June 1998
Volume 25
Number 3

You're the Expert
Make sure your existing and potential customers know about your endless knowledge. Increase the value of your retail strength: Here are some tips.

By Denise Rodgers

A popular stand-up comic made an astute observation: No one wants to go to an ordinary doctor. Everyone wants the doctor who graduated at the top of his class - the doctor who is the head of the department of his specialty, or better yet, the head of the whole hospital. Everyone wants a doctor who is nearly impossible to see and because there is such a long waiting list you might as well make an appointment now - because by the time you get in to see him, you'll probably be old and sick.

As in most jokes, there is a kernel of truth to the humor. No one wants to go to a doctor who was dead last in his or her class (pardon the pun). Everyone wants to go to the best. Everyone wants to be served by an expert. Experts make people feel confident that they will get what they want - which in the case of a doctor, is good health.

The same principle holds true in nearly every field. Why go to a mere merchant when for the same money, or even for slightly more, you can have the advantage of dealing with an expert? The good news is that compared to most of your customers, you are an expert. And if you make it your business to make your customers and potential customers aware of your expertise, you will naturally increase both your customer base and sales. How do you increase your customers' perception of your expertise? The process is simple, but not easy. It will require some time and effort - but it is time and effort well spent! The following are five steps to elevating your status to that of an expert in the smoke shop industry.

Discover what you already know
Chances are, you already hold much more knowledge about your products and services than you think. Set aside some time, maybe half an hour to start, and sit down and list what you know about fine cigars, pipe tobacco, pipes, humidors, and other accessories. If your knowledge is too deep, present it in outline form. Imagine that you are giving lessons to a new employee who is going to take over your position for a few months and needs to know everything that you do. Try this exercise. You just might impress yourself. But it doesn't stop there.

Never stop learning
Make it your business to keep up with Smokeshop and other trade information sources. Try to attend trade shows at least once a year. Join a retail tobacco trade group and take advantage of all the information available from them. This is a great way to network with non-competing retailers. Exchange product and marketing information and ideas, and pay attention to what your competitors are doing , which new products they are carrying. Stay up-to-date:Browse your local bookstores. More and more of the mega-sized stores have niched sections. Check out any section that may be related in any way to your products.

Also, if you have access, consider the Internet. This is the information age: A quick check on the Internet search engine, "excite.com," reveals 19,633 "cigar" sites to browse. Check out other key words like "pipe" and "tobacco" for even more possibilities. Surfing can be time-consuming, but it is often fruitful and even fun. You just might discover a useful source of news or information.

Give speeches
If you're terrified, consider taking a class or start by speaking in front of small groups of twelve or less. Nothing can impress people more or encourage new people to try out your store and product/service, than a solid, believable, person-to-person speech. If the audience gets a good feel for your expertise, and you make it clear where you can be found (by handing out cards or brochures), this is a tremendous way to attract new customers. Be certain to choose groups that would be receptive to smoke shop products.

Write articles for publication
Did you ever notice how much authority words carry when they are in "official" print? Remember that list you created in step number one? Put it to use here. Try to think of a local angle or something of timely interest that will make a positive impression on your local editor. Choose your publication wisely. A local, small town, or suburban weekly is more likely to be open to your article than a major daily. Yet the effect is still terrific. Many people who read your article may not ever have heard of you before. And if they are reading your article, chances are they are interested in your product. Follow through in your store by framing or at least posting your printed articles on an in-store bulletin board. People will be impressed by your knowledge. You will be setting the standard.

Write articles for private distribution
Whether or not you break into "official" print, consider writing up your own newsletter or informational sheets. You're the expert. Let everyone know it. With today's relatively inexpensive software, there is no reason that you can't create professional-looking flyers on your own. If you want a more polished look, check into professional newsletter services, which vary greatly in price and content, or check with your local quick printer to see what they have to offer. If you have a self-generated mailing list, use it! Flood your customers with information. If you're paying for mailing, however, consider including some enticing specials as well, to help pay the freight. If the bulk of your message is pure information, your ad will stand out even more than if it were simply a sales flyer.

Be certain to print out enough of your informational material to keep on hand and on the counter for walk-ins. Anyone who stops by because of your sign and location will also be impressed to be presented with your free information. They will appreciate the fact that you are interested in taking the time and effort to inform and educate your customers.

The good news is that if you follow these five steps, you are likely to find as a happy side effect an even greater interest in your business. When you spend time seeking information about your product, you are keeping on top of your field, you are energizing your whole attitude about your business, and best of all, you will be adding to your customer base and pumping up that bottom line!

Barbara Rodgers is a marketing and advertising specialist who runs her own company, Creative Writing Services.