Fourth Quarter Forecast

Finish this rollercoaster of a year with a bang, via mindful holiday selling strategies.

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Thus far, 2012 has been at best interesting, and at worst, consistently and frustratingly in flux. At every turn, it seems our economy takes three steps forward, two steps back, and then one more in reverse to get us right back to where we started. In January, economists labeled 2012 a “recovery year,” but with the presidential election looming, few businesses have dared to make bold moves until the country reaches a more economically and politically settled state. Meanwhile, the nation’s vital statistics—growth, returns, GDP, etc.—have been rather flat.

On the plus side, the economy is not falling precipitously, as it did in 2008. Rather, we’re in a holding pattern. Kiplinger’s reported a rebound in the latter part of 2011; then, in the first three quarters of this year, the economy simply stalled. With a GDP growth rate of 1% to 2%, “recovery” is not the mantra for 2012. Consumer confidence and spending continue to be an issue and employers are hesitant to hire more people in the face of a Euro Zone that remains chaotic, not to mention China’s economic slowdown. Kiplinger’s also predicts that we’ll remain at or above 8% unemployment by year’s end—assuming there’s no further deterioration of foreign economies or unforeseen events abroad or at home.

One bright spot is that fuel prices have remained in check and we did not see the $5-per-gallon summer prices that were previously predicted. This might translate into additional discretionary spending on the part of consumers as the holiday season approaches.

The fourth quarter of 2012 is the last leg of the race and, despite the tentative nature of the economy, it’s time to sprint to the finish rather than plod along uncertainly, hoping everything will work out. This is seasonal primetime for focusing your attention on retail promotions, gift certificates and events, with an eye toward setting yourself up for a profitable 2013. Here are a few pointers:

Scour last year’s fourth-quarter numbers. Well-thought-out planning ultimately makes the difference between a successful and a mediocre quarter. “Determine what went well last year and where you could make improvements or changes,” suggests Felicia Brown, business and marketing coach at Spalutions. “For example, if your 2011 holiday open house ran smoothly and produced strong sales, but was not well attended, you might want to hold it on a different day or at a different time, and make reminder phone calls to clients and other guests in advance. Or, you might partner with another business to increase the number of possible attendees.”

Define your goals. Now is not the time to just throw some promotional spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks. Think through your efforts. For example, “If a holiday party is part of your plan,” Brown says, “then make sure you’ve determined your focus and sales targets for the event. Share these goals with every staff member and outline a plan for each person’s role in attaining them.”

Give gift cards their due. According to Brown, one of spa owners’ greatest pitfalls lies in under-visible gift card operations, so ensure that guests are aware of your options. “Post eye-catching signage in the spa and on your website that alerts people to gift cards’ easy availability, as well as current specials to subtly suggest specific gift dollar amounts.” Online gift certificates are a must these days, and should be promoted via Facebook and other social media channels. Be sure to look into SEO—search engine optimization—strategies to help your spa’s gift certificates surface right away in local Google searches!

“Making this purchase easy and convenient is the best thing you can do for your clients and staff right now,” agrees Cara Solomon, owner of Body Restoration Spa in Philadelphia. “Things get hectic around the holidays. The phone is ringing with shoppers who are stressed by the search for the perfect gift. Making certificates available online keeps your phone lines less jammed, freeing up your staff to close other sales.”

As with your holiday events, evaluate last year’s holiday gift card drive. Solomon ended up phasing out actual gift cards altogether, in favor of printable online certificates. “Even though each card had our spa’s image on it, purchasers found them too generic,” says Solomon. “It felt like a plastic credit card.” The cards were also too easy to lose.“We found we could both personalize and track online paper gift certificates more easily. When they get lost, we can look them up; and when there’s an amount left on them, we can cash them out using our spa software.” (For more selling strategies, see Gift Card Gauntlet, page 78.)

Polish up proven sales strategies. Employing what you know works well is your best bet during the crucial fourth quarter. “Offer a free gift with a minimum retail purchase,” advises Brown. “And talk to your vendors about upcoming specials and incentives that you can tie into your own promotions.” If you haven’t already, take the time to establish priorities and sales expectations for your staff. Brown recommends seeking your associates’ ideas for retail contests and sales incentives. “This creates increased excitement around your retail offerings,” she says.

Skip Williams, VP of spa development for Resources & Development , cues owners that pre-Thanksgiving is the ideal time to revisit sales training basics. “Go over refreshers and reminders,” he says. “During the holidays, we tend to focus on retail, but rebooking may be even more important right now, to help avoid a dead post-holiday period.” (For tips on training staff to sell big this season, see page 64!)

Accommodate current guests. The holidays present great opportunities for suggestive selling, as guests are generally prepared to spend money and are often strapped for time. At Body Restoration, staff is trained to study each day’s schedule to check for add-on opportunities. “It’s as simple as mentioning, ‘We also have time for a facial right after your massage,’” Solomon says. “Our employees are trained about specials during the holiday season, so that when a customer inquires about a gift certificate for, say, $80—our hour-long massage rate—they can take the sale a step further and inform him that we’re running a special on a series of three massages for $200. This is a nice value and guests are often grateful to know about it.”

Also, keep in mind that clients, especially those stressed out by holiday madness, may choose to redeem their gift certificates during the season. This can bring on a unique set of challenges, but for optimal sales and to build goodwill, experts recommend accommodating guests’ needs as much as possible. Remembering the “reason for the season” is actually a wise business practice. “Ask yourself, ‘If all spa services and products were free, what treatments and gifts would I recommend to this client?’” Williams suggests. “This way, you won’t feel like you’re betraying your shopping-weary clients with a hard sell, but rather, really focusing on their needs.” This litmus test is part of what he calls “a return to sincerity in marketing.”
The holidays are also a great time to re-emphasize the importance of a consultative approach. “Take a look at your fourth-quarter marketing and advertising materials,” Williams says. “Do they show that your spa has clients’ needs at heart?”

What are spa experts’ predictions for this final quarter of 2012? Brown believes there will be “a bit of breath-holding” until the dust settles from the November election, “but in general there should be an uptick in retail sales and spending.” Williams notes that the high numbers of unemployed people will continue to impede efforts to achieve great sales. “Tough political and economic climates continue to plague us,” he says. “We have to build our clients’ confidence back. In the last couple of years, they may have purchased gift certificates, only to find out that the spa went out of business. Showing them we’re here to stay will keep them coming back.”

Dr. Steven Austin Stovall is professor of management at Wilmington College in Wilmington, Ohio, and a consultant and trainer on all aspects of management and marketing. He can be reached at steven_stovall@wilmington.edu.


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