6 Easy Improvements That Draw Customers

NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- For business owners with bricks-and-mortar stores, getting customers in the door is always a challenge.

With a lull between Valentine's Day and Easter, the next major holiday season, now is the time retailers can make inexpensive changes to their shops that could reap massive rewards.

There are cheap, simple fixes that will bring in more customers to your bricks-and-mortar store.

1. Optimize store layout and front-of-house presentation.
Getting more customers in the door may be as simple as optimizing your floorspace and improving the flow of customers. Perhaps the store has too much merchandise or it is positioned awkwardly, hindering customers from being able to browse casually through the store.

Small-business coach Paul Foster says business owners should review their store layout and traffic patterns.

"An outsider can walk into a store and start discovering issues, but because the owner is there every day they don't see it. I would ask the frontline staff how the traffic currently flows through the store and where the hot spots and cold spots are," Foster says. "Based on this information, they can revamp the layout for better use of the space."

Kate Koziol, CEO of K Squared Communications, adds that a bricks-and-mortar store should have well-lit and attractive front windows.

"Many business owners overlook the dirty window or barking store dog that would discourage customers from entering," she says.

2. Refresh/implement support staff training.
Store owners may also want to make sure their staff is educated on all of the products sold and using sales protocols that you as a business owner put in place, Foster says.

"Never assume that all the employees, including part-time workers, have the product knowledge required to obtain a sale," he says, suggesting that owners ask vendors or suppliers to come in to showcase the products you sell.

He also suggests enlisting "secret shoppers" to determine if the staff is using the sale protocols that they are supposed to be using.

"Although you may have explained the sales systems to your employees many times, it is still possible they aren't following them," Foster says. By using secret shoppers "you can find out firsthand what the customer experience is really like. It's best to have them show up when the owner is not present."

3. Automate billing
One of the smartest ways business owners can expand their customer base is by maximizing current customers. One way to do that is by making sure your system for collecting payment is optimized. If you're a company that is still sending your customers snail-mail invoices or having to make phone calls to track down past-due payments, you likely don't have a good system for keeping track of customer sales. It's probably losing you customers.

Automating receivables makes its easier to track current and past-due payments. Allowing customers to choose between credit and electronic check payment options also makes a company appear more professional and accommodating.

Customers expect electronic payment options, and a lack can push them to shop elsewhere, says David Shapiro, a senior vice president at Western Union Payments. Providing an easy and seamless invoice process to the customer improves chances for customer retention and the likelihood of getting referrals for new business, he says.

Automated billing can improve relationships by letting businesses insert helpful tips, reminders and discounts electronically and can be used as a sales tool as well by providing an easy way to extend or add on a service.

4. Talk to your customers!
It might seem obvious, but having a friendly, accessible owner on hand to greet customers, answer questions and generally engage with customers can make a business more successful. Customers are more likely to frequent a shop if they find the store inviting and the business owner trustworthy.

Just ask Card$mart co-owner Dana Norman.

"People like coming in because it's friendly, we have music playing, people say hello -- from what the customers say, it's a warm-feeling store," Norman says.

5. Use/improve your signs
Doing some good old-fashioned marketing with signs can be an effective way to get customers' attention. Signs range from the very inexpensive to the more elaborate, such as digital or lit signs.

Doctors Express, a national urgent care franchise, plastered inexpensive signs across neighborhoods to advertise their services as flu season progressed.

The franchise also attached a sign to a vehicle that was driven around neighborhoods with likely customers and, atop the storefront, put up a sign that lit up at night.

More elaborate ones let retailers adjust their message as needed for quick promotion of goods and services. For instance, they can promote selling snow shovels and other winter items when a blizzard is in the forecast.

6. Create/optimize your Web site.
This might sound a little counterintuitive, given that the focus here is to get customers back into the offline world, but a clean, user-friendly Web site can encourage customers to visit the physical store as well as cyber shop, says Alex Schmelkin, founder and president of Web design firm Alexander Interactive. It's no secret customers are using Google and local listings services as online yellow and white pages.

Even with a limited budget there are things business owners can do to optimize their sites. First, make sure the "store locator" section is easy to find on the site and has all the basic information, including store locations, hours and a phone number.

"Don't bury this information behind multiple screens. Place your phone number and physical store address prominently on your homepage and at the top of every page of your site," Schmelkin says.

Second, embrace mobile technology. "At a minimum, small businesses should be able to view their Web site on the most common smartphones, including Apple iPhone and Android, to be certain that all key information is visible and easy to navigate," Schmelkin says. "If your phone number and address are at the bottom of the screen, move it to the top. It could take a lot of smudging and swiping and to get down to the most critical information to drive customers to your store."

Third, watch your analytics. "Understanding what your customers are doing on your Web site, the successful areas that drive customers to the store and those that are barriers, is paramount to running an effective business," he says, suggesting that small businesses implement Google Analytics to highlight how visitors are led to your site, what pages they visit on it and how many clicks it takes for them to find your bricks-and-mortar store information.

-- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.

To contact Laurie Kulikowski, send an email to: Laurie.Kulikowski@thestreet.com.

To follow Laurie Kulikowski on Twitter, go to: http://twitter.com/#!/LKulikowski

RELATED STORIES:

>> How to Run a Loyalty Rewards Program

>>5 Serial Franchisors in the Money

>>5 Small Businesses Lifted by High Gas Prices

Follow TheStreet on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.