For businesses large and small, the annual holiday season really is the "most wonderful time of the year," to quote the classic tune. Customers looking to spread a little cheer among their loved ones come out in droves to get the newest toys, try out the latest services and end the year spending more money than they did the previous year.
Yet, when the holiday sales surge is over, companies start the new year with waning sales. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced that January 2018 saw the largest decline in sales at retail and food services in 11 months. Data going back to the 2008 holiday season shows January consistently bringing a decline in customer spending.
With this data in mind, there are things small business owners can do to extend the holiday surge into the new year. With a little forward thinking and some reflection, what could be considered a slow time of year can propel your company into a better position moving forward.
1. Embrace creative marketing.
Just because the holidays are over, it doesn't mean your business has to suddenly return to the way things were before Black Friday. Coming up with reasons for people to become recurring customers could mean finding other reasons to celebrate.
"Right after the holidays is the time to go big and go creative," said Kathleen Sheehan, a social media strategist at Indie Social Media. "You have to keep up the momentum ... it's not the time to take a break; it's the time to do something really innovative."
To that end, Sheehan said businesses should find other holidays to celebrate. There's a litany of holidays in January that could give your customers some unorthodox reasons to shop.
"If you have a customer list, do something special to engage your current client base," Sheehan said.
2. Offer special post-holiday promotions ...
Though January generally sees a downturn in sales, that doesn't necessarily mean that your business will experience less traffic, whether online or in person. Gift cards are popular Christmas presents and can help drive interest in small businesses after the holidays.
Starting in November and December, give your customers a reason to come back in January. That can be done by offering special post-holiday coupons on some other item after the initial sale.
If your business is connected to social media and has a decent following, using those platforms to engage with customers and incentivize a future visit could be one way to go, according to Sheehan.
"Doing things like offering incentives on Yelp and Google for your most loyal clients, like offering special discounts to people using certain hashtags, are meaningful post-holiday," she said.
3. ... But don't go overboard.
It may seem like discounts and coupons are the best way to combat the January slump, but Mike Chirveno, CEO of ClearVision Consulting, urges small business owners to use those tactics sparingly.
"The minute you decrease the monetary value of a good or service, then you signal to that customer, 'This is what I can afford to sell it for,' so I recommend figuring out a way to add more value rather than lowering prices," he said.
Instead of relying solely on sales, it may be best to employ other tactics, such as running a contest or offering other perks to entice customers to return to your business at the turn of a new year. Offering bonus loyalty points on January purchases or extending warranties on certain items throughout the month not only gives customers a reason to trust a company, Chirveno said, but also makes them more likely to return.
4. Optimize your online presence.
If the January doldrums do come, it may be easy to throw up your hands and consider riding out the downturn until things pick back up in a couple months. That kind of thinking, however, could hurt more than help. According to experts, January is the perfect time to start engaging your customer base online and changing your business for the better.
If your business has an online presence, whether that's through your official site or various social media channels, the start of a new year could be a great time to dust off your search engine optimization (SEO) skills and get to work.
"A lot of small businesses put up their website 10 years ago, and they just don't keep up with things like Google changing their algorithm or considering that people sometimes use Bing now," Sheehan said. "The website becomes a one-shot investment, but it's a piece of living and breathing media that has to be maintained."
In addition to your website's SEO, social media's importance in today's increasingly connected world can't be understated, and you want to make sure your social media profiles are doing the best job of promoting your brand. Sheehan says you should consider your company's audience and bandwidth before jumping into multiple online platforms.
"Not everyone needs to be on Instagram or LinkedIn or Twitter," she said. "Pick the channel that makes the most sense for your business. Don't feel the need to be on every [social media] channel and spread yourself thin."
5. Strengthen your staff.
Whether your company works on a business-to-business or business-to-consumer model, January is a great time to give your team's customer service skills a boost.
One way to do that is to survey your customers after the holidays to see how your staff performed. A "holiday postmortem" can allow your company to ask hard questions and get honest responses.
"That requires getting ego out of the way and really putting the best interests of the company and the customer at the forefront," Chirveno said. "It's about what you can do better overall."
Once you have feedback about how your business can improve, use the downtime to bolster the effectiveness of your team, whether that means providing your employees with additional training or refining processes to provide a better customer experience.
"Instead of worrying that the goose isn't laying the golden eggs, let's work on strengthening the goose for the next year," said Chirveno.