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Winter 2007 Contests Create Customers

Staging a Contest Creates Excitement and Sales

“Everyone wants to be a winner.” This universal ambition applies to your customers, too. So why not accommodate them? Hold a raffle or other contest that rewards shoppers with exciting prizes. The result will be happy customers and busy cash registers.

Store contests are time-honored vehicles for building customer loyalty. But pulling off a successful contest means more than stacking a pile of entry blanks next to a shoe box. You want to design an event that entices and excites as many people as possible—so that they’ll give their names and mailing addresses to you, for your mailing list for future promotions. Here’s how to run a great contest.

1. Offer lots of prizes.

You want as many winners as possible. That means offering lots of prizes. “If you offer only one or two big prizes, many people will figure they have little chance to win and will hesitate to enter your contest,” says Murray Raphel, president of Raphel Marketing in Atlantic City, NJ. “But if you offer an additional 25 smaller prizes people will say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a shot at this.’” Maximize participation by announcing in advance that everyone who enters will win a 10%-off coupon.

2. Create synergy.

A contest is great on its own, but your customers will be even more enthusiastic if you tie it in with a special sale or event. Coordinate your contest with your mall’s marketing department, or even your local Chamber of Commerce. This will avoid conflict with competing events and alert you to opportunities to tie in with compatible events they’re planning.

3. Advertise your contest.

Newspapers, flyers, postcards, radio, local TV, e-mail: They’re all options for advertising your contest, though some may be better than others for your retail business and your area. “Use media that work together to build excitement,” says Larry Mullins, a 30-year retail veteran and consultant. “A powerful media mix is print, radio and direct mail. Coordinate them to send the same message.” Other tips:

  • Create a party atmosphere in your print ads and promotions: Use graphics of familiar party symbols like balloons, clowns, musical instruments—whatever is upbeat and appropriate to your business and your event.
  • Consider blitzing your local radio station with a series of commercials that promote your event. “Even smaller retailers can dominate on a local radio station for a certain period of time,” says Mullins. “It’s a great technique for getting your message across, because people tend to listen to their favorite radio stations continuously. That’s not the case with television, where viewers tend to surf.”
  • Postcards are great for direct mail invitations to your event. They often get more attention than sealed envelopes do, and they’re cheaper to print and mail.
  • If you have a Web site, advertise your contest there—in fact, invite people to download and complete an entry form to bring to the store.

4. Promote in-store.

Advertising brings shoppers to your store; good in-store follow-up encourages them to enter your contest. More ideas from Mullins include:

  • Prime your sales staffers. Make sure they hear any radio commercials and see any print ads you’re running.
  • Use “silent salespeople.” Post colorful signs throughout the store or on your RMU or kiosk reminding shoppers to enter your contest. Inside the entrance or at one strategic spot, post a large sign with pictures of the prizes. Also hand out flyers, so customers who leave without buying will still have information about your contest.
  • Be proactive. Encourage customers at the register to enter your contest. Hand them an entry form and say something like, “We want to give all our customers a chance to win!”
  • Place your entry box at the back of the store or the least-trafficked side of your RMU or kiosk to encourage customers to walk past all of your merchandise.

5. Capture customer names.

On the entry blank, have spaces for the entrant’s name, address, phone number and e-mail address for future mailings. (You can also include a space for comments and product “wish lists” if you want.) Then record all of that information in your customer database/address book. “Contest participants are like gold for your mailing list because they’re already enthusiastic about your store,” says Mullins. “Remember, it costs six times as much to get a new customer as it does to keep a current one.” Keep your mailing list current and use it at least six times a year if you’re a year-round retailer.

Make it fun! You want shoppers to be excited about your contest. Here are some ideas:

  • Decorate. Use banners, streamers, balloons and colorful signs to position your contest as part of a celebration.
  • Dress up. Wear fun costumes and/or party hats to put you, your staff and your customers in a festive mood.
  • Use special price tags. For the duration of the contest, put bright, colorful price tags with special “contest prices ” on select merchandise. Show the original price as well as the contest sale price.
  • Expand your base. Send “preferred customer” letters to people on your mailing list, inviting them to enter the contest.
  • Coordinate with vendors. Ask your vendors to supply some prizes in exchange for publicity. Try similar cooperative agreements with local printers, party-goods stores and other suppliers you use.
  • Draw winners frequently. Hold a drawing every day, or even every few of hours—then ring a bell and announce the winner: Jen Jones just won a $50 gift certificate!”

