Small Business Email Marketing – A Cautionary Tale

I once met a man who was running a small business in a well-to-do part of town. He imported and sold beautiful homewares from provincial France that you could not find anywhere else in Sydney.

After 15 years he had built up a great business that supported his lifestyle and allowed him to live in comfort. It was a success. There were always customers in the store, people browsing and asking him questions about this or that product. Half of the names of them were entirely foreign to me, not being a French speaker and all.

He didn’t have huge aspirations for growing an empire, and he wasn’t one of those people who constantly posts about leadership on LinkedIn. He was just a regular small business owner in Sydney, making sales and building relationships with the people who came in.

I visited his store a few times looking for gifts for my wife, when one day I had finished meeting a client nearby and decided to pop on over. When I arrived there was no store. The shop was empty. There was no notice in the window, so I realised he must have gone out of business. Disappointed, I headed off and that was the end of it.

A few months later, I was visiting a potential client in the same part of town, just a few blocks away from where this French homeware store had been. It was in an out of the way spot, off the main street, with little around but houses and one or two businesses. We chatted about getting their business up and running with email marketing, as they had just begun the journey of retail.

After finishing that conversation and heading back to my car I looked up and realised I had actually parked outside another new business. To my surprise it was a French homewares store. I went in to the store, and noticed the same man who had owned the old French homewares store on the main street – but he had a new setup, new building, and an entirely new set of customers. That is he had no customers.

I asked him what had happened? With some sadness he said his landlord had raised the price of the old store so high that it was unaffordable. He had no choice but to pack up shop – and get out. To add to that, he had very little time in which to do it and the landlord would not allow for him to leave a sign in the window indicating what had happened.

So here he was, after 15 years he had been forced to relocate away from the main street, with such a fast turnaround that he wasn’t even able to let people know that it was happening. No doubt many people had made the same assumption that I had – that the store no longer existed and he was out of business. With no sign and no indication otherwise, this was easy to do.

Given that I am always thinking about email, I asked how he had contacted people. He had put an ad in the local paper, and was thinking about putting signs up in the village centre showing where the new location of the store was.

But what about letting people know with a little email?

Well – this is where he was most disappointed. After 15 years of building his business, he said he had not collected a single email address to keep in contact with people. He knew a lot of his customers by name, and had built a relationship with them in person – but never had he bothered to think that he would ever need their email address.

So he had no way of directly telling his best and most valuable customers he had moved.

It was obvious that his business was suffering. No longer a busy store, no foot traffic, and no sign to previous customers that he had moved. He said he had to basically build it up the retail business from scratch again.

If only he had collected any email addresses. Over the period of time at even a couple of email address a week he could have made a significant change to the way that an unexpected move affected his business. Notifying people of his business, keeping up relationships and continuing to grow would not be as big an issue had he done what was right for his customers.

Fortunately he had a wholesale business that was supporting the transition, and had promised me that he would start collecting email addresses because he realised that to reach people where they were, he needed to find a more reliable way of communicating at a distance.