A Guide to Planning Effective Promotions

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner
written for Specialty Food Magazine

Organizing promotions is a less-than-glamorous subject. Good promotions are all about creativity combined with nuts-and-bolts stuff that "everyone already knows. But without good nuts and bolts, it’s tough to build the solid, successful businesses we all want to operate.

We’ve been running promotions for so many years I sometimes take them for granted. Yet promotions contribute hugely to building sales and positive energy, helping make our organization successful.

Why Promote? 

The immediate answer is to get a quick boost in sales. Which is certainly true. But there’s much more to get out of a good promotion than just sales.

Here’s what else promotions can do for your business:

1) Achieve a long-term vision 

Promotions are one of many tactical steps to attain a long-term vision of success—for the organization overall, and for the product or service in specific. Writing a vision requires us to put down on paper the answers to a series of questions about where we’re headed a few years down the road. It’s a picture of success that details sales levels, the way people perceive the product, the way the staff feels about it, etc. Promotions are a key merchandising tactic to help get there.

2) Build overall energy 

Specialty food retailers are in the entertainment business. When there’s good energy around our theatrical work, when the performance is compelling, customers will come back. People want to shop/spend time and money where there’s good energy. Promotions make the staff more upbeat; customers have fun and sales increase.

3) Increase sales 

Good promotions will increase sales volume, clearly helping finances. But they can also contribute to better service—when things are busy we’re generally more on top of our game. A promotion can contribute to food quality too—the more we work with a product, the better chance we have of perfecting the production, and the more we can work with suppliers to keep it fresh. Work is usually a lot more fun, and when people are having more fun everything—including sales—gets better.

4) Build momentum 

Effective merchandising is all about momentum. You can sell anything once. The more meaningful challenge is to get the word out about a product over time to build good feelings among the staff, customers and community. Successful promotions build momentum that can spark other great things and carry us through the inevitable tough times.

Types of Promotions

We have big promotions, little promotions; month long, week long, day long; promotions that will last as long as we’re in business, and quick ones that only last an hour or two. If you are just starting, I recommend keeping it simple; it’s a challenge to maintain an effective balance between piquing interest and overdoing it. Too little promotion and it gets boring; too much and neither customers nor staff can keep track of what’s going on. When you hit it right, it’s a great thing to see—sales and profits both go up, customers have a better shopping and eating experience, and the staff has more fun.

Here are some types of promotions:

1. "It’s Boring"" or "We Need to Move Some Product" promotions 

We do these when business is slow, or we’re all just dragging and need to infuse a little energy. It’s amazing how much you can get the staff into one of these. And you can create some impressive sales on a slow summer day or in the middle of a snowstorm. These generate better sales and more fun, energy and action.

2. Weekend specials, one-week or month-long promos for a specific department 

These involve identifying a theme that will work for most departments. They build teamwork across departmental lines and excite customers from the minute they hit the front door. We prefer the month-long time frame—it gives the staff time to get comfortable with the products in order to sell them more effectively, and allows customers to find out about the promotion.

3. Giveaways 

As a Russian history major, I can report that one of the most successful promotions in history happened in 1896—half a million people came to a field outside Moscow to get a free gift of a roll, sausage, cookie and a mug for the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II. On a much smaller scale, we do an "official Gelato Season Kickoff at the Creamery each spring. We give away mini cones of gelato to customers who’ve driven across town (we’re in an industrial park) to get a free taste, and most buy either cheese or additional gelato to take home.

4. Tie-ins with other organizations 

It’s good to connect with organizations that sell compatible, but not competing, products or services. Any business that you respect and that sells something that you don’t is a good candidate. We often partner with musical venues.

5. Tie-ins with non-profit activity 

When we do these well, we’re helping a good cause that needs assistance. And we’re also building positive customer and staff momentum.

6. Holiday-oriented events 

Christmas, Passover, Easter, Kwanzaa, Rosh Hashanah, Kenyan Independence Day (December 12 if you were curious)—if there’s a holiday, you can build a promotion around it.

7. Themed store-wide promotions around countries or regions 

Brazil, Great Britain, the Basque Country or anything in between. These national/ regional themes work in terms of getting a series of otherwise disparate foods under one "promotional umbrella.

8. "Take-Trouble-and-Turn-it-Into-a-Positive"" promotions

See the Parking Ticket Promo on page 32 for one example of this. Another is our "if you can’t fit your little finger through the hole, you get the bagel for free" promo. This calls attention to the importance of a good-sized hole in the center of a traditional bagel and gets the customer involved in helping us manage quality.