These days, embracing uncertainty, staying flexible and taking bold action are a dance retailer’s best tools. Here’s how a seasoned storeowner (and retail consultant) recommends you use them to prep for this year’s back-to-school season.
At the best of times, back-to-dance at a dance store can be a wild ride. And these aren’t the best of times. This year, sales are going to be harder than ever to predict. Are your customers going back to dance? Are they going to be shopping online? Will we be in a recession? How will inflation affect our sales? Can we get product?
Yet despite these unknowns, if we do a good job of negotiating the challenges, we can still have a profitable fall. Here are my three top tips for managing back-to-school 2022. They will help you take the stress out of a year like no other—and get you good results.
Tip No. 1: Move the Wave
One of our biggest challenges as dance retailers is that we do so much of our yearly business in a very narrow window. That wave may hit us even harder this year as more kids return to dance. But we don’t know for sure. What if many don’t go back? And if we are faced with a tsunami of returning customers in a few weeks, will we be able to restock quickly enough?
One way to manage these possibilities is to move the wave—by bringing your customers in early. You’ll be getting the jump on your competition, but, also, a longer back-to-school sales period will give you an early heads-up on demand, so you can predict sales more accurately. That way, you’ll be able to restock wisely and increase the odds that you’ll get product before your suppliers get swamped in the last-minute back-to-school crunch.
How do you get your customers to shop earlier? Discounting does work; just don’t do it across the board. Every dance retailer’s costs are going up, and we can’t afford to give away much margin. What we can afford to do is strategically use targeted discounts on a few items to bring people into the store. Each store will be different, but here’s how it could work. Start your early-bird sale three weeks before the rush begins. Run it for two weeks, then have a rest week as a “breaker,” and then let the rush begin.
In my experience, targeted discounts work best on in-demand high-ticket items or items that your customers use a lot. So, for example, $30 off a built-up tap shoe ($232 retail) will bring people in because it’s a big dollar amount. But you are only giving away 12.9 percent.
My store’s most successful early-bird discount is “buy two tights (same style/color/size) and get the third free.” “Free” is a word that resonates with customers. As a result, we found that our customers wound up buying more tights than before.
Even better than a discount, though, is a gift with purchase. Make sure the gift is an item with high perceived value—say, a beautifully designed water bottle. (It’s easy to source, and it seems like everyone could use one more.) Don’t cheap-out here. Make it something that your customers have to have. Make sure that you advertise the gift’s price. And remember that you paid much less for that item. So be brave.
Do be cautious when you restock, though. We are likely heading into a recession. Sitting on too much inventory when demand softens is a real business-killer. So get an early read, be cautious with your reorders and you’ll be fine.
Another great benefit of moving the wave is that it’s easier on your staff. Most of us are short-staffed. And the people we do have are still a little burnt-out. Spreading out the rush will make it easier on them and reduce the risk of losing them to overwhelm. Plus, if you have student summer staff, enticing customers to do their back-to-dance shopping before the usual September rush means they’ll be around to help before they have to go back to school themselves in September.
Tip No. 2: When It Comes to Staffing, Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good
Bringing some of your customers into your store early can help manage any staffing shortages during the rush, but it won’t solve it. What’s needed is to think differently about your staff. Dance retailers tend to recruit and train our staff in our image. We look for people who are able to handle all store tasks. They’re agile and they’re awesome! And they are hard to find.
What if we took a different approach from searching for the perfect all-rounder? What about breaking down all the tasks that need to be done and dividing them up into very narrow roles? Cash is a role, fitting ballet slippers is a role, and helping customers find tights is a role. Even just putting shoes away can be a role.
These narrowly defined roles will allow you to hire less experienced, less broadly skilled people. And because they’re not training on every aspect of the store, you can get them up to speed fast. You’ve now opened up a new pool of high school or college students. They probably couldn’t function as full sales associates, but they’ll do an awesome job helping customers find tights or putting shoes away.
What’s more, because you don’t have to pay them as much, you can hire more, get all the smaller functions taken care of, and free up your senior staff to handle the more complex tasks.
We’ve actually been doing this in my stores for years now. We find we can get these new hires up to speed after three short training sessions.
In our experience, our high school students are either really good or really bad. There’s no middle ground. Those that aren’t doing well are cut after a few days on the floor. The staff that remain are almost always amazing. At that age, they are fearless and absorb information like sponges. Many have stayed on to become some of our best employees ever.
Tip No. 3: Respond to Inflation and Price Pressure—the Smart Way
At the pumps, at the grocery store, the price of everything is going up. Our customers are starting to feel the pinch. And when customers feel squeezed, they start cutting back on spending or look for cheaper options. The question is, will they be doing this with dancewear?
In my experience, because it’s related to the arts and viewed as an “extra,” dancewear will come under price pressure with many customers. But other customers are still feeling flush from the pandemic. And many parents do prioritize their kids’ activities, even when they’re doing some belt-tightening, so they may continue to spend like before. We see this happening now with higher-end retailers. They have not seen any decrease in sales. So, you may find that your most expensive product will continue to sell well.
As for the families who feel squeezed by inflation, what’s the appropriate response? First off, don’t offer store-wide discounts. Inflation is also pushing your costs up. You can’t afford to cut your margins across the board. Doing that is a recipe for bankruptcy.
The smart way to respond is to bring in cheaper, economy alternatives, so the customer who is feeling the pinch has options. You don’t need to bring in many of these items, just enough to offer an alternative.
If you can, present these cheaper options as part of a “good, better, best,” three-part offering. Some will choose “good” because money is tight, others will choose “best” because they always want the best. But most will go with “better,” because that’s how our brains work.
Of course, you know your customers, so if you feel you must offer discounts, make them targeted, as I described earlier. Better to give a more significant discount on a few things that register with the customers than a smaller discount across the board.
Inflation has made it more critical than ever to market your store effectively. Great marketing gives your customers a reason to shop with you other than price. Host fun events, be creative, be wild, get them thinking about how amazing your store is, and they won’t be thinking about price.
Whatever you do, take action. This is not the year to sit back and let it all happen. We can have a great fall, but only if we act. This year, more than ever, our mindset is critical to our success. And nothing puts us in the right mindset as well as taking action.
Gilbert Russell is president of Brio Bodywear, which has two brick-and-mortar dancewear stores in Ottawa, Canada. Through his consulting firm, No Qualms Retail, he shares his experience and knowledge with other independent retailers.