In theory, having a sale is easy enough for a small business: Take a product or service, discount it, get new customers, make more money.
But in practice, sales promotions involve a high level of strategy and psychology that even the biggest brands sometimes get wrong.
Take JCPenney. In 2012, the retailer’s new CEO swore off coupons and discounts, thinking consumers would prefer always-low prices to items marked up purely for the sake of being marked down.
Instead, the company learned a vital truth about its customers: They loved the feeling of scoring a deal more than practical prices. Without discounts, the company’s revenue dropped 25 percent that year.
More important than the promotion itself is the strategy and planning behind it. Before announcing a sale, small businesses need to consider what type of promotion to offer, when to run it, and why they’re hosting it. Should the offer be a discount or a free gift with purchase? Is it a one-time event or a monthly occurrence? What are the goals of the sale: attracting new customers, introducing new products, moving old inventory?
Here are five examples of sales promotions that can help you decide which type is right for your business.
The chance to save money—but only if you act fast—is one of the oldest tricks in the sales promotion handbook. How many TV commercials have you seen that promised a killer deal on a car or a mattress “this weekend only”?
Now, in a world of promo codes and email blasts, flash sales have taken on new life online—with websites like Groupon and Gilt founded for the purpose of offering time-sensitive deals.
A flash sale can benefit a small business in a few different ways. Thanks to its hype factor, a flash sale gets people talking and attracts new leads. It shortens the sales cycle, inspiring people to buy when they would have otherwise procrastinated. As a result, a flash sale brings in a quick infusion of cash, making it an ideal tool for boosting revenue during a slow time of year.
Flash sales are best offered for a short period of time: A study by Experian Marketing Services found that three-hour sales have the best transaction-to-click rates (59 percent higher than usual). And they’re best promoted by email, with the same study finding that email drives 18 percent of flash sale traffic.
In addition to providing a sense of urgency, a flash sale helps keep promo codes off coupon sites that can create financial and logistical problems for a small business. Promoting a sale via email also helps reward email subscribers, enticing them to stay on the list for other exclusive offers.
But what if customers don’t happen to see the email? Start promoting the flash sale days in advance, and consider offering email subscribers the chance to opt-in for early access and more frequent updates. Automation software like Infusionsoft can allow you to build an automated series of emails, as well as segment recipients so that customers aren’t offered a discount on something they already purchased.
For a step-by-step look at setting up a flash sale email series, check out our e-book, Cash in a Flash.
Buy something, get something free
Which offer is better: a 33 percent discount in price or a 50 percent increase in quantity? Trick question: It’s the same deal.
Not all consumers can do the math, but everyone understands the value of “free.” That’s why, in an experiment conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, researchers sold 73 percent more hand lotion by offering a bonus pack, as compared to offering an equivalent discount.
Because consumers perceive free stuff to be more valuable than discounts, adding products or services can bring in new customers—who then stick around and buy more. For example, a dentist can offer a free teeth-whitening session with a patient’s first appointment. While losing a small amount of money on the whitening, the dentist gains a patient for years to come.
For retailers, a buy-something-get-something offer can also help them free up cash by selling unwanted inventory. And for sellers of products and services alike, the promotion can introduce customers to offerings they wouldn’t have otherwise purchased. The customer who got a free aromatherapy upgrade during her last massage ends up asking for it next time, too.
Coupon or discount with purchase
The offer of a coupon or gift card with a purchase is a deal for both you and your customer. While the customer gets a chance to save, you get another chance to make more money, as long as the discount still allows you a profit margin. Plus, there’s a good chance you won’t end up giving the discount, anyway: More than $45 billion in gift cards have gone unused since 2005, according to the gift card marketplace CardHub.
Not sure whether to offer a discount based on dollars or a percentage? Consider the “Rule of 100”: If the item is over $100, a dollar amount sounds more appealing ($40 off a purchase of $200, as opposed to 20 percent off). If it costs less than $100, a percentage seems like a bigger deal.
Without having experienced your products or services, a prospective customer doesn’t necessarily like you, understand you, or trust you—yet. That starts to change when a prospect decides to buy, an action that inherently increases trust and affinity.
That’s why making even the smallest of sales can provide a direct path to selling more. Ryan Deiss, CEO and founder of Digital Marketer, calls this promotion a “tripwire.” Typically sold for $20 or less, a tripwire offer is so low-cost and low-risk that the prospect doesn’t hesitate to buy it. A tripwire could be a book or piece of content, an online course, a product sample or trial, or another low-cost product that illustrates what your company has to offer.
A business will often take a loss on selling a tripwire at such a low cost. But that’s OK, because the point of the tripwire is making an upsell or cross-sell. For example, if a customer saw value from the tripwire offer, a one-hour video, he’s more likely to commit the time and money to purchase the multi-hour online course.
Consumers react to promotions depending on how your business has offered them in the past. JCPenney shoppers expect that something is always on sale, while Nordstrom fans have been conditioned to wait for the annual anniversary sale and half-yearly sale.
Creating a recurring promotional event—like an anniversary sale, a seasonal sale, or a monthly offer on one item only—trains customers to act on a good deal when they see it. For businesses, recurring sales provide consistency, allowing you to prepare your marketing and fulfillment efforts accordingly and to accurately compare sales figures. Plus, sales remain the exception, not the rule (provided you’re looking to become the next JCPenney).