How to Market Your Small Food Business

by on February 28th, 2011
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It is no wonder that more businesses are closing than opening, it’s probably more surprising that businesses are still opening at all. According to the Small Business Administration office of Advocacy, in 2009 there were 108,000 more small businesses closed than opened. Yet they keep coming. One of the things I am often asked by clients is how to market their small business and my answer is that it depends. There are numerous ways to market a small business, many that are free or low cost. But there is no one plan that will work for every business.

I’ve lived in my community for the last 11 years and there is a shopping center with a market, fast food, bank, gas station and more that is about 10 minutes walk. It’s about the only one around in my bedroom community. Over on one side of this center is a small space, less than 1,000 square feet. And in the 11 years I’ve lived here I’ve seen 4 businesses come and go in just that one space. The last one was a Yogurt Shop, it lasted only a few months. They never came to me for advice but if they had this is the advice I’d have given them.

Pick Another Space – 3 other businesses came and went in that space in the 10 years before the yogurt shop went in. One was an ice cream place. It was tucked between two restaurants so one would think that it would be a good spot for a dessert item, but they’d be wrong. You need traffic, visibility and parking to survive in fast food; that space had none. It was sad because it took almost 9 months for them to open once they put a Coming Soon sign in the window. I don’t know if it was money or trying to get permits to open a business in California that was the problem, but it took a long time. I felt really bad for the family that owned it because I know that they had to have lost a lot of money.

Send Out Samples – So the location was terrible in terms of traffic and visibility, but there aren’t any other yogurt shops for 4 miles in any direction. And this center was located a few thousand yards from the largest sports fields in the city. On the Food Network shows Restaurant Impossible and Kitchen Nightmares, one of the things they do to market their restaurants is to take samples out to the community. I’d have told this owner to make up a couple of hundred little sample cups with spoons and coupons and take them virtually across the street on just about any weekend or any school night and hand them out to the hundreds of youth sport teams playing in the parks.

Door Hangers – I live about 10 minutes walk away (faster if I don’t take the dog), and less than 2 minutes by car. I get door hangers from a pizza place that is 2 miles away and from other businesses that are even farther, but never got one from this yogurt place.

Car Fliers – It is annoying when every time you go someplace you get a flier left on your windshield, but it can be an effective marketing method. Of course some cities have banned the practice, as have some shopping centers. But in talking to some of my neighbors few knew that there was a yogurt shop in that center.

Partner with other Businesses – Every business is in business to make money so no business is going to do anything for free, certainly not help a competing business. But right across the parking lot from the yogurt place was a gas station. I’d have advised the yogurt shop to partner with the gas station, to give out coupons for a Free yogurt with $10 gas purchase. The gas station would then have something to offer their customers that other gas stations in the area didn’t. Gas customers would get their free yogurt coupon while filling up their tank and they’d have had several hundred new customers who knew they existed and would come back. I also would have recommended that they partner with the pizza place next door and try to do some kind of cooperative advertising where they printed a coupon good for a free yogurt with a large pizza. Once the yogurt shop closed the pizza place put in their own yogurt machine.

Local Advertising – Every expense that a business incurs cuts into their profit. Yet the budget for any business must include at least some marketing and advertising costs. I am not one to advocate huge advertising budgets for small businesses because most of them take huge amounts of cash to be effective. Advertising is one of the single largest expenses behind rent and employee costs, but if people don’t know you exist you’re not going to have any revenue anyway. They didn’t even invest in a short term advertising plan to help get the word out to the community. In the 7 months that the yogurt shop was open I never once saw any local advertising in the town newspaper, or any of the community coupon magazines or other local advertising. If-you-build-it-they-will-come doesn’t always work in business.

Use Social Media – Not every business can benefit from social media but I think that this business could have. Establishing a social media page and launching a campaign to get your local residents to “friend” you could have been an almost zero cost way of getting the word out that they exist and keeping their local customer informed of specials and new items. I checked and found that this shop did not have any social media pages.

Sidewalk Sign Spinner – We’ve all seen these kids standing out on street corners with giant cardboard arrows flipping and spinning like they were in an Olympic competition. There are of course restrictions on this kind of advertising and there are safety concerns, but this store could have benefitted from this kind of advertising. If they had simply sent one staff member out to the corner every time they didn’t have any customers in the store it would have helped drive customers into store and would not have cost them an extra dime. It beats having them stand around in the store twiddling their thumbs while you pay them

Seek Help from your Franchisor – The yogurt shop was actually a franchise of a national chain. The Franchisor makes money by selling product to the franchisee and by collecting franchise fees. Any reputable franchise will have marketing and advertising plans and help. Often they will help you kick off an initial grand opening with banners and press releases and a ribbon cutting. They have artwork for coupons and advertising and suggestions on ways to market your new franchise. I didn’t see any of it and I live 2 blocks away.

The yogurt shop space is empty again, ready for another unsuspecting small business owner to give it a try. The yogurt sign is gone and there is a new for lease sign in the window. Somewhere there is a family who has lost a lot of money and are probably in bad shape financially, likely still on the hook for the lease until the shopping center gets a new tenant for that space. It could have been avoided with a proper business plan and the right advice.


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