Local Store Marketing in an Economic Downturn

March, 2020 — Most of you don’t want to talk about Local Store Marketing (LSM) right now. It’s too soon, you have bigger things on your mind. And it’s tough to call the present pandemic situation an “economic downturn”. It feels deeper than that, and it probably is. For some it will be existential. For others, who will survive by one means or another – be it shutting down entirely and riding it out, or finding new niches, or through sheer grit – there is (sorry to use the cliche) opportunity. This post’s purpose is to give ideas, share best practices (please share in the comments), and maybe give a little hope. I’ve been asked by several people “what can I do” and “what messages should I be putting out there”, so this is an attempt to answer those business owners (clients and non-clients alike).

What’s First?

First things first: Take a deep breath. Focus on the things you can control and the things you can affect, not on the things you cannot control. This means tightening your budget, taking care of your employees, and taking a good look at the milestones at which you’ll need to make hard decisions. 

For restaurants this means deciding whether you’re going to do delivery and carry-out only, or close down altogether. Will you limit your menu?

Second: We’ve been here before. Maybe not for a while, but 2008, 2001, 1992, 1987, 1980. There is plenty of evidence to indicate that those who advertise during a downturn are in a stronger position coming out of it. 

But as noted at the outset, this feels different. Maintaining cash reserves is critical, and you don’t likely have a lot of extra cash that isn’t better spent on things like rent. Or payroll.

For this reason, traditional advertising and traditional marketing won’t be my focus – it’s pure Local Store Marketing (LSM). Nor will I harp on the difference between branding and promotion (it will all be branding, given the operating challenge of local government reactions).

Change in Mindset

The goal of advertising and marketing – even LSM – is to get more customers to come in more often and spend more on each purchase. Limited operations and social distancing might make this difficult, if not impossible. You might not even be open.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be a part of the conversation. The difference at a time like this is to change your mindset from short-term to long-term ROI. But it’s also a change in the way you see yourself in the community.

This is an investment of your time, your talents, your gifts, and your service. You’re a member of the communities you serve, and you need to help them get through this.

It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s not. Focus on what you can control and what you can affect. 

Messaging

“So what do I say? What is my message during a time like this?” It depends on your type of business, and whether you are working on a limited basis or have decided to ride it out. Keeping in mind that you are now there to serve your community (you’re helping them), your message might be either to give freely of your knowledge, or to keep doing what you were doing but in a different way.

You’ve probably received a message from every. single. business with which you have a relationship telling you what they are doing to protect you from the Coronavirus. If you’re still open, you need one of these, too.

It’s not a “me too” message, it’s that you don’t want to be tone-deaf by only touting the shipment of stress-reducing candles you just received. It’s a legitimate barrier to getting customers. Be brief, be honest, but address it once and move on.

Channels

Advertising, Marketing, and PR work with three types of channels: paid, owned, and earned. Paid is probably out of the question (though, if you can do it, you’re likely to get good terms and can negotiate increased frequency of message right now).

You can control your owned media: FB, Insta, Twitter, email, web site.

You can affect your earned media: community members’ FB, Insta, Twitter, new stories, influencers in the communities you serve. Inbound links will also strengthen your search rankings. This will not show immediately, but inbound links are one of the biggest ranking factors. Get them now to position yourself for when demand returns.

Community Service
  • If you supported the soccer team before their season was canceled, consider recognizing the seniors (individually), who won’t get their final season in before graduation (owned channels)
  • If you held dine-in nights as fundraisers, consider thanking individual teachers and admin staff by name (owned channels)
  • Amplify school closures, or pre-school announcements through your existing channels (owned channels)
    • Most schools are closed now, but what about some of the programs they run, like after school meals and college resources – your goal is to help them by amplifying their messages
  • Volunteer at neighborhood rec centers (earned)
  • Organize a neighborhood clean up (earned, promote via owned)
  • If you are a restaurant that’s closing, consider cooking all of the food in the cooler for your staff (don’t promote that, just do it – they’ll know to appreciate you)
  • Donate food to a homeless shelter (same as with employees)
  • Amplify the good deeds of others (owned channels)
  • Use your web site to curate a list of resources and links for the community (childcare, book exchanges, meal delivery for seniors and disabled)
  • Offer your email list to amplify messages from others
  • What issues are your community facing right now? You’re an entrepreneur, how would you solve them?

Be visible, be helpful. Don’t do it as marketing, do it as a member of the community you serve. It will make an impression. One that is remembered when we return to normal.

Share Your Talents
  • Home builders who do emergency repair work for the elderly
  • Lawn service companies who help keep schools tidy
  • Auto repair who help restaurant workers, first responders, and hospital staff
  • Attorneys who help prevent evictions
  • Loan officers who offer budgeting advice
  • Nutritionists who create menus for limited budgets, or large families, or ways to stretch a grocery store run an extra couple of days
  • Teachers who offer tutoring via video conference
  • Play music in public
  • Tax professionals providing tips (OK, wait until after the 15th – but if the government delays this, what does it mean for me? Send an email, post a blog, let community groups know about the resource.)
  • Counselors offer services to those who have been laid off, or who are on the front lines of the crisis
  • Writers who help with resume production
  • Anyone involved in the business community can listen, can refer people with a problem to someone who might be able to help solve the problem. Be a connector, a facilitator.
  • Marketers who advise solo businesses on social media marketing
  • Web designers helping small businesses
  • If you don’t have ideas, call me (404-228-0875)

Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers) famously said that in times of crisis his mother told him to “look for the helpers.” My advice now is to be the helper. Focus on what you can control, and the things you can affect, but then help others to do the same.

I can’t promise that everyone will come through this, but I can promise that others have come through similar situations in the past.