The Naked Truth About Advertising, Underwear and Valentines Day

Underwear is a popular Valentines Day gift but what message does it give?

This time of year our shop Your Life Your Style is full of hearts. Glass coasters with hearts fused into them, heart shaped cushions, handmade cards with stuck on hearts… other shops have enough flowers, chocolates and romantic CDs to fill Westminster Abbey. All intended to show we love someone this coming Monday.

Underwear seems a popular choice as a Valentines Day gift but I’m not certain it’s a good idea. I’ve been wondering how men who receive Marks & Spencer’s new BodyMax underwear will feel. To remind you, this is a new range intended to make a man’s abs more flat, his bum more firm, and his maleness… just plain more. All those years your wife or girlfriend has been saying size doesn’t matter and suddenly she buys you ‘frontal enhancement’ underpants.

It’s worse still if you buy them for yourself. The trouble with all these body changing clothes, for men or women, is that, once you’ve attracted your potential mate with a bulging crotch or uplifted padded boobs, there comes an inevitable moment of truth. Your pants go down and the mountain brings forth a mouse. The bra comes off and your man’s face drops along with a couple of other things. I suppose we hope that by then our partner will be so overcome by passion, they’ll forgive the deception. Or maybe we just make rely on everything looking better by candlelight.

In business we have no such luxury. The law doesn’t allow us to pretend our product or service is one thing and then hope once the customer has bought it, they’ll just accept the disappointing reality. Nor would it be good business sense. Contrary to a widespread public perception, advertising is not about lying. The industry regulator the Advertising Standards Authority even says in its core statement that advertisements in print, TV and radio must be ‘honest, decent and legal’. It’s about to get tougher for businesses because from 1st March the ASA is taking on complaints about websites.

Shops shouldn’t need legislation to make us honest because truth is our biggest marketing tool. I’ve always found that if you are honest about your products, describing them accurately, admitting their limitations, even sending customers elsewhere if that is their best bet, and apologising when you get something wrong, your customers will trust you and come back to you again and again.

These days, all good websites allow customers to comment on products and service from the mighty Amazon to our own little (and only slightly enhanced) Your Life Your Style. We don’t always like what is said but it shows customers we have nothing to hide and it is an additional spur to be clear and accurate about what we promise.

Of course you can’t satisfy everybody and we’re all entitled to an opinion. One customer gave a poor review to our ‘rabbit’ draught excluder. There was nothing wrong with its quality but she didn’t like his slightly mad expression! Still, at least we didn’t pretend it was a bigger size.

This article also appeared on the Daily Echo website

Learning To Survive

This is my most recent blog written for the Southern Daily Echo:

What did my shop achieve in 2010? Like most shopkeepers, I’m tempted to say ‘surviving’ was achievement enough. We did manage to do a little better than that. Our Winchester shop saw sales increase by 20% although that would have been better but for snow decimating some of our best Christmas trading days. Our website increased its UK ranking by around 25%.

In a way, though, these achievements are also to do with survival. The longer you are around, the more people get to know you and visit your shop or website. Even so, there’s still a lot of work to be put in as well. All small shop owners will tell you that long hours and very little time off go with the territory.

It’s been a year of learning. We’ve learned a great deal about what sells and that has helped us make good decisions about what might also go well. For example, Steiff Teddy bears and Caithness Glass paperweights were a natural addition to collectible products such as Dartington Pottery, Jo Downs fused glass and Dora Designs animal doorstops. The last year’s success with handmade British hats and Blondie Mania leather handbags was built on the previous popularity of our silk scarves and Bill Brown natural bags.

We had some luck- the cold weather did lead to us selling a record number of Dora Designs draught excluders and handmade faux fur slippers. The Brooks Centre where our shop is located underwent quite a transformation with improved marketing and promotion and, of course, the arrival of Primark.

To improve our website’s Google ranking required considerable work- and that’s just to get it from outside the world’s top half million to inside the top 400,000! When you run a small business, you have to do as much as you can yourself. I’ve learned a lot about ‘search engine optimisation’ during the year, to the extent that I’ve even been able to help some other people improve their site rankings.

By the way, I’m all for competition but at the moment, I’m glad Google dominate online search and advertising. It’s time consuming enough working with one search engine without having to worry about a dozen others.

So that was the year. Most retailers are probably feeling it could have been worse, given the recession. As for 2011, I am confident Your Life Your Style has a robust enough customer base and an attractive enough offer to see us survive another twelve months. Generally I suspect the rise in VAT and unemployment will hit margins and turnover and tip quite a few other shops over the edge.

Happy New Year!