The winter-storm-who-must-not-be-named and how business should plan for a repeat

Photo courtesy of Dave Jenness

Photo courtesy of Dave Jenness

I don’t know about you, but I never heard that phrase “polar vortex” before this Winter. I hope the polar vortex permanently melts away whenever spring decides to arrive. In fact, I’ll banish the phrase immediately and forevermore refer to it as “PV.” Sort of like “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” in the Harry Potter series.

In January 2014, PV caused record cold temperatures across the U.S. and Canada. The North Pole was warmer! On January 6 alone, at least 3,600 flights were cancelled. Three Amtrak trains west of Chicago were stranded overnight. All schools in the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin were closed and all non-essential travel was prohibited in some parts of Michigan and Indiana. Now that’s wind-biting cold!

The economic impact of January’s initial PV attack is estimated to be $5 billion. While that is a lot of money, experts predict the damage to the nation’s $17 trillion economy to be short-lived. That’s good news. Unfortunately, if you are a small business owner whose customers have fallen prey to PV’s repeated cold snap, the prediction might not be enough to cheer you up.

You can’t travel back in time to change your January sales numbers, but you can develop a Repeat Customers Plan (RCP) to protect against the next weather-related calamity. The plan must have three main components:

  1. Identify and cultivate repeat customers
  2. Establish regular communication with repeat customers
  3. Create incentives for repeat customers

There are several ways to do this. A customer loyalty program is one way. Shifthub blogger Craig Morantz advises how to choose a loyalty program for your business. And blogger Heather Clancy recommends four loyalty programs tailored for small business. Even the Small Business Administration weighs in by offering seven tips for starting a customer loyalty program.

If you aren’t quite ready for a full-fledged customer loyalty program, start smaller. Create a Facebook or Pinterest page and regularly post photos of newly arrived merchandise and sale items. Create a Facebook contest (be sure to follow posted rules) and reward winners with gift certificates or merchandise. Drive homebound customers to your website and encourage on-line purchases. Email or text special promotional materials. Culver’s Restaurant has a great e-communication model for this – Culver’s Club – which texts or emails coupons and special promotions to club members.

Invent a weather-inspired sale or contest to reward customers who brave the elements. For example, have some fun and post photos of shoppers wearing outlandish winter hats. Ask customers to vote on the cutest hat, the ugliest hat, the warmest hat, etc. Then award prizes to the winners.

Serve free hot coffee and cocoa on frigid days and ice cold beverages when the thermometer reaches sweltering temperatures this Summer (yes, warmer weather will eventually arrive). Incorporate some of the 25 creative marketing ideas for small businesses suggested by Christina Walker. I happen to be partial to suggestion #11 – Network at your local Chamber of Commerce.

Even if VP had minimal impact on your business this year, you would be wise to adopt the three-step Repeat Customers Plan because you never know when a broken water pipe, earthquake, tornado, or fire may impact customer traffic.

In addition to obstacles presented by Mother Nature, don’t forget to prepare for the upcoming road construction season which will begin soon in a city near you. This blog offers advice on conquering your orange barrel fear. Several suggestions contained in the Road Construction Survival Guide also translate well for use with weather-related incidents.

The bottom line is that creating a way to connect with your customers electronically isn’t a gimmick or passing fad. It’s essential to build and maintain a strong and loyal customer base, no matter what outside forces throw your way.

Please leave your comments below or contact me on Twitter or G+.

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