customer appreciation day where past customers get a discount.

You could create loyalty programs.

You could stay in touch with customers through regular email outreach.

There are tons of strategies.

I just want to bring this point home:

Let’s say a customer spends an average of $100 every time they come into your store or buy your services.

To get a new customer, you’re expecting to make $100 in revenue, right?

Well, to get that initial customer to come back once twice a year for the next ten years?… That’s $20,000 in lifetime value….

I know that number may not be realistic to everyone (but for others, this number is actually conservative…).

So the bottom line?

Spending the time and energy to retain customers creates long streams of revenue that will ensure your business is thriving.