By Elvira Spektor, Special to the Independent
Scores of people out during First Thursday’s Art Walk last month wedged their way into the Thalia Surf Shop as residents and curious tourists united for an evening of photographs, surfboards, and art.
Nick Corores, who owns the shop and planned the event, didn’t send any snail mail invitations to recruit guests for the show. In fact, he resorted to a tool that may forever change the way small businesses, like the Thalia Surf Shop, communicate with clients: social media.
Cocores said that he’s been using a combination of Facebook, Twitter, and a Thalia Surf Shop blog over the past eight years to promote his business. The shop has been around since 2001. A link on the upper right hand corner of Cocores’ store website invites visitors to follow them on Facebook, where the shop currently has over 3,500 ‘likes’.
And that’s exactly what he used to draw attention to the show.
“We have events and giveaways going on all the time,” Cocores said. “Our email list and Facebook page generates the most return.”
Can social media really help small business owners in Laguna Beach? Some think it’s possible. More proprietors in Laguna and elsewhere are turning to social media as a tool to help them advertise their goods and services and broaden their customer base.
Jessica Hoffman, four-year district manager of Unique Tan, 1100 S. Coast Highway, has used Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and Groupon successfully for the past three years.
“In social media, our goal is to show prospective clients the Unique Tan experience. We use it to strengthen our communication and to answer any questions they have about our salons and the tanning process,” she said.
Small business isn’t ditching traditional marketing altogether. “We still use traditional print ads for our holiday sales. Once or twice a year we will advertise in Surfer Mag,” Cocores explained. “[But] most all of our marketing is done online through our email list and social media. In the slow months, we push really hard to bring in online sales.”
But for many local merchants, raking in steady profits in the months between September and May is not easy. With the U.S. economy still on a slow path to recovery, small businesses have had to work harder than ever to remain afloat. Even small business success rates have been in the dirt lately. Nearly 50 percent of small businesses fail within the first five years and over the lifetime of a business just 40 percent are profitable, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration and National Federation of Independent Business, respectively.
One option for small businesses experiencing hardships or with extra inventory is utilizing deal-of-the-day websites to pitch a discount. Groupon’s success has spawned a host of imitators, which locally include OC Register’s Deal of the Day, Kgbdeals and Laguna Beach-based RealDeals.
A merchant offers a deal on a site, and in Groupon’s case, at least 10 people much purchase it (it’s often limited to one purchase per person), for the deal to become valid and live on the site for others to buy in also. The site sees more than 30 million visitors each month. Usually, the profit made from the 24-hour live period of the deal is split 50-50 between the store owner and Groupon.
Chad Nason, a Groupon.com spokesman, said utilizing social media is “an extremely effective marketing tool. Exposure is invaluable.”
Some managers of Laguna businesses agree.
Of 50 to 75 mostly local customers that open the doors daily at Unique Tan, about 40 percent step into the shop by way of social media, Hoffman said. “We have found this to be one of the most successful ways to run specials and advertise for events. We like to reward our Twitter followers and Facebook friends with our best specials,” she said.
In Laguna, the population can temporarily triple on weekends during summer, as day-trippers and out-of-towners swarm the beaches for sun and recreation. But vendors find social media most useful in the off-season.
Agreeing is Scott Sanchez, director of digital media for Firebrand Media’s OCinSite.com, a coastal Orange County portal. He wants to help small businesses on a hyperlocal scale with Real Deal, a discount site that has its heart set on locality.
“We don’t want to tell someone, ‘Go drive for 10 or 20 miles for this deal’,” said Sanchez. He maintains consumers won’t bite without proximity. “We’re trying to make it so you can find a deal 500 yards away from your home,” he explained.
Are merchants jumping at the opportunity? Sanchez said that since the website launched in late May, 12 store owners have posted deals. “Our buyers are local,” Sanchez said. “After using Real Deal, they’re more inclined to come back.” Sanchez believes giving vendors a tool that cultivates customer loyalty will pay off.
Unlike Groupon, which advertises primarily online, Real Deal promotes itself in traditional print media in its sister publications. “We want our customers to know that they can just flip to page 5; that’s where Real Deal exists,” Sanchez said, referring to the Indy.
Do these sites offer advice about nurturing customer loyalty during the less sunny months of the year?
“It’s always a good idea for businesses to schedule the redemption peak during off-peak times,” argued Nason, of Groupon, especially true in resort towns. “Physically, the people aren’t there during the off season. You want to make sure you still have the opportunity for people to see you,” he said.
So, when summer trolleys quit cruising, the sand chairs are stowed away and the coastline empties out on weekdays, proprietors this season may forego end-of-summer sales and instead try out social media.
Elvira Spektor is a reporter for the Palo Verde Valley Times and studying journalism at Stony Brook University.