6. Trumpet the winners.

Another technique: Post photos of winners on a display board. “With digital technology, the cost is nearly zero for a great photograph,” says Dr. William Rupp, dean of Michael E. Stephens College of Business in Montevallo, AL. “A picture is worth a thousand words—and a thousand sales.” But before you post pictures of anyone, get their OK in writing (look online for a standard photo release form). If they don’t want you to use their full name, ask if you can just use their initials and town.

Announce the winners of your top prizes not only in your store but also on your Web site and in your ads. Doing this gives winners—and everyone who entered—a good feeling about your store and encourages others to enter next time. “One of my pet peeves about contests,” says Raphel, “is that no one ever tells you who the winners are. Eventually people start thinking, ‘I don’t remember anyone ever winning this contest [so] what’s the sense of entering it?’”

7. Review the results.

You learn something new every time you hold a contest, so put that knowledge to work for you. Hold a staff meeting to share and explore the experience: What was done right and wrong? Did as many people enter as you expected? Anything they liked or disliked? How about the prizes—did people like them? Did they seem to expect something else, or something better? What can you do better next time? Assign a staffer to take notes during these post-contest reviews and write up the best ideas, with a copy to everyone.

8. Anyone can win

One caveat: You have to let everyone enter your contest. You can’t limit it to shoppers who buy from you, or only big spenders, or—you get the idea. Plus, every state has its own laws that you have to obey (such as a minimum age to enter). So before you start a contest, especially if this is your first one or your first in a certain locale, check with your attorney to make sure your contest complies with state and local laws governing contests and sweepstakes.

Contests spread goodwill, spark sales and let you add customer names and addresses to your mailing list. You can even build a following by running a series of contests, so shoppers will be excited about entering your next one and stop back frequently. The bottom line on contests is that they can really boost your bottom line.

Kiosk Contest Wins Big

Contests are great fun, but can they really boost a kiosk retailer’s marketing efforts? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” judging from the experience of Excitations. Based in Sterling, VA, Excitations is active in the relatively new niche of experiential gifts, in which shoppers purchase “experiences” for themselves or others. Excitations sells more 150 experiences—adventures including a hot-air balloon ride, dinner at a chef’s table, a night in a hotel’s presidential suite, a seaplane adventure, a trip to a winemaker, a parachute jump, and a ride in a racecar.

Although Excitations sells its experiences through its Web site, excitations.com, the retailer wanted to raise its profile and credibility with the buying public, so it opened a kiosk at Tyson’s Corner Center, a major Washington, DC-area mall. “Web sites are great, but there’s a lot to be said for the confidence people have in you when they see you have a retail outlet,” explains Kim AuBuchon, Excitation’s chief operating officer. “A kiosk makes you appear more solid and mature.” The kiosk allowed the company to establish a physical presence without taking on the expenses of outfitting a full retail store in the DC area, where rent rates can be high.

At the kiosk, Excitations sponsored a sweepstakes for “the ultimate thrill ride”—the shotgun seat in a racecar driven around Dover International Speedway by an official Nascar-licensed driver. The contest was touted as a great gift for Father’s Day.

To turn the intangible concept of an experience into something more concrete, the retailer exhibited an actual Busch series racecar at its kiosk for a nine-day stretch through Father’s Day. “Our challenge was to make an intangible concept tangible,” explains AuBuchon. “With the car sitting there, the experience of riding in a racecar became evident.”

Excitations promoted the contest with a banner on its Web site and a press release picked up by nearly a dozen media outlets. A sign announcing the contest sat atop the car, and sweepstakes entry forms were available at the kiosk. The company also worked closely with center management, and Tyson’s Corner included the contest in its own promotions and public relations materials.

The results were everything the retailer could wish for, says AuBuchon, who estimates “many hundreds” of people stopped by to take snapshots of their friends posing with the car, fill out entry forms and chat with the kiosk staff about the experiential gifts concept. “The contest drew the interest of men, women and children of all ages,” reports AuBuchon. “The stockcar phenomenon is really amazing.”

By drawing more people to its kiosk, the contest allowed Excitations to make its intangible offerings tangible, build its brand image, gain welcome publicity and add hundreds of enthusiastic people to its marketing list. Based on its Father’s Day sweepstakes experience, AuBuchon says Excitations is now sold on the ability of a well-run contest to boost the bottom line.


Phillip M. Perry

Perry is a freelance writer based in New York, NY.

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